West Side Story

Screenplay by Tony Kushner based on the play and film with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents

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Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler Credit: Disney+
The Cast of West Side Story Credit: Disney+
Rachel Zegler Credit: Disney+

The team behind the original Broadway production of West Side Story and the movie spin-off was legendary. Leonard Bernstein composed the music, Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics, Arthur Laurents the book and Jerome Robbins created the choreography and direction.

For those of a more theatrical or historical bent, William Shakespeare should also get a mention, since the story drew heavily on Romeo and Juliet.

The new movie version has brought together some equally big hitters. Steven Spielberg directs, using a screenplay written by Tony Kushner, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the New York and Los Angeles Symphony Orchestras.

The connection between the two movies is an almost ageless nonagenarian Rita Moreno, who has graduated from Anita over 60 years ago to Valentina in this incarnation.

One sometimes wonders why people feel the urge to remake legendary movies, with the risk of comparing unfavourably to the originals. In this case, Spielberg has created a big budget extravaganza that is highly entertaining and deserves to sit alongside but certainly not replace an undisputed classic.

Although the period is the same, cinema audiences today expect something harder edged and that is what they get. The violence feels much edgier and the mood grittier, helped by many scenes taking place on and around a building site that is being cleared for the Lincoln Center development.

Here, two gangs joust, with racial overtones much clearer, as the all-American (i.e. second-generation Polish / Irish / Italian etc.) Jets perennially arrange rumbles or fights with the Puerto Rican Sharks.

This is the background against which love at first sight causes untold trouble for Yankee Tony played by rising star Ansel Elgort and Maria, role taken by talented debutante Rachel Zegler surely set for big things (including Snow White) even though she is still only a couple of years out of high school.

Tony gets support from Valentina, who has already crossed the racial divide but also a gang that he has now outgrown. On her side, Maria struggles to overcome the prejudice of David Alvarez as her boxer brother Bernardo, with his girlfriend Anita played by Ariana DeBose stuck in the middle.

The story will be familiar but is still deeply tragic, love briefly exploding before all hell breaks loose in a fashion that will change the lives of all caught in the crossfire.

As one would expect from this director, everything is done on a large, expensive scale but Spielberg retains the spirit of the original while creating something that looks beautiful and sounds even better, benefiting from the expertise of conductor and orchestra and an acting cohort that, unlike those in the original, all sing for themselves, with Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler equally impressive.

Rather than replicating Jerome Robbins’s choreography, Justin Peck has been drafted in, although his style deliberately mimics the master.

Many might have been surprised to discover the master of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, choosing to direct a revival of a musical classic. Even doubters should not be disappointed by a film that will bring a new audience to West Side Story and may even send some of them off to try out the magic of live theatre or, at least, compare and contrast his version with the one starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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