West Side Story Needed an Update

The original is “a masterpiece … but it’s also a bit of a tough watch today.”

A group of dancers performing in the street in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story"
Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Fox / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

Updated at 1:00 p.m. ET on March 31, 2022

West Side Story is a work with some huge names behind it: Leonard Bernstein wrote the musical, Stephen Sondheim the lyrics, and Shakespeare the source material, Romeo and Juliet. And 60 years after the classic 1961 film dominated the Oscars, another name has been added to that list: Steven Spielberg.

The creative forces behind West Side Story don’t just have status in common though; they’re also all white men telling a story of Puerto Rican migrants in New York City. And that lack of diverse perspectives is painfully evident in the original film. The Puerto Rican characters are portrayed by white actors, often in broad stereotypes and brownface. Even Rita Moreno, who portrayed Anita and was born in Puerto Rico, had to wear dark makeup.

The 2021 update escapes many of the dated aspects of the 1961 version by grounding the film in real history. Spielberg and the screenwriter Tony Kushner used the period setting of slum-clearance-era New York to give the rival gang members more real-world motivation than the original’s stereotyping. In doing so though, the remake loses some of the kaleidoscopic dreaminess that made the old-Hollywood original a classic.

David Sims, Sophie Gilbert, and Spencer Kornhaber compare the two versions. Listen to their conversation here:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for West Side Story.

Spencer Kornhaber: Today we’re talking about West Side Story. The classic 1961 film based on the classic Leonard Bernstein musical was remade by none other than Steven Spielberg last year. It’s nominated for seven Oscars, and it’s one of the last big films up for Best Picture that we haven’t discussed on the podcast. We haven’t had our knock-down, drag-out fight about it yet, but we’re about to. The reception to it hasn’t been quite what many people in Hollywood expected. Some people love this movie, and some people didn’t see this movie. So we thought we’d break it down a bit. David, can you explain why we have a West Side Story remake in 2021?

David Sims: Sure. That’s actually a great question, because musicals in Hollywood don’t often get remade. There are just so few musicals these days. And West Side Story is already probably the most well-known, classic movie musical.

Kornhaber: It’s this and Cats.

Sims: (Laughs.) Well, one day we’ll have another Cats. I’m sure someone will take a swing at it. In fact, Steven Spielberg considered making Cats long ago, but he wanted to do it animated and Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t like that. But at the end of the day, that might have been a good idea, considering what eventually happened.

Kornhaber: I want to live in that reality.

Sims: But on why West Side Story was remade, reason one is that Steven Spielberg has never made a movie musical. He’s an older guy, and he seems to be knocking off things he’s never done before. And so he wanted to make a musical and he wanted to make his favorite musical. West Side Story was a movie he has talked about glowingly as getting him into movies.

Then the other reason is the original filmed West Side Story is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. It’s a great film. It won Best Picture at the Oscars. But it’s also a bit of a tough watch today, especially in high definition. It’s really tough to see this great, iconic film put together with people who are very obviously wearing brownface, wearing thick makeup to look Latino when they are not. And so, yes, of course it’s a classic, but one could also argue for an update.

Kornhaber: Right, so it’s a bit of a passion project, but also someone had to remake this at some point to fix that problem. Sophie, you are a connoisseur of the musical as an art form. What did you think of the remake?

Sophie Gilbert: Oh boy, I am conflicted because, like David, I loved the original, while finding aspects of it tough to take these days. And I have to say there were things about this remake that I loved, particularly the dance sequences. Spielberg is so good at what he does. David can talk more about the artistry of the musical scenes, but they’re just spectacular. This was a movie I wish I’d seen in the theater.

But at the same time, I had some issues with this movie, and they mostly revolve around the central love story. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, and his impression of it was always that it wasn’t supposed to be a kind of piece of sociological realism. It was a love story. And more than anything, it’s a love story to theater and what theater can do. It can sweep you up in this great collaboration of dance and music and storytelling and really pull you in with that.

