Stephen Spielberg’s “West Side Story” doesn’t hold back on the violence. The first shot tells you, we’re in a war zone. While the cinematography could be improved, this film embraces diversity and gives a nod to the original with the inclusion of the Oscar-winning actress from the previous film, Rita Moreno.
The first shots are disconcerting. We see half-ruined brick buildings. These could have been bombed out buildings from a recent war. There are no people. But this is the work of wrecking balls and public policy. The slums are being cleared out in order to rebuild. Gradually, we see the people and wonder: Where will the people go?
That should be the main concern for the people living there, but for the Polish American Jets, and their rivals, the Puerto Rican American Sharks, the concern in the mid-1950s on the Upper West Side of New York City is gang territory and terrorizing each other. In the initial sequence where the Jets and Sharks rivalry is set out, an act of violence warns us: The violence won’t be just words before we get to the first death.
Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James who originated the lead role of Shrek in the Broadway musical) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll of “House of Cards”) know something bad is about to happen. He warns both sides, but obviously favors the White Jets over the Latino Sharks, even though Puerto Rico is part of the US and they are US citizens. Led by Riff (Mike Faist who was the original Connor for the Broadway production of “Dear Evan Hansen”), the Jets are ready to rumble and don’t intend to play fair, but believe they’ll have a better chance is former member, Tony (Ansel Elgort), rejoins them.
New to New York and the continental United States is Maria (played by the 20-year-old part Colombian Rachel Zegler). Her brother Bernardo (Cuban American David Alvarez, one of the original Billys for the Broadway production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” for which he won a Tony for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical), lives with his girlfriend Anita. Tony Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s directions make it clear: Their cohabitation is anything but chaste. Bernardo wants to marry, but Anita (Afro-Puerto Rican Ariana DeBose) is holding out because she wants Bernardo to quit the Sharks.
Instead of working in the clothing industry, Anita and Maria are part of the cleaning crew for an upscale department store. It’s emphasized that all of the Puerto Ricans have jobs, while it only seems that of the Jets, Tony, a former Jet, has steady work. He’s served time for his gang activities and he wants out of the violence and continual clash of male egos. He’s the weary warrior, tired of the senseless posturing and an aimless bluster into an early demise.
Bernardo has a friend, the shy and socially awkward Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), that he wants his sister Maria to marry. Chino wears glasses. I guess that means he’s studious. Yet Chino wants to join the gang; he wants to be a warrior. Bernardo is against this, preferring that the man he has chosen for his sister, be a straight-arrow guy who does accounting and has a future as a white collar worker.
If not for his affiliation with the Jets, Tony would be almost perfect. He works for Doc’s widow, Valentina (Rita Moreno). She understands both side of the problem, but she and Doc were able to weather the storm. She continues to run the store. The presence of Moreno, of course, has a sentimental pull, particularly with her recent revelations about how it was to be a young woman in Hollywood. Like Natalie Wood, Moreno was raped, but kept quiet to continue her career. For the 1961 film, Moreno’s complexion was darkened to appear more stereotypically Latina. That doesn’t happen here.
Instead, White and Black Latinos become part of the Puerto Rican community here. A Black male character, Abe, was added to the book to make the casting more representative of the historic West Side. Adding Black or Latino actors to the mix isn’t new. While Natalie Wood and Chakiris weren’t Latino, some members of the cast were, like Moreno, Latino. Rudy Del Campo played a Shark and later opened a Mexican restaurant in Silver Lake.
On stage, Debbie Allen played Anita in the 1980 Broadway revival. Chita Rivera had played Anita in the original Broadway and West End (1958) casts. Héctor Jaime Mercado was Bernardo and Josie de Guzman was Maria in the 1980 revival.
What seems to be absent in Spielberg’s film is the middle man minorities, the ones that are neither Black nor White. Doc was an elderly Jewish owner of the drugstore (played by Jewish American Ned Glass) in the 1961 film. In the 1961 film, Chino was played by a San Diego-born Filipino, Jose de Vega (Is there someone who can pass as East Asian who hasn’t heard the word Chinito or Chinita in San Diego?). Japanese American Joanne Miya played one of the Shark girls (Francisca, Toro’s girlfriend). With so little information currently out on the cast, I can’t determine if the 2021 cast includes Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders.
The mixing of Afro-Latinos into the Shark community in Spielberg’s version as well as Bernardo living with Anita heightens the reasons for prejudice against the Puerto Rican community by the White and the Polish American community. This story takes place before Civil Rights Act of 1964 but during the decade when Emmett Till was murdered (1955). The man who would be known as Malcolm X was just 25 in 1950 and had already moved to Harlem (1943) and then to Boston (1945). Malcolm would be out of prison on parole in 1952. This was a time before the sexual revolution and the birth control pill.
One wonders why this Maria doesn’t insist, like the 13-year-old Juliet from the Shakespearean play, on the real sanction of the church. It is likely they are both Catholic. Puerto Rico is currently 85 percent Catholic. About 92 percent of the current Polish population (in Poland) is Catholic. Kushner’s screenplay brings in the church and director Spielberg makes a beautifully realized mock wedding without giving a reason why two adults could not make it real. The hurried nature of the narrative that packs so much into a 24-hour period makes the Tony-Maria love story seem more like puppy love than the kind that would last a lifetime. The presence of Moreno’s Valentina also underscores this.
