Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' Is a Stunning Bit of Reinvention

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner prove it's worth revisiting this classic.

rachel zegler, west side story
20th Century Pictures
20th Century Pictures

There was understandable trepidation with the news that Steven Spielberg would be doing a new version of West Side Story, the 1957 musical created by the titans Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents. "Why remake?" is a question asked again and again in this climate of reboots and revivals. Sometimes the answer is "easy cash grab." In other cases, there's an artistic reason to revisit old material.

The Broadway production begot the revered Oscar-winning 1961 movie directed by Robert Wise that is rife with troubling instances of brownface and features two leads who could not actually sing. What can a new West Side Story bring? Better, more inclusive casting, yes, but Spielberg and his screenwriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), set out to accomplish something trickier. They wanted to rethink West Side Story for a modern moment, not by divorcing it from the past, but by reinvigorating it with context.

Spielberg has brilliantly conceived of fresh ways to stage classic numbers, with his trusty cinematographer Janusz Kamiński making the colors pop and Justin Peck choreography that's an homage but not devotion to the Robbins original. But it's Kushner's songbook that invites the audience to think of this classic in new ways. Maria (the luminous Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) are still a 20th-century Romeo and Juliet, a Puerto Rican girl and a white boy whose allegiances are torn as they fall in love. But there's an added depth to their stories that supplements the cinematic splendor Spielberg can render like no other.

Earlier attempts to update West Side Story have yielded mixed results. A 2009 revival on Broadway added some Spanish lyrics with help from Lin-Manuel Miranda. In 2020, the experimental director Ivo Van Hove stripped it down, cut "I Feel Pretty," and removed any cultural context. Spielberg and Kushner employed the opposite tactic. From the very first moments, it's clear the collaborators want to place this West Side Story in the real world. Whereas Wise's original filmed on the rubble that would become Lincoln Center, Spielberg and Kushner's uses developer Robert Moses' razing of the area, known as San Juan Hill, as an actual plot point. The Jets think they are being displaced by the Sharks, and the Sharks are on the verge of being displaced by a highbrow cultural center and high-rises for wealthy white people. (That the film's New York premiere took place at Jazz at Lincoln Center, inside the gleaming Columbus Circle Mall, felt like a grim inside joke.)

west side story
20th Century Pictures

The opening ballet establishes a menace that other interpretations have lacked. Extras jump from the sidewalks when they see the Jets strut by on their way to vandalize a painting of a Puerto Rican flag. Mike Faist's Riff, the Jets' leader and Mercutio stand-in, is not the lovable scamp that Russ Tamblyn made famous; instead, he roils with disaffected anger, and Kushner threads the looming violence throughout the screenplay. Our romantic hero, Tony (Ansel Elgort, the movie's one weak link, with a pretty voice and a limp expression), is out on parole after another rumble almost turned deadly. His adversary, Bernardo (David Alvarez), is a boxer who uses his fists to make a living. A gun doesn't just appear out of nowhere in the finale—it looms over the plot with Chekhovian intent and serves as the conflict behind one of Spielberg's most ingenious restagings, making "Cool" a battle between Riff's exploding ego and Tony's desire to keep the peace.

While it's impossible to erase what Robbins and Wise did in 1961 given how their images have become embedded in cultural memory, Spielberg and his team have found ways to open up the universe of the songs. Tony and Maria's faux-wedding number "One Hand, One Heart" finds them kneeling in front of a stained-glass window at the Cloisters, where they go on their first date, light flooding their faces. "I Feel Pretty" is staged at the department store Gimbels, where Maria now works as a cleaner. Anita (Ariana DeBose) brings her anthem "America" out onto the street, where she spins in a vibrant yellow dress, accented with red, and dreams of the "terrace apartment" that will stand in the debris.

DeBose arguably had the most difficult task of any of the actors, following up Rita Moreno's Oscar-winning performance, the only one in the '61 film with any sort of authenticity. This Anita's affection for her adopted country is more clearly defined, so the way it sours is even more heartbreaking. When Maria and Bernado speak Spanish—and they often do without being subtitled, a choice that deems their language as central to the narrative as the Jets'—Anita encourages them to use English. She believes in assimilation until she realizes it will never be offered to her, and DeBose makes her disillusionment raw. Similarly, Zegler's Maria is new to America but hardly naive. She pursues Tony during the dance at the gym more than he pursues her, but also is more attuned to the danger of their situation. Spielberg holds tight on Zegler's expressive face as she stunningly sings in Maria's powerful soprano, her eyes conveying both the hope and dread of what could possibly come.

How do you honor the past and acknowledge its errors? With thoughtfulness and skill and Rita Moreno. The 89 year-old now plays Valentina, a new role Kushner envisioned to replace the curmudgeonly drugstore owner Doc. Her space is neutral territory—because she married a gringo, the Jets accept her—but she herself is not. She understands the hatred orbiting her but is encouraged by the foolish sentiment of Maria and Tony's love. It's her disappointment, transmitted through Bernstein's most longing ballad, "Somewhere," that pierces the audience. She's the line between the past and the present. She's the proof that this story is worth retelling time and time again.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.