Musicals do not persist in our cultural consciousness because they are flawless. Even the greatest musicals are not perfect.
Instead, they lodge themselves in our memories and our pleasure centres due to their unique alchemy: musicals give us permission to feel everything and feel it deeply, and they do this by transcending reality and turning it into music.
In musicals, the messiness of life becomes glorious song. It is catharsis. It is validation.
West Side Story, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that transposes the star-crossed lovers to 50s New York, might just be the perfect example of this magic. It’s proven near impossible to leave Leonard Bernstein’s legendary score behind.
The symphonic, romantic music gives the show its heart. It toys with timing and expectation to gesture at the youth and complexities of its characters; it incorporates Broadway jazz and pan-Latin riffs to create its own self-contained language. It inspired a new, dirtied-up, transcendent tradition of street ballet for the stage and screen.
It is irresistible.
But the story, featuring rival gangs – the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks – has not aged as well as its musical heartbeat.
Enter Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, 64 years after the musical’s Broadway debut, to investigate and invigorate the material with an eye for communicating context and character.
The result is a gorgeous, often disarmingly gritty film that offers the best and strongest view of a story that is slowly and rightfully fading from the cultural firmament.
There are obvious blind spots and missteps in West Side Story’s DNA; it was created by a group of white Jewish artists who decided to pivot from what they knew (it was originally conceived as a musical about rival Jewish and Irish Catholic gangs) into something they could not understand.
The result, however well-meaning, was white-centric, and traded on stereotypes.
Its first screen adaptation, by Robert Wise in 1961, treated race as a costume by hiring white actors to play characters of colour and darkening the skin of both Puerto Rican and white performers. Its message of racial tolerance, if not acceptance, was clear, but its storytelling gave far more nuance, depth, and grace to the disaffected white men of the Jets.
Spielberg’s adaptation goes a little deeper. The film combines slick imagery (director of photography Janusz Kamiński favours close, claustrophobic shots of faces in thought and bodies in motion) with Kushner’s deeply researched and course-correcting script to investigate the original’s thinly sketched characters. It hints at, if not wholly creates, richer inner lives.
As the film begins, whistles ring out across a rubble-strewn neighbourhood fast disappearing under slum clearance orders. Hope has clearly left the vicinity a long time ago.
The story is fundamentally unchanged: Tony (Ansel Elgort), erstwhile leader of the Jets, meets and is enchanted by Maria (Rachel Zegler), whose brother is Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks. Bernardo’s partner Anita (Ariana DeBose) is her confidant. Even in its first blush, Tony and Maria’s romance sparks a chain reaction of violence and death that feels chokingly inevitable.
Kushner leans more strongly into the source material – that is, Shakespeare – and draws on historical accounts of New York and its youth culture to help deepen the love story between Tony and Maria.
His script plays with new dialogue and scene structures to eke out a sense of connection between the pair and add nuance, but is fundamentally foxed by a chemistry mismatch: Zegler is dazzling, Elgort sleepwalking.
Even Kamiński’s camera is restless when Elgort alone fills the frame; in duets, even during Tony’s lines, the camera seeks out and lingers on Maria. This is understandable, because Zegler is luminous, even when Elgort’s attempts to woo her are more milquetoast than world-changing. She feels it, even if we don’t.
Ultimately, it’s the supporting characters that provide the emotional ballast to the film. As Jets leader Riff, Mike Faist is wiry and dangerous; he lives so inside the musical he turns mid-century Broadway patter into credible threats.
He is balanced out by Alvarez as Bernardo, who sees right through Riff and emerges, rightfully, as a much more sympathetic figure.
We experience much of the musical’s hopelessness through the eyes of the ever-watchful outsider and wannabe-Jet Anybodys, who is traditionally a tomboy, but is reframed here with revelatory insight by transmaculine nonbinary actor iris menas.
But the biggest emotional impact is made by the tragic love between Bernardo and Ariana DeBose’s impossibly vibrant, astonishingly sharp Anita.
When their love affair – a passionate coupling of equals that makes Tony and Maria’s mooning look downright childish – is cut short by a rumble, the film takes several new minutes to mourn the loss. DeBose is deeply affecting here.
Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the musical numbers, exalting in the fantasy of I Feel Pretty as it transforms a department store cleaning shift into a barrage of joy on borrowed time.
The ecstatic setpiece America, meanwhile, spills out onto the street — one of the few moments in the film when space is claimed joyously and without fear.
Choreographer Justin Peck keeps a few direct references to Jerome Robbins’s original stage and screen choreography, all smartly judged, but the spirit is the same: balletic shapes that evolve with muscular grace from everyday movement.
Under Spielberg’s eye, dance gives way more easily, and guttingly, to brutal violence; there is nothing theatrical about these rumbles, which in the original film hewed closer to stage choreography, gesturing at blows without connecting.
Here, the bodies bleed.
David Newman is the custodian of the score, as producer and arranger. He handles the music lovingly and updates it with only the lightest touch; he adds a more modern and menacing glint to Jet Song and Cool, the numbers that most demonstrate white anger, and a shift in underscoring during the finale that has the effect of re-centring Maria’s pain.
Most affectingly, the song Somewhere, originally a naive but loving duet for Tony and Maria, has been transformed into an elegy, delivered by a new character who has the unique perspective and lived experience to see the tragedy coming.
Whereas in the original West Side Story the star-crossed lovers are watched over by Doc, a local drugstore owner, in this new take he is replaced by his widow, the Puerto Rican Valentina (Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 film). “There’s a time for us/Some day a time for us,” she sings, as Tony and Maria’s lives begin to fall apart.
But Kushner and Spielberg, however thoughtful and well-meaning, cannot solve a musical like West Side Story.
They cannot create new numbers for the Sharks, who are woefully under-explored in the story’s language of song. And while this new film spends more time condemning the Jets for their racism, misogyny, and cruelty, it still follows these acts with close attention, giving them time and consideration.
There’s a strong argument that West Side Story should be retired to make space for new musicals that engage directly with racial conflict and centre writers, composers, and directors of colour. If so, then at least it’s going out on top: this is the best that West Side Story could ever be.
West Side Story is in cinemas December 26.