New West Side Story soars
Box office for West Side Story is low, but not because it’s lacking
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Energy bursts from colorful choreography, dancing, and singing—with backdrops of neon signs, blaring police sirens, shouting storekeepers, subway stations, and even an empty church. Thanks to Spielberg’s eye for detail and the story’s timely underlying message that peace is better than racial rivalry, this updated musical may capture a new generation of viewers and please older ones.
The Romeo and Juliet–inspired plot set in the mid-1950s in New York City’s upper west Manhattan slums revisits the tragic love story of Tony and Maria. They are caught between gang rivalries of the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, and the Jets, who are white.
Tony is a former Jet, who in this version has just returned from prison after nearly killing a man and is working to change himself. “I want to be unlike who I was,” he says. Maria is the sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.
Like the first, this production juxtaposes dynamic singing and electrifying dancing (choreographed by Justin Peck) against squalor and racism. That paradox works to make us care even more about the characters, hoping somehow the ending will be different this time.
From the portentous finger snapping to the familiar, beloved Leonard Bernstein songs and Stephen Sondheim lyrics, the movie mostly follows the original script. But screenwriter Tony Kushner made several significant changes.
Most notably, all those cast as Puerto Ricans are of Hispanic heritage. The original simply used dark makeup on white actors. The only Puerto Rican then was Rita Moreno, who played Maria’s best friend, Anita. She won an Oscar for her performance. Spielberg enlisted her, now 90 years old, for a new role in this film. She plays Valentina, the Puerto Rican widow of Doc, owner of the candy store where the Jets congregate and where Tony now works.
In one touching scene, Moreno, sitting alone, gently sings, “There’s a place for us,” expressing hope for societal changes toward living and forgiving. The song had originally been a love song between Tony and Maria.
Where 1961’s version used a few Spanish words for flavor, characters here often speak Spanish without subtitles. It adds realism. Though Anita (played by Ariana DeBose who powers the show with her acting, singing, and dancing) keeps telling everyone to speak English. Gang members use coarser language than the original, fighting is still rough, and sexual mores aren’t moral.
Fresh-faced Rachel Zegler, 18, plays a naïve, beautiful Maria. All the leads do their own singing, unlike the original where directors dubbed in ghost singers. Maria and Tony (Ansel Elgort) seem to have more screen time here, which creates greater empathy for their plight.
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