And yet in remaking the movie, I think for relatively obvious reasons, Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, decided to enhance the realism of it. [He wanted] to get really at the heart of the gentrification of the West Side and socioeconomic reasons behind the gangs, their discontent, and why they wanted to fight each other, I suppose. But for me, what was lost was the love story.

Kornhaber: Spielberg really pulls out from the original story, which is a pretty self-contained and stylized take on a real-world situation. The original movie was a series of music videos, really. Kind of dreamy.

Sims: It’s very abstract.

Kornhaber: Abstract, absolutely.

Sims: Yeah. It’s not set in a definable place. Obviously it’s the West Side. (Laughs.) And it has that opening sequence from the original movie that was shot on location. But almost everything else is soundstages. It’s very obviously in film studios.

Kornhaber: Yeah. And so Spielberg wants to pull out and be like, “No, this is actually a story taking place at a particular time.” There’s social commentary to be brought out from that setting, a sense of realism to be inserted, and a sense of scope and scale that wasn’t in the original. He really wants you to feel like you’re in this giant neighborhood of Manhattan that’s been decimated by gentrification. But in doing that, he’s roaming all over the place, and the gemlike, dreamy quality of the original musical numbers gets a bit lost.

Gilbert: It’s a good ambition to sort of “reform” the movie—that’s not an ideal word, I suppose—but at least to make it less problematic or give its Puerto Rican characters greater depth and visibility on screen, and more historical context and more accuracy … Those are really great ambitions to have. It’s just a very tricky existing product to expand those sociological parts of it, because, again, it’s not what the story was supposed to do. I mean, there’s a whole number in it with “Gee, Officer Krupke” that makes fun of those kinds of readings of characters. Sondheim said they serve to remind the audience that this is entertainment, not a social treatise. And so if you try to make it more of a social treatise—which I think is definitely a positive motivation—it keeps butting up against what the musical was designed to do.

I want to talk about the origins of it because I find them so fascinating and funny. Originally, Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, and Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the music, and Jerome Robbins, who directed the movie and did the choreography—didn’t they originally plan it as about New York Irish Catholics and New York Jews in conflict? I think in the week between Easter and Passover?

Sims: Yes, it was going to be set on the Lower East Side.

Gilbert: (Laughs.) And then one day, Laurents and Bernstein were hanging by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, as you do, and I think one of them read a new story about gangs in Los Angeles and they were like, “This is where we go with this one!” It was that much of a pivot, right?

Sims: Well, the other thing that no one remembers anymore is that there was a very popular show at the time called Abie’s Irish Rose, which was about an Irish-Jewish romance, another star-crossed romance like Romeo and Juliet. But it was indeed going to be called East Side Story, and then somebody was like, “Well, wait a second. What’s over on the West Side, though? Let’s go 12 blocks that way.”

Gilbert: (Laughs.)

Sims: And it was Laurents who I believe said he knew a lot more about Puerto Rican people in Harlem than about—I think it was originally maybe going to involve Mexican gangs? It is funny how they were just sort of swapping in and out different subcommunities. And obviously, the final version of the Jets is not an Irish gang or an Italian gang; it’s just a white gang with white guys. And I think if you’re going to do West Side Story in 2021, it’s going to be uncomfortable and much more threatening to have a movie where your main characters are in a white gang that is trying to keep nonwhite people out of a neighborhood that essentially has been declared blighted. So Kushner thought hard about this, and something he hit on was that the turf they were fighting over had already been marked for clearance to build Lincoln Center.

That was the days of New York City when people would just circle various city blocks and be like, “Everyone’s got to move because the future’s here, baby!” And I think that is a good way, in my opinion, to update a musical like West Side Story without doing what, say, Ivo van Hove did on Broadway, where he was really trying to consciously make it about today, to bring the story into the 21st century. This movie isn’t that; it’s just giving everything a little more context about the tensions of the time without sacrificing the period setting, without letting go of the fact that this is the late ’50s, early ’60s.

