- Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for “West Side Story.”
- 1961’s “West Side Story” is beloved by many but was criticized for stereotypes.
- Steven Spielberg’s adaptation fixes that with a Latino cast and Spanish dialogue sans subtitles.
Does Hollywood really need another “West Side Story,” a production that has spawned countless reimaginings, spoofs, and high school musicals since its Broadway debut in 1957?
Of course not. Or, at least, that’s what I thought going into Steven Spielberg’s retelling of the classic.
As someone who grew up watching the 1961 Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer film and then participated in a school performance of the musical (I did set design), I was largely skeptical of why we needed this version of “West Side Story” and why Spielberg was the man for the job instead of a Latino director.
I was gladly proven wrong.
Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is beautifully shot and faithful to the original Broadway show and film. It’s also bold enough to finally feel authentic without succumbing to the pressures of catering to a monolingual audience.
A self-proclaimed die-hard fan of the musical since his parents brought home a record when he was 10, Spielberg delivers a smart update to the original, which corrects some of its blatant and ignorant racism directed towards the Latinx community.
Yes, to the casual fan, the 2021 film largely plays much like the original “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired tale as it tells the ill-fated story of star-crossed lovers Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) whose infatuation causes a brawl to break out between feuding gangs — the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks in the backdrop of late 1950s New York City.All of the songs are there (though fans will notice “Be Cool” is shuffled out of order) with the late Stephen Sondheim’s original lyrics intact (Surprisingly, no changes were made to “Officer Krupke”). That alone may make you wonder why anyone would bother touching a classic.
But it’s the tweaks and adjustments to characters, ages, and specific scenes that make this retelling stand out as it leans more into the film’s larger themes about race and intolerance.
A good portion of the film is in Spanish and there aren’t subtitles. That’s on purpose.
One of the most pleasant surprises of Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is that, unlike its predecessors, Spanish is spoken on screen and not just in throwaway lines.
But the biggest shock is that the film doesn’t have subtitles. That’s on purpose.
If you’ve taken a Spanish course or two, there’s not much you can’t figure out with context clues. But there are a few small asides where non-Spanish-speaking audiences may miss out on a joke.
During the film’s virtual press conference, which Insider attended, Spielberg said the lack of subtitles was “out of respect” to all the people who do speak Spanish in the United States. Screenwriter Tony Kushner added during the press conference that “we’re a bilingual country.”
While that may anger or confuse some monolingual-speaking viewers, the move is brilliant when considering the film’s context.
Throughout “West Side Story,” any Puerto Ricans are constantly told to “speak English” because the cops and Jets can’t (and don’t want to take the time to) understand them.
By making this creative choice, Spielberg is challenging his audience to instead “speak Spanish,” and no longer be ignorant of a culture that represents 19% of the United States’ population (62.1 million) as of 2020.
It’s a bold choice — one that other directors may not have gotten away with. Hopefully, it’s a decision that will embolden others to follow Spielberg’s lead in the future.
The new film fixes the original’s whitewashing problem.
In the 1961 adaptation, Natalie Wood, a Caucasian woman playing a Puerto Rican, was confusing. That casting sent the wrong message to many young Hispanic children, of all shades, who wanted to see themselves in Maria but instead were given a white actress to idolize.
I too was confused, being a light-skinned, half Peruvian woman, who grew up with a single white mom. I never knew where I really fit in. As an added complexity, because I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, I didn’t feel welcome around other Spanish speakers, who jokingly referred to me as gringa. Seeing Wood portray Maria didn’t help in my quest to find portrayals of culture onscreen.
The original film featured a sole Latina actress, Rita Moreno, who played Anita. Moreno won an Academy Award for her role in which she was forced to wear darker makeup to make the light-skinned actress look more Puerto Rican … even though she was the only Puerto Rican actor in the film.
White actors played the majority of the Latino roles in the 1961 film, which was criticized for using brownface (something that’s painfully obvious when rewatching the old film today), Spanish accents, and stereotyping all Puerto Ricans as having one skin tone.
