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'West Side Story' — Can Steven Spielberg bring one of the greatest musicals to life?

Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.
(Image credit: YouTube // 20th Century)

Amid a very unusual Oscar ceremony, Disney/20th Century Studios dropped the very first trailer for the remake of the iconic musical West Side Story. Widely considered to be one of the true masterpieces of American theater, this re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet as a turf war between rival street gangs in 1950s New York City helped to revolutionize the musical medium. Bringing it to the big screen in 2021 is no mean feat, so it makes sense that the man chosen to helm the project was another legend, Steven Spielberg. Multi-award-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner is on script duties, and the cast includes an array of new faces, Broadway stars, and Rita Moreno, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1961 adaptation of the musical. Originally scheduled for Christmas 2020, West Side Story is now set to premiere on December 10, 2021, which will coincide with the 60th anniversary of the release of the first movie.

It's tough to overstate the seismic impact that West Side Story had on the entire concept of the musical when it premiered on Broadway in 1957. Critics hailed it as one of the true stage triumphs of the decade and correctly predicted that it would help to reshape the artform for a new generation. West Side Story was also praised for its grittier story, tackling themes of racism, gang warfare, and urban social upheaval, none of which were necessarily seen as musical-friendly topics. Four years later, the show came to life in a lavishly faithful film adaptation directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, the latter of whom helmed the show on-stage. It became the highest-grossing movie of 1961, won ten Oscars out of eleven nominations, and was celebrated once more by critics as a masterpiece.

That means that Spielberg is following in some mighty footsteps. You can be the most famous director of your generation, a multi-Oscar winner with billions of dollars’ worth of grosses to your name and taking on West Side Story can still be one of the biggest risks of your career. Spielberg has never made a musical before, although films like 1941 and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom have musical moments. It’s kind of a surprise it’s taken him this long to make the plunge given how well-suited his style is for extensive song and dance numbers. Yet West Side Story is not just a musical: it’s a precarious balance of tone and subject matter that many a stage production has failed to nail (including the most recent Broadway revival.) This is a show about racism with multiple murders that features songs like “I Feel Pretty”. It’s an exuberant narrative that nonetheless takes some incredibly dark turns, the likes of which were considered decidedly un-musical-esque in the 1950s. Even the 1961 film, which sticks very closely to the source material, doesn’t entirely pull it off. Can Spielberg?

Remakes of Oscar-winning classics are usually considered sacrilegious but there are many good reasons to redo West Side Story. For one, this is a musical with a heavily Latinx ensemble whose film adaptation featured mostly white actors in brownface. Even Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the cast, was forced to darken her skin to play the role of Anita. This may have been commonplace in Hollywood at the time but there’s an obvious issue with making a movie about racism while utilising one of the most racist tools in entertainment history. Spielberg's cast includes newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, So You Think You Can Dance alum Ariana DeBose as Anita, and David Alvarez as Bernard, to name but three additions to its vast ensemble. This is a good chance to right a cinematic wrong that’s always left a very good movie with an asterisk next to its name.

Moreover, this is a good opportunity to bring back the old-school book musical with epic choreography and a true commitment to the uniqueness of the medium. The modern movie musical has been a mixed bag over the past decade thanks to overtly serious efforts like Les Misérables, Into the Woods, and Cats, all of which seemed embarrassed that they even had to be musicals. They downplayed the specifically theatrical aspects of the material, and they weren’t even particularly cinematic. Getting that balance between movie and stage has caused a lot of great directors to stumble, but if there’s anyone who can navigate that space, it’s Spielberg. The king of the modern blockbuster knows his way around ambitious set-pieces and the dynamic movement of large casts. The moments in the new trailer that sparkle are those shots of the iconic warring dance in the gym, and even in those brief glimpses, Spielberg seems at home.

Still, the trailer doesn’t necessarily seem keen to play up its musical nature. Granted, that may simply be because West Side Story is so well-known that one couldn’t be ignorant of its genre status, but there is a bigger focus on the warring gangs rather than the singing. The December release date means that the film will inevitably be considered an Oscar player, so this may be lining West Side Story up for those prestigious narratives, like its 1961 predecessor. Compare it to the trailer for another upcoming movie musical, Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, which is a vibrant celebration of its grand choreography. One musical seems to be aiming for seriousness while the other is just here for a good time. Will audiences gravitate towards both?

The movie is also dealing with a rather conspicuous elephant in the room. In June 2020, a woman took to social media to accuse Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony in West Side Story, of sexually assaulting her in 2014 when she was 17 and he was 20. Elgort denied the accusation, claiming that the relationship was "brief, legal and entirely consensual." He's laid low since then, and not much has arisen from this story. No charges have been pressed as of the writing of this piece. Still, this isn't something that can or should be swept under the rug by Disney, especially if they want to press forward with celebrating West Side Story as an important movie and possible Oscar darling. The trailer downplays Elgort as much as it can while still emphasizing how central the romance between Tony and Maria is to the narrative. This is a PR issue that the studio will have to confront at some point in time before West Side Story is presented to audiences and critics alike. As always, people matter more than movies, even great ones.

West Side Story opens in theaters on December 10, 2021.