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Why the new West Side Story works — and one thing that doesn’t

Our critics hash out Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 classic.

A young man and young woman look at one another longingly.
Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria in West Side Story.
20th Century Studios

Steven Spielberg has never directed a musical before now, but you can’t accuse him of aiming low. For his first attempt, he took on one of the most beloved and influential movie musicals of all time: West Side Story, which has its 60th birthday this year. The original film — directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, with songs from the stage musical composed by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim — is itself an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, set on the west side of Manhattan. It’s a tragic love story and the tale of two warring gangs.

The original screenplay by Ernest Lehman was due for a bit of updating, so in this new version, frequent Spielberg collaborator and legendary playwright Tony Kushner (who, among other things, wrote Angels in America) took on the project, gently tweaking and sculpting what was there into something new. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film, returns as executive producer and in a new version of a familiar role. Anita is now played by the fantastic Ariana DeBose, with Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler in the lead roles of Tony and Maria.

So how does the new version hold up? What do we make of the performances? And does West Side Story still have relevance today? Vox critics Constance Grady, Alex Abad-Santos, and Alissa Wilkinson sat down to hash it out — hopefully without a rumble.

Two crowds of young people — on the left, white people, and on the right, Puerto Rican — stand staring at one another.
At the dance hall.
20th Century Studios

Alissa Wilkinson: Well, it’s finally here. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake has been in the works for so long (at least since 2014) that I’m sure I’m not the only person who figured it was more of a pipe dream than reality. And even when they finally shot the film, the pandemic delayed it by a full year; we were meant to see this movie last Christmas.

My expectations were admittedly muted going in (did we really need a remake of such a canonical film?), but even if they hadn’t been, they’d have been exceeded. Kushner’s screenplay feels to me like exactly what this kind of “update” should be — fully rooted in the 1961 original, and yet unpacking themes, probing subtexts, digging into matters that the original glossed over.

As a result, it feels a bit more raw and rooted in our world than the fantasy of the original film, or the stage musical on which it’s based, starting right from the beginning, which tells us that this isn’t just the west side of Manhattan; it’s a neighborhood that’s being razed for one of Robert Moses’s “urban renewal” projects, this one to build Lincoln Center. (I saw the film at its premiere, held at Jazz at Lincoln Center, just a few blocks from the site in the film’s opening shots, which elicited a few nervous chuckles from the audience.)

And that was just the start. For the most part, I was bowled over. But I’m wondering what you expected, and how the film matched up with that?

Constance Grady: Remaking West Side Story has always felt to me like a wild act of hubris that should be impossible on two fronts.

First of all, the original 1961 film is such a classic that it seems like it should be untouchable. Imagine putting some poor young actress in the position of having to live up to Rita Moreno twirling her frilly skirt through “America” as Anita! Cruel and unusual!

Second of all, the original 1961 film is so dated that it seems like it should be untouchable. Imagine putting some poor young actor in the position of having to sincerely call his scene partner “buddy boy,” or trying to drag the film’s conception of Puerto Rican culture into the present day without stepping into a thousand racial land mines. Cruel and unusual!

But damn, this new West Side Story more or less manages to make it all work. There are still some big issues here — the Sharks, as ever, are wildly underwritten compared to the Jets, and the equivalence the movie seems to draw between the two gangs feels more askew than ever given its increased understanding of the racial power dynamics at play — but this West Side Story is still able to go toe-to-toe with its predecessor.

Young women in brightly-colored dresses strut down a street.
Ariana DeBose (center), who plays Anita, turns in the most astounding performance in West Side Story.
20th Century Studios

With the fairly large exception of Ansel Elgort as Tony (we’ll get to him), this cast is strong enough to stand up to the memories of the 1961 cast. (And to be fair, it’s not like 1961’s Richard Beymer was such great shakes as Tony either.) Ariana DeBose as Anita has been an early critical favorite for a reason: She beams off the screen like a ray of sunshine, all verve and warmth. You can’t look away from her when she dances. And Mike Faist digs into doomed, awful Riff to find the layers of a whole tragic backstory, implying most of it through pirouettes and crooked smile alone.

The rest of the tragic backstory comes through courtesy of that Kushner screenplay. I have to agree with you, Alissa, that Kushner’s put together a model for this kind of adaptation. He preserves the original’s white-hot youthful yearning for some kind of release, through sex, through a dance at the gym, through a rumble. Heck, he even keeps in most of the “buddy boys.” But he also finds room to work some nuance into these archetypal figures.

