• Film

Steven Spielberg Revisits and Reimagines “West Side Story”

Multi Golden Globe-winner Steven Spielberg takes on a genre he has never tackled before in his long career – the musical, and at 75 he conveys an energy and enthusiasm rare to see on the screen today. Furthermore, his is not a film adaptation of just any musical. It’s the one considered Broadway’s ‘sacred monster,’ West Side Story. It premiered on Broadway on September 26, 1957, at the Winter Garden where it ran for 732 performances before going all over the world. The legendary musical was adapted for the big screen under the direction of Jerome Robbins (who had directed and choreographed the original play) and Robert Wise in 1961 with the same dream team of that play: choreographed by Robbins, music composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, playbook written by Arthur Laurents.

Spielberg’s version, penned by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), sets the movie in the same New York during the summer of 1957 on the streets of the Upper West Side, in the neighborhoods of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill, at the edge of the Hudson River. It’s an area that was torn down by the New York City Commission for public works in the early 50s to make space for the construction of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “That entire area, from Broadway to the Hudson, was erased by Robert Moses and its board for cleaning poor but vibrant districts,” Spielberg told the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica. “Areas such as San Juan Hills, where the newly arrived Puerto Ricans were trying to build a new life, were cleared, the people kicked out of their homes, which were then demolished. On those ruins, Lincoln Center was then created.” This is the sociopolitical context in which the story of the famous musical is set.

Spielberg’s film, which will be released in theaters in the US on December 10, 2021, more faithful to the original play than Wise’s movie version, is the story of two gangs of youngsters, all descendants of immigrants from different countries, the white Jets (mainly Irish and Polish) and the Puerto Rican Sharks, part of the mass migration from the Caribbean island in the wake of World War II. It’s a Romeo and Juliet love story in the ‘hood’ between Maria (Puerto Rican) and Tony (Polish), conflicted by their respective ethnic, political and personal realities.


The gangs hate each other and are always ready to start a fight, much to the dismay of local police enforcement (Lieutenant Schrank is played by Corey Stoll). Tony (Ansel Elgort, his singing and dancing a revelation), the former undisputed leader of the Jets, has just come out of prison for nearly killing a rival gang boy. His fiercely loyal buddy Riff (Mike Feist) is now the one ready to get to battle since Tony wants to stay out of trouble, helped by the lovely attention of old Valentina (Rita Moreno, the original Anita in the old film, who returns as executive producer of the movie). Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks, is obsessively protective of his sister Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) and loves boxing and dancing with his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose). But when Tony sees Maria from afar at a gym dance, it’s overwhelming love at first sight, and it becomes the catalyst for the story. Jealousy leads to the final battle in which Bernardo kills Riff, Tony kills Bernardo in revenge, and the road is set for further tragedy in the final act.


At 156 minutes, the film is filled with amazing choreography sequences, like the Jets’ Song and I Love to Be in America performed in the street, Maria in the gym, Tonight on the fire escape stairs of the projects where Maria lives, to the memorable rendition of Somewhere by Rita Moreno. The orchestra’s powerful score is conducted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic director Gustavo Dudamel.

“West Side Story was the most terrifying project in my career because it’s the greatest soundtrack ever written for theater and a very controversial subject,” Spielberg says to La Repubblica, adding, at the same time, that he didn’t have so much fun on a set since E.T., and that as a kid he used to sing those songs which he knew by heart in the family room. “The idea of taking an established masterpiece and remaking it through a different look and sensitivity, without affecting its integrity, was something very intimidating. I often asked myself, what was the rationale to invade a sacred artistic space? And yet I think that great stories should be told more than once, to reflect different times and different vantage points. Hinging on the love story between Maria and Tony, a Puerto Rican and a Polish, divided by the Sharks and Jets gangs who fight for the control of New York’s poorest rubbles, West Side Story is a culturally meaningful work with a premise: love transcends bias and intolerance. And I believe this premise didn’t lose any of its relevance today.”

Spielberg says that his film also wants to be a love letter to New York. “We can still see much of the city as it was 70 years ago,” he says. “Especially in some neighborhoods such as in Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx. But in the 50s, there was a high level of urban poverty, which in some way it shamefully still exists, mainly in the west side of the city.”

A strong aesthetic choice is language: a fair amount of Spielberg’s film dialogue is in Spanish, with no English subtitles. “We did this out of respect for a language that in that context is equal to the English language,” Spielberg explains. “We live in a bilingual country. And I want the English-speaking audience in the movie theatre to hear the laughter of the Spanish-speaking audience and vice versa, so they will try to understand what the actors just said, and perhaps will come back to watch it one more time, to better understand each other.”