After her Oscar win, Moreno decided she wouldn’t take on any roles in which she played a stereotype for seven years. The actress told Vanity Fair last year that she joined this adaptation as an executive producer to right some of the wrongs of the original film.
Here, you see 20 cast members who are either Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent. For the 2021 film, Spielberg spent a year casting Latino men and women to play the Sharks in a worldwide search. Among them is breakout star Anna DeBose, an Afro-Latina who plays Anita, the girlfriend of Maria’s brother Bernardo.
All of the performances are great, but Rachel Zegler is the standout as a perfect Maria. However, Ansel Elgort didn’t make Tony particularly interesting.
As for Maria, in this updated film, the character embraces her heritage, speaking freely in both Spanish and English. Newcomer Rachel Zegler brings her to life with a beautiful innocence and naivety.And that voice. Zegler delivers the strongest vocals of the cast. You’ll be humming along to her version of “I Feel Pretty.”
Other stand-out numbers include the ensemble’s performance of “Tonight (Quartet)” and the giant gym performance where the Sharks and Jets wear vibrant juxtaposing warm and cool shades, respectively, giving off a fire and ice vibe to further emphasize the tension between the two groups.
Zegler’s heated duet with DeBose, who takes over the role of Anita beautifully, in “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love,” is another highlight.
DeBose shows off a range of skills from dancing in the New York City streets in “America” to an emotionally fraught scene near the film’s end, which also received some updated changes from the original.
The other standout actor is Moreno. In addition to her turn as executive producer, fans will smile knowing the actress has a role in this film, and it’s not just a small cameo. It’s one that was made for her.
One of the film’s highlights (and surprises) is that she sings. It’s quite impressive when you know Moreno turns 90 in December. She’s still got it.
Elgort (“Baby Driver”) is a fine and charming Tony who can carry a tune — “Maria” is quite good. It’s also refreshing to see a version of Tony who’s curious when he doesn’t understand Maria, wanting to learn Spanish to communicate with the young woman he adores.
Still, despite the chemistry between Maria and Tony onscreen, his presence in the film becomes a bit distracting from the larger messages its trying to convey. The actor’s previous sexual assault allegations, which he has denied, may still feel a bit fresh in young minds while watching and tarnish the viewing experience a bit.
Additionally, in the 2021 remake, Elgort’s height is so distractingly tall (he towers over most of the cast at 6’3″) that a small line was added to address it in the film. Spielberg, or screenwriter Tony Kushner, must have realized (rightly) it would be on the audience’s mind. Though Elgort is the most recognizable of the cast, he’s not the most memorable, by far.
‘West Side Story’ delivers the play as originally intended.
Is Spielberg’s version better than the original? Maybe not.
That’s largely because other than the lead cast, the rest of the Sharks and Jets kind of flounder in the background. Still, for all its other efforts, the 2021 reimagining comes pretty close and succeeds in places where the original fails.
For example, one update in the film comes in the form of the role of Anybodys, who wants to be accepted as an equal member of the Jets after being disowned by his family (the actor has used he/him pronouns when describing the character). In the original, the character is simply a tomboy who aspires to be one of the guys. Here, the role is fully realized, played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas.
Though never said on screen, in the film’s production notes, David Saint, executor of “West Side Story” author Arthur Laurents’ estate, said that the character is indeed transgender. Saint also said it was a choice Laurents would have approved, confirming that Anybodys “is a character who was a man born in a female’s body. End of story.”
If this is the first way in which young viewers find “West Side Story,” this is the version worth watching. With Spielberg’s adaptation, it feels like we’re finally seeing the play as it was originally intended but with roles and dialogue that wouldn’t have been allowed in 1961 because the ideas were too progressive for the time.
To this woman who was told she was gringa most of her life, Spielberg’s take made me fall in love with “West Side Story” all over again. I imagine, for the marginalized audience who felt overlooked when the original film came out, it may do the same.
“West Side Story,” also starring David Alvarez, Brian D’arcy Jones, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, and Josh Andres Rivera, is in theaters on December 10.