The Jets, with their ideology of resentment and displacement, become proto-Trumpists, directing their anger to those they consider outsiders rather than the city that’s razing their neighborhood to the ground. The Sharks, clearly, became an army out of sheer self-defense. And with that context, the whole story comes pulsing to violent life once again.

Alex Abad-Santos: In the context of the increase of white supremacy and xenophobia we’ve seen in the last few years, our present reality sharpens the “stick with your own” messages of the Sharks and Jets, specifically the latter. The Jets kind of become white supremacist twinks, which is all the more unsettling when you compare them to the Sharks, who are simply trying to survive. That contrast also highlights how clumsy the racial politics of the original were when both gangs were sort of thought to be the same; that Puerto Ricans, by virtue of their ethnicity, were comparable to racist rapists. And Kushner does his very best to really inspect the original’s ideas about villainy and instigation.

That in mind, I really enjoyed the movie! And I’m a tougher sell. Aside from a few exceptions — a truly bizarre hill I will die on is that La La Land was good and fun — I’m not really that much of a musical fan. Yet I found myself thinking about this gorgeously shot firecracker of a movie long after it ended — so much that I would just send abrupt texts (“Ariana DeBose!” or “America!” or “Rita Moreno!” or “That hot twunk!”) to my friend who saw it with me.

After seeing it, I found myself YouTubing Moreno’s old performance of “America,” watching her Netflix documentary, and reading about how she dated Marlon Brando and used Elvis to make him jealous.

It’s truly a feat of moviemaking that this film soared so high, despite being weighed down by a sentient, charmless sack of potatoes as its leading man. I suppose that’s a testament to how good this movie is — so good that you can overlook Elgort’s aggressively flaccid performance.

Alissa: Ah, right. Elgort. His inclusion in the film is a bit of a mystery to me because — well, I don’t know, he just can’t really sing? Certainly not next to Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria and landed the job, her first screen role, in an open casting call.

On reflection, it felt a bit like the studio might have told Spielberg he had to have a movie star in the film, and Tom Holland was unavailable. I can’t say I’ve ever found Elgort too memorable except in Baby Driver, where he’s a live wire and beautifully light on his feet. Here, I was bummed out every time he showed up, especially next to the exuberant and kinetic Faist, who plays his sidekick. But I’d like to know what you both think of his performance.

And there’s the other matter, which is that Elgort was accused in June 2020 — a year after principal photography on West Side Story concluded — of having sexually assaulted a teenage fan named Gabby in 2014, when he was 20 and she was 17. Gabby’s accusations were harrowing; Elgort denied the charges, calling it a “brief, legal, and entirely consensual relationship” while also apologizing for his “attitude” and saying he was “disgusted and deeply ashamed of the way I acted.”

So that complicates the film as well. What do you make of all of this?

Elgort stands in a room, backlit in red hues, looking over his shoulder.
Ansel Elgort in West Side Story.
20th Century Studios

Alex: Elgort is a black hole of charisma at the center of this movie. Every number, every scene, and every second that his face flashes onscreen, he deflates it. If this movie were an incredible Thanksgiving spread, he would be the disappointingly dry, white meat turkey main course. His inclusion raises questions, the first being why? Why put this charmless man front and center? Did the casting department fall asleep at the wheel? Does Ansel Elgort have incriminating evidence on Fox’s movie executives? Did he save Spielberg’s life?

I know you mention that they probably wanted a “movie star,” but is Elgort a movie star? He is certainly in movies, but a star? Hmmm.

Elgort’s underwhelming performance made me think about who else might be perfect, and it was hard to think of young actors who can sing and dance. The current crop of “movie stars” are probably all too old. That might be one of the repercussions of big superhero action movies dominating the industry — the male “movie star” seems to be someone big enough to be in those movies, and all those movies, save for the aforementioned Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, need heroes in their 30s.

Anyway, it’s really too bad we couldn’t put James Marsden in a time machine for this role.

Constance: Watching the publicity machine simply whisk Elgort away from any solo interviews and otherwise continue on as though those accusations never happened — I dunno, you guys, it’s a bummer. It’s the kind of thing that you would have hoped to leave behind in the pre-Weinstein era.

Of course, West Side Story is not Elgort’s alone. It’s a collaboration of which he is merely one not-that-impressive part. And I don’t know that throwing out the whole movie or reshooting all the Tony scenes would have been the right solution here. But simply ignoring the accusations against Elgort certainly isn’t the right solution, either. And Elgort brings so little to the table besides his baggage that it really feels like a stain on what’s otherwise an enormous accomplishment of a film.

