The 1961 version of West Side Story is regarded as one of the best musical films ever made. It is certainly held in high regard by many. Steven Spielberg took on the task of remaking the film and modernising it for audiences.
The Upper West Side of New York is changing. The area is undergoing gentrification. There are also racial tensions between the white and Puerto Rican residents of the area, leading to gang violence between the Jets and the Sharks.
Amidst this background, Tony (Ansel Elgort), best friend to the Jets’ leader, Riff (Mike Faist), and Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) fall for each other.
West Side Story is probably Stephen Sondheim’s best-known musical which is quite an achievement considering his credits. Even people who don’t know the musical would still know some of the songs and the basic story since it was an updated version of Romeo and Juliet. The 1961 film is most people’s entry point to the story.
Someone doesn’t need to be a literary scholar to make comparisons to Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. Both were stories about young people from opposite factions falling in love which ends in dire consequences. West Side Story transferred the story from Renaissance Era Verona to 1950s Manhattan.
West Side Story used a lot of plot points from Romeo and Juliet. Tony and Maria meet at a party like Romeo and Juliet, both stories have a balcony scene and a secret wedding. Bernardo was Tybalt, Riff was a cross between Benvolio and Mercutio and the police acted like The Prince trying to keep the peace.
There were differences between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. The musical had a different setting so made with that context and mindset. Nor did West Side Story copy every point from the Shakespeare play, other plot points were reinterpreted to fit West Side Story’s narrative, and as mentioned earlier some of West Side Story characters were an amalgamation of Romeo and Juliet’s characters.
As well as being compared to Romeo and Juliet, this version of West Side Story has to be compared to the original film. Spielberg was notably darker than the original. This version has a 12A rating and it was more violent and tackled the issue of racism more overtly. The film opened with the Jets harassing the Puerto Rican residents and businesses and one of the Jets gets a nail through his ear.
This version did modernise the themes of the story. This film was made with a modern understanding of racism with the Jets being shown in a more negative light. The issue of gentrification was a new theme for this version of the story and showed that it was going to affect all the residents of the West Side, regardless of skin colour.
West Side Story was Steven Spielberg’s first musical, which is remarkable considering his large body of work. Spielberg seemed like a natural to the genre: he made a film that was vibrant and filled with colour. The scene in the school gymnasium was a fantastic sequence of dance as the Jets and Sharks one-up each other.
This film’s version of ‘America’ was a wonderfully energic performance as the Puerto Ricans goes around the area. Ariana DeBose’s Anita was my favourite character in the film because she was so confident and lively.
This will sound like sacrilege, but I preferred some of the performances in this version of West Side Story. As stated ‘America’ was a colourful performance that was more expansive than the original version.
‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ and ‘I Feel Pretty’ were songs I preferred in the remake because they had a lot of movement and looked more cinematic. ‘I Feel Pretty’ took place in a department store whilst ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ was done when the Jets were locked in a police station.
The original West Side Story did have some controversial casting because there were some white actors playing Puerto Rican characters. The most infamous was Natalie Wood as Maria. This version had more culturally appropriate casting.
West Side Story was Rachel Zegler’s first film role ever and it was a star-making performance from the young actress. She was already a proven singer as she had performed on stage and on her YouTube channel. Zegler is someone to watch out for because she already has two major films lined up.
The 2021 version was a great update of a beloved musical. It was a treat for fans of the original and people who aren’t familiar with the source material.