Not Your Grandma's West Side Story... In The Best Way Possible!
Updated: Mar 20, 2022
Something’s coming, something good.
Content Warning: West Side Story handles themes of racism, violence, and sexual assault. Please read with care.
I also may include minor spoilers, so if you have yet to see the film and want it fresh, turn back now! (But seriously, it’s really good, go see it ASAP!)
On Thursday, December 9th, I went back to the movies to see the highly-anticipated West Side Story.
I have always been a fan of the 1961 film adaptation of the classic musical, but let’s be clear:
This isn’t your grandma’s West Side Story.
And we are so lucky.
Love at first sight strikes when young Tony spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks -- two rival gangs vying for control of the streets. (Synopsis from IMDB)
Industry legend Steven Spielberg helms a stunning new take, which has a fantastic new screenplay by Tony Kushner. The film is adapted from the stage musical by Broadway titans Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents.
For those unfamiliar with West Side Story, it is essentially Romeo and Juliet, set in late 1950s New York, but instead of feuding families, it’s rival gangs. The story has always had racism as a major factor and theme throughout, and I know that hasn’t always been handled properly in adaptations.
Kushner’s new screenplay presents a West Side Story that is raw and real. Nothing is hidden behind the songs, the songs now truly serve the story with new depth. The social setting of the story is established quickly, racist remarks from characters aren’t only tucked into cheeky lyrics, the near-rape scene isn’t deleted or brushed over, the violence isn’t just through dance, and we all know who the villains are when we leave the theatre.
I keep coming back to the word real, because that is really what Tony Kushner has done with the book. West Side Story has always been a serious musical, I found it deeper and darker this time around. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I genuinely think it’s the genius of this script.
When it comes to musical adaptations (revivals, films etc.), I always say that it should bring something new, to transform the piece into something better.
This movie does exactly that. This is a fresh, gritty, modern take on West Side Story and I loved every minute of it.
The cast is phenomenal, featuring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alverez, Mike Fiast, Brian D’Arcy James, Iris Menas, and Rita Monero.
Ariana DeBose takes a star turn as Anita, navigating her character’s journey with technique and raw talent. She was both a comedic and dramatic highlight of the film, portraying a character who is equally strong and vulnerable. DeBose is a true triple threat and steals the show in every scene she’s in.
Newcomer Rachel Zegler is effervescent as Maria. She brings youthful joy and innocence to Maria, along with a curiosity which fits beautifully with the coming of age story. Her acting is authentic and passionate, and her soprano voice soars through the complex score with ease. I cannot wait to see where her career takes her, it is sure to be full of great things.
David Alverez and Mike Faist portray Bernardo and Riff, the leaders of the opposing gangs, the Sharks and Jets. These actors are brilliant singers and dancers, and brought new depth to these characters for me. Alvarez brings a warmth and softness to Bernardo, while Faist brings a coolness to Riff, and a darkness. I truly enjoyed the added dimensions these actors brought to the characters.
Rita Monero, who played Anita in the 1961 film, joins the remake as Valentina, a new character. Valentina is Doc’s wife, and she plays a large part in the story, aiding the relationship between Tony and Maria, supporting the Jets and Sharks, and protecting Anita. Monero’s legendary talent is always a joy to witness, and in this film, she sings a heart wrenching rendition of Somewhere. Her performance changes the hopeful love song into an anthem with a promise for a better future.
Another highlight is Iris Menas as Anybodys, who receives an additional journey with the new script. While never directly mentioned, it is very clear that Anybodys is transgender. I loved seeing this subplot brought to the surface of the story. Menas goes on a wonderful character journey, and gives a brilliant performance.
Truly, the cast was brilliant!
I could probably talk all day about what I loved about this movie, but the last thing I will mention is Justin Peck’s reimagination of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. It’s beautiful, reminiscent of the original, and adds authenticity to the movement.
I feel like I’ve said this a lot in 2021, but my goodness, this is the best movie musical I have ever seen.
I highly recommend going to see West Side Story, regardless of how you feel about the show itself, or the 1961 film. This movie is going to blow your mind in the best way possible!
If you have seen the film, leave me a comment or send a message sharing your thoughts!