It’s especially ironic because last year saw Ivo van Hove’s West Side Story revival on Broadway, in a production that was thoroughly unmemorable except for a really excellent Tony. Can someone just copy-paste Isaac Powell’s performance into Spielberg’s West Side Story?

Alissa: The good news is that in the future, we’ll totally have that technology! (Spoiler: not good news.)

Okay, one last question for you both. It’s 2021. The original West Side Story has just passed its 60th birthday; the stage play is even older. And, of course, the whole thing is based on Romeo & Juliet, which is much older (around 424 years from the first publication!). There’s the tale of star-crossed lovers here, which never goes out of style.

But I feel like there’s something more to it, and the decision to root this West Side Story in an actual historical event — the razing of the Lincoln Square “slum” — really hit hard. It’s a tale of ultimate futility; these kids are fighting one another as a proxy for the fights they know in their guts they can’t win, against the police, looming racism, poverty, and the will of a city to whom they are merely bodies, easily displaced. Their anger becomes more vivid and, for me, a lot more heartbreaking, especially since people obviously still experience these fears — and not just in New York City.

What kind of resonance do you think the show has today? What does the movie evoke best for you, and why do you think it could endure?

Constance: This is another case where the van Hove West Side Story is a helpful comparison. That production tried to drag the show kicking and screaming into the present day, racist book and all: The kids all had smartphones. “Gee, Officer Krupke” turned into a commentary on police brutality. Onscreen video cameras zoomed way, way in on every act of violence, so that during the rumble you could see the blood projected hugely up onto screens that loomed above the action, and when the Jets assaulted Anita there was a shocking close-up of her jeans zipper getting pulled down.

It was a mess! Spielberg and Kushner’s adaptation, which remains a period piece, ironically feels much more relevant to contemporary America than van Hove’s modern-day staging did. It’s a very careful, very thoughtful excavation of the white populist rage that animated the subtext of the original, now brought to screaming life, from the moment we see Riff start splashing paint all over the Puerto Rican flag.

People dance in the streets.
The “America” sequence in West Side Story is dazzling.
20th Century Studios

Interestingly, quite a few restagings of classic musicals have focused on the same theme in recent years, even when you wouldn’t have considered them to be natural fits. The much-admired Oklahoma revival of 2019 turned Oklahoma!, classically a byword for jingoistic Americana, into a commentary on the genocide of Natives and white America’s sense of entitlement to the land it claims. John Doyle’s Assassins, now playing off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company, has his assassins form their final tableau in front of footage from the January 6 Capitol riot. The problem of populist violence has always been in that show’s music, no question, but the last time Assassins was on Broadway in 2004, it was considered primarily a commentary on the vapidity of America’s celebrity worship.

Now, musical theater is one of the great purely American art forms (alongside jazz and hip-hop), and white populist violence is a major force in American history. So it makes sense that a lot of musicals would have that theme embedded in their scores, waiting for the right director to draw them out.

But it also strikes me that we’re seeing what always happens with really great theater. If a show is good enough and rich enough and meaty enough, someone will always be able to get a production out of it that feels fresh and exciting and relevant. It doesn’t have to have been written explicitly about Trumpism for us to find a way to pull Trumpism out of it, not if that’s what we’re all thinking about.

All of this is a long lead-up to say, Alissa, I think this movie is a very, very good portrait of the political atmosphere of 2021, using the material of 1961 to get there. And I’d be interested to see if someone could manage to do something similar with it again in 2071.

Alex: If I make it to 2071, please just upload my consciousness to the cloud. Hopefully we’ll have some kind of San Junipero option by then. Beam me up. But in all seriousness, I think the Spielberg adaptation soars because it isn’t afraid to stare directly into the story’s hopelessness.

I think Anita’s role in particular is richer and deeper than in the original. She’s fully bought into the American dream; she’s ready to give up everything to gain everything. And in an instant, it all comes crumbling down, and she sees what “America” truly is. Love, money, and happily ever afters don’t exist for her here anymore. She’s one more life that America has ruined.

Even more than the original, I found myself empathizing with Anita. I absolutely do not blame her for burning it all down. I’d help her light the match if I could.

Whew, that’s bleak! But the story’s ability to convey the harshness of this country is what allows West Side Story to endure. It was all right there in the source material.

West Side Story opens in theaters on December 10.