Steven Spielberg has unleashed his inner theatre kid through the West Side Story. He has always been a dance and song enthusiast and was quite thrilling to watch him realize his ambitions.
West Side Story seems like a safe choice for the director’s first official foray into the genre. Jerome Robbins’ rousing stage show, first performed in 1957, remains a towering popular classic of the medium; the songs, courtesy of Leonard Bernstein and the late lyricist Stephen Sondheim are so beloved by so many that it would be almost impossible not to wring joy from them.
Spielberg is also competing with our memories of a quintessential screen version: the epically mounted 1961 adaptation, which swept the Oscars and has conquered hearts for decades. Even for Hollywood’s premier Dreamweaver, the man behind E.T. and Jaws and Jurassic Park, that’s a tall order.
West Side Story has no new songs and has only a couple of small tweaks made to the foundation of the mythic romance. It transports Romeo & Juliet to the streets of Upper West Side New York sometime around the 1950s.
Reformed teenage hoodlum Tony (Ansel Elgort), one-time leader of The Jets, falls in love at first sight with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of sworn rival Bernardo (David Alvarez), who’s head of the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks. Those who know the tragic trajectory of the story will nod along to every beat.
How The West Side Story Opens Up
West Side Story opens with a sweeping overhead survey of the NYC neighborhood where its plot unfolds, as construction crews tear down old buildings to make room for new ones. Elegantly, persuasively, he foregrounds the forces of gentrification that loom over both sides of a pointless adolescent turf war. The Jets and Sharks are at each other’s throats for territory, but they can’t see that they’re both being muscled out of a city—and maybe a country—that views all of them as basically vermin. Later, Spielberg will underline the shared lot of these warring factions with a striking overhead shot of their shadows converging during a confrontation, merging into one amorphous silhouette of impending calamity.