Was anyone hankering for a new film adaptation of West Side Story? Did this venerable musical need refreshing? I honestly don’t think so. The multi-Oscar-winning 1961 movie is unquestionably dated, but it is a product of its time and the prevailing mindset in Hollywood. It was also a smash hit with the public.
Having outsized talents like Steven Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner at the helm helped ease this production into being without vocal opposition. Hiring the indomitable Rita Moreno to appear in a newly-fashioned supporting role didn’t hurt. She is also credited as an executive producer. And, barely one week before his demise, lyricist Stephen Sondheim gave the new interpretation his ringing endorsement. So who am I to complain?
The movie starts well, in a paraphrase of the original opening sequence. A sign indicating that Lincoln Center will be the gleaming result of slum clearance on the West Side of Manhattan adds a welcome note of context. From there, the film is in the skilled hands of the hyper-talented Spielberg and his A-list collaborators. (Hell, the score was conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra!)
Josh Peck’s exciting choreography is filmed expansively and energetically by Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the results carefully tended by editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar. The young cast members acquit themselves well, although their singing voices are ultimately more resonant than their acting.
Then there are the songs…what songs! “Maria,” “America,” “Something’s Coming,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Cool,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere” are as haunting and beautiful as the day they were written by Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. I couldn’t get them out of my head the day after I saw the film.
But somewhere along the way I checked out emotionally. I knew where the story was headed, of course, and I no longer felt engaged. Is that the filmmakers’ fault or mine? All I know is, I couldn’t summon the same reaction I did when I first saw West Side Story so many years ago. It represents a moment in my young life that I can’t hope to reproduce.
Do today’s young moviegoers deserve an opportunity to make the same kind of discovery I did? Of course they do…but following that logic, Hollywood should feel impelled to remake every great musical of decades past. This shiny new, ethnically aware version of West Side Story will live alongside the earlier film for years to come. Only time will tell if it supplants the original.unit