The Pitch: On a very literal level, Steven Spielberg‘s West Side Story is a technically perfect film. Every detail on screen, from the period-accurate production design to the costumes to the choreography and sound design, is flawlessly rendered by some of today’s best artisans, and regular Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is unmatched, using the full frame at all times, playing with depth of field and brilliant lighting choices in ways that only enhance the cast’s brilliant performances.
There is so much to admire about this new take on West Side Story, especially how it makes up for the 1961 original by casting actual Latinos in key roles, and takes a bilingual approach to the dialogue that adds to the authenticity. The problem, unfortunately, is that all of this is in service to a narrative that, frankly, wasn’t that great to begin with and has aged even worse.
Is it a bold take to say that one of the great classic works of musical theater is based on a pretty silly story? Perhaps not, given that there are arguably far sillier stories amongst the genre’s greatest hits. But still, here is a song-and-dance-free summary of what happens in West Side Story…
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for West Side Story.]
It All Began Tonight: There are two gangs living in 1950s New York, fighting over a neighborhood that’s also now the demolition zone for the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The Puerto Ricans Sharks and racists Jets are angling for a big fight, while the younger sister of Shark leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), Maria (Rachel Zegler), just wants to experience all the opportunities that New York City has to offer.
One night, she meets ex-con Tony (Ansel Elgort) at a local dance and the two of them have an immediate unspoken connection, despite the fact that Bernardo has made it pretty clear he’s not into the idea of his sister kissing white boys. That same night, Bernardo and Tony’s “from sperm to worm” bestie Riff (Mike Faist) establish terms for a “rumble” to determine who controls the neighborhood.
The next day, Tony and Maria go on a date to the Cloisters and declare their love for each other — a love which is at this point less than 24 hours old. Then that night, during the rumble, Bernardo stabs Riff (despite them staying that knives were off the table for this particular fight) and then Tony, in a rage, stabs Bernardo, then goes and tells Maria, who’s upset about Bernardo but sleeps with him anyway.
Maria and Tony want to run away together, but when Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita tries to deliver Maria’s message to Tony, the Jets attempt to rape her for her trouble. Understandably very upset, Anita lies that Maria was shot dead by Chino, Bernardo’s friend/Maria’s original date for the dance. This makes Tony sad for a little bit, but when he rushes out onto the street shouting Chino’s name, he ends up seeing Maria running towards him, which makes him happy!
That, of course, is when Chino shoots him in the back, twice, killing him. Maria cries as Tony dies, the surviving Jets and Sharks team up to carry Tony’s body away, and Chino is left behind to be arrested by the cops. Also, Rita Moreno is there. The end.
Brush Up Your Shakespeare: The flaws of the above technically weigh upon the shoulders of writer Tony Kushner. (To be very clear about it, Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics are blameless.) But really the problems can be traced back to the original theatrical production being a contemporary-for-the-time adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
The problem with West Side Story as a narrative is that it lives or dies entirely on whether or not you believe that Tony and Maria do genuinely fall in love (or at least infatuation) at almost literally first sight, and even if you do buy into the connection as presented, it’s still hard to get invested in their star-crossed love story. Plus, given how it overlooks what Shakespeare was really trying to say with the original text, the ending simply sputters out as bloodless tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet is a play renowned for its language and romance, but the ultimate message isn’t that teenagers go way over the top when it comes to love — instead, it’s about how revenge is a bad and destructive thing. While Shakespeare hasn’t recently given any interviews about what he considers to be the themes of the play, the original text does end with the Prince of Verona coming in to yell at the Capulets and Montagues about how their destructive feud has ruined these young lives and more:
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.