Gilbert: But the problem is that the central love story is such a fantasy that if you bring in too many realistic elements beneath the surface, it all falls apart. Because suddenly I’m like, “You guys can’t fall in love! You don’t have any money! Where are you going to go?!”

Sims: (Laughs.)

Gilbert: What are their plans? You’ll hate each other in five years when Maria has five kids and you have no job! You know what I mean? It takes me out of the fantasy, whereas there’s something about the original musical where, as wooden as they may be, you see Tony and Maria as this kind of magical love that only happens in Hollywood movies from the ’50s and ’60s. You see these two people meet for a second at a dance and it’s supposed to be the greatest love that has ever happened. You’re supposed to buy that they are completely consumed with each other to the point that when he, spoiler, murders her brother, she’s like, “It’s fine. We’re still in love.” (Laughs.)

And I just did not feel that with this pairing. I thought Rachel Zegler was so fantastic, but in the scene in the gym where they meet each other, Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony, looks like he’s looking at a train timetable. Everything about the changes to that scene threw a real wrench in it for me. And after that, I just couldn't believe in the story, which I think makes the musical fall apart.

Kornhaber: I think a lot of conversations about this movie do start with Ansel being sort of a dead fish on screen. To me, he’s so distractingly bad. He really poisons the well with just this thudding impersonation he’s giving of Marlon Brando or something.

Sims: Yeah, a little bit of Brando.

Kornhaber: He’s just completely doing that thing where he seems like he’s thinking about his role rather than just embodying it. And it hurts to watch.

Gilbert: It’s just a lot more banal, the romance in this movie. In the scene when they meet in the original, her first line is, “You’re not thinking I’m somebody else?” as if she senses the connection between them, and he feels it too. It’s beautiful. She assumes he knows her because suddenly it feels like they know each other at this very primal level. And then the first line in the remake version is, “It’s funny, I wasn’t planning on showing up tonight.” Like, okay, cool guy. It’s just a lot more quotidian, and I think I was really longing for this moment of phantasmagorical souls meeting in the night and I just didn’t get that.

Sims: I get all of that in the visuals though, not so much in their performances. She’s very luminous. I think Rachel Zegler is great.

Gilbert: She’s gorgeous. She is wonderful.

Sims: He’s fine. There’s just instant-star stuff with her where, the second you see her on screen, you’re rooting for this person, right? She hasn’t even said a word yet and I’m like, “Oh, I’m on this person’s side.”

Gilbert: She’s so charming.

Sims: But in the gym scene, which is maybe my favorite sequence in the movie, it’s Spielberg who’s giving you the romance. It’s the lens flares and the bodies moving and the way the camera is taking the space of the viewer and all that. That’s where my blood’s running. And obviously, Spielberg clearly reveres the movie musical. I mean, there’ve been more musicals of late, I would say. It had gone really dead. In the past decade, there have been things like Cats—well, let’s forget Cats—but we’ve had La La Land, The Greatest Showman, Jersey Boys, the Mamma Mia movies, Mary Poppins Returns, In the Heights last year, which was actually really good, Dear Evan Hansen last year, which was really bad

There’s been a lot of swings at good musicals, I would say, and I like some of those movies, but they are horrifyingly directed. They are so—they’re so poorly put together. Even someone like Rob Marshall—who made Chicago, which was a pretty strong movie musical and who has a background in choreography. Rob Marshall made Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns, but he stages these musical numbers where you have lots of people dancing and the camera is cutting constantly into the action, cutting to one person. And I’m like, “Let me see people dancing! Please stop cutting!”

And Steven Spielberg—God bless him—holds on a wide shot and moves his camera around fluidly. He lets you actually see gorgeously choreographed musical numbers that transport your brain into a place of pure pleasure and bliss. And I wish more musicals would do that in film.

Gilbert: I would agree with that.

Kornhaber: Yeah.

