West Side Story: A Review

Photo by Niko Tavernese

The remake of tragic romance musical West Side Story underwhelms at the box office in this weekend’s opening debut. I caught a Saturday matinee today and was one of about 7 people in the theater. Having already read some early reviews that warned of a weak opening, the empty theater didn’t surprise me. What did surprise was my lukewarm reaction to the film.

The movie is directed by none other than Steven Spielberg who joined forces with a host of other legendary artists standing on the shoulders of Leonard Bernstein’s unforgettable score and Stephen Sondheim’s fabulous lyrics.

Spielberg’s reimagining of the 1957 Broadway Musical and 1961 adapted film, was scripted this go around by Broadway’s darling Tony Kushner and choreographed by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck. The costumes were amazing too.

To say Spielberg’s West Side Story wasn’t simply outstanding hurts MY feelings. I have always loved Amblin’ had the privilege of working for them in story before retiring as an analyst a couple years ago.

What went wrong? The movie was a treat for the eyes and ears but it felt staged like the 1986 film adaption of Little Shop of Horrors (scripted by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Mencken) only not in a surprising way. The plot, music and in-the-hood feel are knowns to most of us so there was an expectation for something else.

Oh there’s plenty of directorial magic, with many of Spielberg’s signature mirroring shots, tracking shots and framing cameos that not only embrace a character’s face but foreshadow their future.

Tony is boxed in by his circumstances

And Peck’s updated choreography weaves its own kind of magic with many geometrically complex, bravura sequences that bow to the late 20th century choreographer Busby Berkeley. My favorite dance pieces are the Dancing in the Streets sequence accompanying the song America and the police precinct sequence that goes with the comical song Gee, Oliver Krupke.

I think what I hoped to see and didn’t is two-fold. First, a deeper dive into the characters by way of the addition of some new story material would’ve gone a long way in updating the story. It’s not enough to cast authentic Puerto Ricans as a refresh. Updated idioms (phrases and patterns of speech) were absent.

Secondly, a more sweeping cinematic feel that creates a more fluid retelling was a quality I anticipated. A more leisurely stroll, with some modern turns. There is a quasi new sequence where Tony and Maria take a train to a museum in Manhattan. That was what I wanted but that was all I got. Well, that’s not exactly true here is a sequence I recorded in the theater that wasn’t in the previous iterations of West Side Story.

Tony with his ma played by the original Maria (Broadway actress Rita Moreno)

An experimental element such as editing in modern day footage of New York’s inner city might’ve given this old story more breathing room.

Finally, I wonder if the tragedy at the heart of this Romeo and Juliet tale is ill-timed. The movie was slated for release in 2020 but was postponed due to the Covid pandemic. It might’ve met a more receptive audience two years ago. Tragedy as a genre in general isn’t a draw in our era and hasn’t been for decades. Well, those are my two cents. Until next time…

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