What do you get when you combine composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, playwright Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins, and then mix director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner into the mix?
You get “West Side Story” (20th Century), the fine second film version of the classic 1957 Broadway musical.
It was Robbins who first came up with the idea of updating Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Laurents later developed Robbins’ original concept, which ultimately turned a feud between families in Renaissance-era Italy to a rivalry between two gangs – one white, the other Hispanic – in the then-oppressed Manhattan neighborhood of the title.
Caught in the middle of a contemporary conflict of love-at-first sight slum dwellers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (winner newcomer Rachel Zegler).
As Kushner’s script charted their romance, as well as their efforts to cross the ethnic differences that separated them, it clung more to the stage play than the 1961 film, directed by Robbins and Robert Wise. He also reinforces the Latin sense of the process by providing character dialogue in Spanish.
With the entire area for control that the Jets and Sharks compete against scheduled to be demolished in preparation for the construction of the Lincoln Center (an early example of gentrification), tensions are running high. They only intensify after Tony’s best friend, Riff (Mike Faist), with whom he started the Jets, proposes a climactic fight to Maria Bernardo’s brother (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks.
Tony, here’s a parole recently haunted by how close he came to murder in an earlier commotion—the incident in which he was imprisoned—tottering between avoiding his friends altogether and trying to make peace. The angel who is better than her nature is embodied in her affable protector and boss, Valentina (Rita Moreno).
Moreno, of course, is a veteran of the previous production and won an Academy Award for his turn as Bernardo’s girlfriend, and Maria’s best friend, Anita—a role now taken, with brio fitting, by Ariana DeBose. Another connection to the past is Valentina’s background as Doc’s widow, the owner of the eponymous drugstore and hangout, played, in the days of Camelot, by character actor Ned Glass.
Alternately celebratory and heartbreaking, Spielberg’s masterful upgrade of the original collaborator’s already brilliant work will captivate adults. Whether teens should be allowed to join in on alternating foot tapping with tearing, however, is another question.
If Spielberg’s take is even more kinetic than its lively predecessor, it’s also a little tougher and more immersive. That’s especially true during the pivotal scene where Anita is caught between the Jets and sexually assaulted.
To this may be added a generally respectful but somewhat mixed treatment of faith. On the one hand, the Catholic elements, if any, are more prominent than the earlier adaptations.
So the exchange of wedding vows glorified in the song “One Hand, One Heart” takes place, not in a clothing store, whose window frames serve only as a substitute for a hard cross, but amidst the medieval splendor of The Cloisters museum. . There, the bride and groom are engulfed in the warm light from the stained glass window as they make their commitment together.
Less welcome is the fact that some of the more racist lyrics given to Anita—though, admittedly, they’re pretty mellow by today’s standards—are sung here when she’s supposed to be praying the rosary at church. More substantively, he and Bernardo are depicted living together.
As for the principal, they are shown getting up in bed together at one point. This is after the informal wedding ceremony mentioned above. It is clear that they considered themselves married and, in fact, prior to the 16th-century Council of Trent, their very sincere promise to one another would have been a legal bond in the eyes of the church.
Balancing these flaws, however severe, is the film’s fundamental message about the pernicious effects of prejudice and the overarching unity of it all. Rarely is the cost of pettiness illustrated more dramatically or more movingly.
The film is mostly stylized violence with a bit of gore, attempted gang rape, cohabitation, off-screen premarital sexual activity, about a dozen profanity uses, at least one lighter swearing and some rough and tumble talk. The Motion Picture Association’s rating is PG-13—parents strongly warn.