by Rachel Papulkas

It’s been over 60 years since West Side Story’s theatrical debut, but Steven Spielberg has brought back the Jets and Sharks for one more rumble.

West Side Story is a classic in cinematic and Broadway history. A dark reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story transforms the Montagues and Capulets into two warring New York gangs—the Jets, led by Riff, and the Latino White Sharks, led by Bernardo. When a chance encounter between Riff’s best friend, Tony, and Bernardo’s sister, Maria, sparks love at first sight, their pairing ignites one last climactic rumble between the two gangs. Exploring themes of ethnic and racial prejudice, social issues, and violence, West Side Story is a story that has captured the hearts of many, including my own.

First introduced to West Side Story in my teens through the 1961 Wise and Robbins film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s ground-breaking 1957 musical, I fell in love with Tony and Maria’s whirlwind romance. The plot of romance being hindered by external circumstances out of their control is a tale as old as time, but West Side Story enraptured me with its score—the jazzy elements, harmonic blues, the heavy orchestration during times of high stress for its characters. The Quintet version of ‘Tonight’ and the ‘Rumble’ have never failed to give me chills.

When Spielberg announced his venture into adapting Tony and Maria’s romance, I was initially a mixture of hesitant and excited. Hesitant, because my high regard for West Side Story made me protective; excited, because a theatrical release meant the film would reach a new audience. Most of all, I was hopeful that a new adaptation would include changes to the unsavory parts of the 1961 adaptation that never sat well with me. For one, I was hoping that Spielberg would not make the same mistake of using White actors in brown makeup to portray Puerto-Rican characters.

Purchasing a ticket to attend it’s December 10th opening night, I sat in the theatre, wishing that my cautiously optimistic hopes for the film would not be in vain. By the time I left the theater, after its 2 hour and 36-minute run, I was relieved to feel that not only did West Side Story meet my expectations but surpassed them.

Spielberg’s West Side Story is a vibrant, gritty remake that is both faithful to its predecessors and a masterful production on its own. The cast and music are spectacular and make for an engrossing experience that transported me back in time, all while reveling in the changes that leaves the story feeling fresh and alive.

Just in the first few minutes of the film, Spielberg differentiates his version by fleshing out the neighborhood the Jets and Sharks are fighting over. The opening shots of the film show demolished buildings and construction sites, making way for a burgeoning middle-class. The Jets and Sharks, who belong to the working-class, are seen to be fighting for control over territory they are both losing to urbanization and gentrification. The hints at displacement are subtle, such as Anita’s relocation cheque, but I was pleasantly surprised with seeing New York with a greater presence.  

Tony Kushner’s screenplay also provided me with more characterization that made me feel closer to these classic characters. Tony, portrayed by Ansel Elgort, is given more backstory than before, explaining why he left the violence of the Jets and is reluctant to return. This added significance for why Tony redirected the course of his life makes for an even better climatic scene when he’s forced to either participate in or flee from the violent rumble.

Anita (played by Ariana DeBose) doesn’t shy away from referencing how being a Black-Latina distinguishes her experiences from Bernardo’s (David Alvarez), while Maria (portrayed by Rachel Zegler) is less demure than her previous iterations. In one of my favourite additions, a date that Tony takes Maria on results in a squabble as they discuss the threat their relationship poses and her reluctance to fully abandon the Sharks.

Small details included about each character—like Bernardo’s career hopes, the added details of his relationship with Maria, and his reluctance to let Chino assimilate into the Sharks—provide clarity that I was missing from the 1961 version, and the details I wanted to fully sympathize with each character.

Fortunately, my fears of continued whitewashing were also squashed. West Side Story comes alive with a Latino cast to represent the Sharks, and their voices are louder than before. I was surprised to find some of the Sharks dialogue in untranslated Spanish, with no English subtitles to accompany my understanding. While this initially poked at my desire for knowing everything said with certainty in a scene, I respected the choice to have both English and Spanish sit on equal playing fields. Especially in consideration of the racist police officer who demanded the Spanish characters speak English around him.

Not just leaving it in Kushner and Spielberg’s hands to make the characters come alive, West Side Story’s brilliance is largely owed to its cast. I would not have known this film was Zegler’s debut had I not come across that factoid before entering the theatre. Zegler’s representation of Maria embodies her character’s youthful wistfulness, and her soprano vocals make her every feature on a song a mesmerizing experience. Another star who shined from the cast was Mike Faist, who perfectly captured a gang leader whose confidence masks his desperation and vulnerability.

Disappointingly, Elgort’s performance pales in comparison to his cast-members. Elgort delivers a fine performance— but one that is comparatively dull when surrounded by the extraordinary talent and charisma of the rest of the cast. The amazing presence and skill of actors like Faist and Alvarez eclipsed Elgort’s, making him the weakest of the bunch.

Capturing the magic of the 1961 adaptation, with some needed changes, West Side Story is an absolute must-see. With its beautiful music and choreography, and fresh new take on its iconic characters, Spielberg hit all the right notes with his rendition, and left me singing its soundtrack all the way home.

West Side Story is in theatres now