From Spielberg’s West Side Story released on Dec. 10, 2021.
West Side Story as directed by Steven Spielberg is currently streaming on HBOMax and Disney+. I have long thought about having my kids, ages 18 and 14, watch the original so I thought this was a good opportunity to introduce them to some of the greatest American music ever written.
Tony and Maria singing “Somewhere”
From 1961 version of West Side Story
It was not. It was an opportunity to witness the happy state of modern storytelling.
There is no disputing that Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story is a masterpiece. The greatness of this music is self-evident.
I thought the musical execution in this new movie was good, but the singing was nowhere close to the 1961 version. The rest of the movie was full of clever ideas that got in the way of the story that the music is telling.
Spielberg utilized the idea of Lincoln Center being built at the time in which West Side Story is taking place. We learn that the Jets and the Sharks are going to be moving because they won’t be able to afford the new developments around Lincoln Center.
The conflict in West Side Story is about establishing and protecting gang turf. If everyone is losing their turf to Lincoln Center then where’s the conflict? It would make more sense for them to be united against the gentrification of their neighborhood. That is bad storytelling.
It would appear as if each of the main actors was asked to write a simple backstory for their character and then these backstories were put into the film. Tony spent a year in juvie for beating a kid up real bad. Bernardo is a boxer. Anita is a seamstress who wants to be her own boss. Those are fine ideas, but a backstory is for the performer to access not for the audience.
The allure of a musical is that the characters are expressed through the music they sing and, in West Side Story, the way that they dance. For instance, Tony and Maria don’t dance much in the original. They are out of step with the rest of the characters.
Poster for 1961 movie
The most egregious idea was to replace Doc with Valentina. In the original, Doc is fulfilling the role of Friar Laurence from romeo and juliet. The 1961 West Side Story has him play the role of father, so to speak, to Tony.
Now we have the immortal Rita Moreno, the original Academy Award-winning Anita, playing this role as Doc’s Puerto Rican widow Valentina. The father figure has been replaced by a mother figure.
Never mind that Anita is already the mother figure, in the role of Nurse, to Maria. Apparently, two strong mothers is a better idea than the inclusion of a wise and benevolent father figure. More bad storytelling.
The final clever idea that sunk Spielberg’s effort was taking the song, “Somewhere” away from Tony and Maria and giving it to Valentina. Why would Valentina sing this song?
There was literally a place for her with Doc at his shop for several decades. She had played the role of a long-lived Juliet to Doc’s Romeo. Shouldn’t Tony and Maria make it based on Doc and Valentina?
Valentina’s character is akin to replacing Father Laurence with a Capulet woman who had been openly married to a Montague for 40 years. I take it back, that isn’t a clever idea. It’s a stupid idea based on wanting to cast one of the original movie actors and then finding a song for her to sing. It’s a typical bad reboot move. It’s also bad storytelling.