The original Broadway production opened in 1957, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and went on to win Tonys for Best Choreography and Best Scenic Design. It was the first big Broadway musical that the late Stephen Sondheim wrote lyrics for. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music with a book by Arthur Laurents. Laurent was born into a Jewish family and changed his name to sound less Jewish in order to get work. That’s the kind of world it was in the 1950s.
The 1961 film featured a 23-year-old Russian American Natalie Wood as Maria (with singing voice by Marni Nixon). Her love interest was played by the 23-year-old Richard Beymer (“Twin Peaks” and “Deep Space Nine”).
The urban renewal project took down tenement housing and was delayed so that exterior shots could be made for the 1961 film “West Side Story.” The project allowed for the construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Lincoln Towers apartments.
The musical was an original concept by Robbins (born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz) and Jewish American Laurents (born Arthur Levine) wrote the book. Sondheim and Bernstein were also Jewish American. That’s important because a 2017 essay about “West Side Story” (“The West Side Story Appropriation We Never Really Talk About” by Yura Sapi) as one of cultural appropriation portrays them as four White men.
Likewise Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner are White-passing men of Jewish descent. But when Robbins originally conceived of the story and approached Laurents in 1947, they meant to set the story on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the conflict between the Irish Catholics and the Jewish Americans. It was to be a story about the Catholic Jets against the Jewish Emeralds. The project was shelved and when Robbins and Laurents returned to the project, the tensions between the Irish Catholics and the Jewish immigrants seemed to have settled down, but it was a time of Puerto Rican immigration and violence on the West Side.
As the Second World War ended and New York City experienced a housing shortage, the Upper West Side’s Jewish community began to shrink as many chose to move to Florida or the suburbs. During the same period, the “Great Migration” of Puerto Ricans brought a large number of new residents to the area. By 1960 over 40,000 Puerto Ricans lived in the Upper West Side, making up 14 percent of its total population. The neighborhood underwent a period of decline, as the spacious homes of the past were converted into smaller apartments and overpopulation ensued. Slums became a commonplace in multiple areas of the Upper West Side, crime rates increased, and racial tensions rose between old-time and newer residents.
According to another source:
Intellects moved into the neighborhood after Columbia University relocated to it’s current location in the 1890s. Jewish refugees and families moving into the area in the early 1900s turned it into a predominately Jewish neighborhood, but enclaves of other groups existed as well such as African-Americans living south of 67th street. The Upper West Side witnessed an “influx of southern blacks, Russians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, and Ukranians in the forties and fifties, and Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans in the fifties and sixties.” The 1940 census counted 152,614 residents at the time with an astounding 103,100 being “native white”, 47,301 being “foreign-born white”, 1,668 “Negros”, and a lowly 545 people representing “other races.” Unfortunately, a historic African-American community living on 98th/99th street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue were displaced in the 1950s for the Manhattantown urban renewal project led by Robert Moses. But this diversity helped to create the bohemian and liberal atmosphere which holds true today despite the neighborhood being 64.7% white according to the 2010 census.
In the film, Spielberg makes clear that the piece of turf the Jets and the Sharks are fighting over won’t be there’s for long, increasing the feeling of futility. Once we go past the ruined buildings to those yet to be broken down, we see streets alive with people, more so than was possible on the budget and sound stage for the 1961 film.
Spielberg’s film also features real Broadway talents. His lead, the 27-year-old Ansel Elgort can dance–he studied ballet at the School of American Ballet. The 20-year-old Zegler had performed the role of Maria at the Bergen Performing Arts Center (Englewood, New Jersey) in 2017. She can sing for herself. This Anita is a Tony Award-nominated actress, Ariana DeBose. Alvarez, as her boyfriend Bernardo, also is an experienced musical Broadway actor who already has a Tony Award. This along with the budget and scenes shot outdoors, heightens the feeling of space and a lively community. These actors can really let go and soar on the streets. Their dancing is expansive and unfettered by lead-footed or inexperienced dancing leads.
Visually, the color palette separates the Sharks from the Jets in a manner more consistent, but similar to the 1961 version. In both movies, Maria is in the virginal white dress with a red belt for the dance social. But the Puerto Rican side is filled with warm colors while the Polish Americans are mostly attired in cool colors.
The other noticeable innovation of this screenplay is the inclusion of Spanish. There was a smattering of Spanish words, used by both the Jets and the Sharks in the 1961 film. Here, the film pushes the progression that the romantic satirical telenovela “Jane the Virgin” (2014-2019) did in the usage of Spanish. The film essentially is shutting out or letting in segments of the audience with the choice not to use English subtitles.
Yet, unlike “Licorice Pizza,” the dialogue is made understandable and we’re already invested in the characters. Additionally, the story is familiar enough. We all know how this is going to end for our West Side Romeo and Juliet.
“West Side Story” 2021 is a beautiful adaptation of a musical, one that all dancers and lovers of musicals should see. It’s not perfect, but it still is wonderful. Perhaps it is not an authentic Latino or Polish voice, but there’s now Lin-Manuel Miranda to give Broadway and the world that. This film gives Latino actors, actresses and dancers an opportunity to shine at a time when they are still severely under represented in film and on television.