Sims: Another sequence I really love in this movie that is very different from the original and from the stage production is how they do “Cool” as a dance between Riff and Tony, and they emphasize the weird connection between those two characters. They’re going through a sort of breakup. It’s not just that Tony is turning his back on the Jets or whatever. It’s that his connection with Riff is being severed as he’s growing closer to Maria. And the way they’re dancing and fighting at the same time, I think that’s all really well done.

Kornhaber: “Cool” was my favorite as a kid watching West Side Story.

Sims: I mean, it’s so good in the original.

Kornhaber: Yeah, absolutely. And there were a number of transmutations made in this movie with musical numbers where I missed the original, but with “Cool,” I have to say, they went from one incredible staging of it to a different one.

And I thought that was a good example of how to bring the darkness and violence of the story into the musical number, where they’re throwing the gun around. They’re not beating each other up like they end up doing in the rumble, but it’s a very tense and scary scene, and still a beautifully choreographed musical number.

Sims: “America” is obviously the most invigorating number in the show too. And they do that very well. Again, you are up against perfection. Spielberg basically says as much. The sequence in the original is unbeatable. There’s nothing better than that in movie musicals, but I do like their take on it as well, bringing it out into the street.

Kornhaber: Yeah, you have the original in a contained space on that rooftop, with people just interacting with each other while the camera kind of stays in one spot. And that’s what makes “America” so amazing in the original. And in this one, they run all over the streets, popping through fruit stands or whatever. And, to me, that felt like the expected choice. That’s what you would see in a recent movie musical, this sense of the camera on a crane doing a lot of work. And to me, that lost the sort of self-contained quality that made the original so good.

Gilbert: I’ve never loved “I Feel Pretty” as a song, but I loved the staging of it here in the department store. Rachel Zegler’s enthusiasm and charm is so contagious. It’s just really beautifully done with the costumes and the fanciful nature of it. But I do have a problem with the placement of it, because it’s right after you’ve seen these two characters brutally die! And that’s not how it’s ordered in the original movie.

Sims: It’s actually been returned to its original place in the show.

Gilbert: Yes, but in the musical, if you saw this in the theater, there would be an intermission. You would have time to process this horrible scene of violence. And then you’d get Maria’s sweet, loving excitement for her new romance. And now there’s none of that. Suddenly, it’s just like this very drastic tonal shift. I found it really hard to take. As much as I did love it.

Sims: It’s a strange number, and Sondheim despises it. Or, rather, despised it—Sondheim is no longer with us. And Spielberg also was going to cut it, because he had the exact same reaction you had, which was, “How can you have this after the rumble?” And Kushner basically put his foot down. You absolutely have to be with Maria in this glimpse of happiness before she finds out about her world crashing down around her, or else she’s just a one-note, tragic character. You need to understand why she’s going to throw it all away.

Kornhaber: And you get that in the original’s placement of it earlier in the movie. And there’s that Stephen Sondheim anecdote about that song. He felt bad because he didn’t think the character would be singing words like witty, right? He thought he was being a little too cute for the character.

Sims: He was a grump sometimes. I love Sondheim, but his whole thing with West Side Story was that it’s not realistic. And Sondheim spent his whole career upending the conventions of Broadway—which is great, and I love him; he’s the greatest. But at the same time, it’s funny that he thought West Side Story was kind of corny, and it’s like, “Yeah, it’s the greatest corny musical ever written. So congratulations, Stephen.”

Kornhaber: Sophie, you wrote a beautiful obituary for Stephen Sondheim. How does West Side Story fit into his pantheon?

Gilbert: Well, it’s interesting because it was one of his earliest gigs back when he was still very much trying to make his name. He always wanted to write his own music and lyrics. And so I think he felt that if he did West Side Story, he would be pigeonholed as just a lyricist. And he certainly was for a while. It’s not a typically Sondheim-ian musical, I would say. There are elements where he really comes out, like the song “Maria,” when Tony sings, “I sing it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.” That line is really beautiful. But yeah, “I Feel Pretty” he felt was too twee, too charming. He didn’t feel like Maria as a teenage girl would be saying things like “it’s alarming how charming I feel.”

