• Golden Globe Awards

Winners Circle 2022: “West Side Story” (Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy)

Leave it to Steven Spielberg to be daring enough to do a second feature-length adaptation of the beloved stage musical, West Side Story. After all, the 1961 first big-screen adaptation, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, is considered a landmark movie musical.
Spielberg’s version presents a new look at the venerable stage musical that debuted in 1957 and was created by legends – conceived by Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents.
The fresh, vibrant cinematic result won the Golden Globe Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Gorgeously shot by Janusz Kaminski and beautifully choreographed by Justin Peck, this 2021 West Side Story is also impressively acted by a big cast.
Tony Kushner, tasked with writing the screenplay based on Laurents’ 1950s stage book, updated the story and did away with several elements of the musical that were outdated. So, while Spielberg’s 2021 take still centers on the Romeo and Juliet-inspired love story of Tony and Maria, amidst the rivalry of the gangs, the Jets and Sparks who are vying for control of the streets, Kushner gave more dimension to the roles and avoided the stereotypical portrayal of the Puerto Rican characters.
With Kushner and Spielberg collaborating, West Side Story is propelled by the excellent performance of everyone in the big cast, some of them new, emerging actors.
The roster includes fresh talents like Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist and Jose Andres Rivera. Ansel Elgort, Rita Moreno, Corey Stoll and Brian d’Arcy James also star. Together, this cast greatly livens Spielberg’s retelling of the story, but this time set in the context of low-income folks being uprooted by grandiose city planning developments.
What didn’t change drastically is Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant score. The music is as tremendously infectious and excellent as ever.
Spielberg originally approached John Williams, his frequent collaborator, to be the music director. But Williams suggested Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and music director Gustavo Dudamel instead. With Dudamel conducting the Bernstein score with the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonic orchestras, and David Newman supervising the orchestrations and arrangements, Maria, America, One Hand, One Heart, Somewhere, Tonight, Jet Song and more never sounded better.
Sadly, Sondheim, who wrote the unforgettable lyrics to these songs, passed away four days before Spielberg’s remake premiered in New York.
The singing and dancing – dynamically choreographed by Justin Peck, who reimagined Robbins’ iconic moves – elevate the film.
Zegler, a 20-year-old YouTuber from Hackensack, New Jersey, luminous as the Puerto Rican Maria Vasquez, and gifted with a beautiful soprano voice, makes a memorable film debut. She bagged the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. She’s the first Latina actress to win as well as the youngest winner in this category.
Elgort, the 27-year-old New Yorker and star of Baby Driver and the Divergent movie series, is Zegler’s perfect match as Tony from the Jets gang who falls in love with Maria.
DeBose, the 30-year-old triple threat from Raleigh, North Carolina, lived up to the daunting challenge of portraying Anita, originally played by Moreno in the 1961 version. DeBose won the Globes’ Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture honors.
In a November 20, 2020, HFPA press conference, DeBose said about the musical genre, “Musicals have been my life’s work in a way for the last decade of my life. They’re what make me tick. I love the exploration of finding a character through dance, song and acting.
“It’s very hard to feel like you’re hitting all of the high points at the same level at the same time. It’s a very, very fragile thing, actually. I was first exposed to theater in high school, which most people would say that that’s kind of late finding theater, but movie musicals have always been a part of my world.
“Being a woman of color and having the opportunity to do it with Steven Spielberg is very important, very timely, and to play in the playground with people who are at the top of their game who are legends in their own time is mind-blowing.”
Alvarez, the 27-year-old Canadian-Cuban actor-dancer, was also memorable in the film as Bernardo, the brother of Maria and leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks gang.
Faist, the 30-year-old Ohio actor-singer-dancer, made his mark as the leader of the Jets gang.
Adding to the film’s nostalgic appeal is Moreno who is back, but in the role of Valentina, created for her by Spielberg. The veteran actress also served as an executive producer along with Kushner.
The 90-year-old Puerto Rican actress won the Globes’ Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture for her role as Anita in the original 1961 film version.
In an HFPA press conference on November 24, 2020, Moreno said, “I’m playing Valentina and she is the woman who was married to Doc who had the candy store where the Jets used to hang out. And she has a relationship with Tony, which is surprising and wonderful.
“There are some amazing surprises in store for everybody including the part of Valentina. Isn’t that a beautiful name? Actually, that’s a very Russian name, isn’t it?”
On her first meeting with DeBose, Moreno recalled, “She’s just a ferocious dancer, she’s fabulous. There’s nothing for me to even be envious about. She’s too good for me to be envious. I know that she was extremely nervous when she first met me. And I’m trying to think, well, would I have been nervous if I met me? And I guess I would have (laughs).”
With the accolades that West Side Story is receiving, no one is asking Spielberg, who turned 75 and shows no signs of slowing down, why he made his own version of the classic musical.