Sims: I adore him, but he was a bit of a grump.

Gilbert: We love him so much. It surprised me because he’s such a notorious grump, but he told Stephen Colbert that he really loved the 2021 West Side Story.

Sims: I think this was what he wanted. That’s the vibe I get from that. And he was there through filming.

Kornhaber: Apparently, he told Rachel Zegler right before she filmed “I Feel Pretty” something like, “I really dropped the ball in the song. It’s no good.” And she’s like, “Okay, thanks.”

Sims: (Laughs.) I think there was also something like, “It’s nice to have people who can sing,” obviously referring to the fact that Natalie Wood was dubbed.

Gilbert: I do want to say it's obvious that the creative team really did their work. They really wanted to do a better job with representation than the original.

Sims: The amount of subtitled Spanish in the film is kind of impressive and invigorating.

Kornhaber: It’s amazing how well it works.

Gilbert: It’s fantastic. But at the same time, it’s still a creative team exclusively made up of white men. Which makes you see that things have actually not changed that much since years ago. When you think about the people with the power to shape the ways that stories are told, the difference is that they may be listening harder and trying harder to incorporate voices and experiences that aren’t their own. But at the same time, they’re still sort of the same subset of guys, which is a little depressing.

Kornhaber: Yeah, it’s completely true. Well, what do you think of what they did with Rita Moreno?

Gilbert: She sort of felt Shakespearean to me, almost, as a character, like the elder stateswoman who's almost like the nurse. Less comic, but she’s there to opine on the way things are and support the characters of Tony and Maria. She really is the best thing about the 1961 movie, playing Anita. Her dancing is just extraordinary in that film, and she brings so much to the role. She is the one who really, I think, makes Anita like the timeless character that she is, and Ariana Debose has carried on that tradition.

And it was a nice note of, like, “Sorry we put you in this horrible makeup all these years ago, and yet you were still so amazing and carried this movie. And now you can have this really great role to acknowledge your underserved fantasticness.” Because Hollywood didn’t get her the roles that she deserved throughout her career. She’s such an amazing performer.

Sims: Yeah, she’s the best. And she seems very invested in this film, which is nice. She’s been cheerleading for actors like David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler.

Gilbert: David, do you think that this version of West Side Story will win Oscars?

Sims: It is hotly tipped to win Best Supporting Actress for Ariana Debose, who’s very good. And obviously, Anita is a killer role, but she’s really, really great. That seems to be the only spot where I think it’s probably guaranteed a victory. But I do think this movie, when it screened for critics, the raves were so big that there was this brief moment of thinking it might be the new Oscar frontrunner, because it’s been a bit of a weird year where there’s no juggernaut. And then the film didn’t do very well, box-office-wise. And there was sort of this backlash of, “Why didn’t Steven Spielberg save cinema?” So I guess it’s a disappointment that it didn’t cause everyone to rush to the theater in the middle of the Omicron wave or whatever. And it’s gotten seven nominations. Obviously, voters like it, but it does seem like it’s going to be mostly an also-ran when it comes to wins.

Kornhaber: It does have this weird reputation for underperforming. And you chalk that up to the novel coronavirus, as you tend to say?

Sims: That darn novel coronavirus! Obviously, some movies did very well over Christmas, but films aimed at a broader audience—more of a family or older audience—underperformed. It just kind of felt like the game in town during the second wave was young people because they felt more comfortable going to a theater. But because it’s Spielberg, and because it’s West Side Story, there was kind of the expectation that this’ll be it. This will be the one that makes everyone fall back in love with the movie theaters, and instead it kind of underperformed.

Gilbert: So does this mean that there’ll never be another big movie musical again?

Sims: It’s a good question. I mean, 2021 was a tough year in that regard because you had this underperform. You had In the Heights also kind of underperform ticket-wise despite the buzz over the summer. And then you have things like Dear Evan Hansen that underperformed in every sense. Hollywood has these trends come in bunches, so maybe it’ll be a few years.