We examine the substantial and small transforms Steven Spielberg made with his West Side Story remake, including where he surpassed the original.

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By David Crow | December 11, 2021 | | Comments count:0
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Photo: 20th Century Studios / United Artists

This write-up has spoilers for both screen versions of West Side Story.

For a lot of of his career, Steven Spielberg has spoken of his desire to make a musical. It turned out to be well worth the wait. Despite harboring severe appointments around a remake of one of the best movie musicals ever made—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story movie from 1961—I was entirely won over by Spielberg’s sparkling and also passionate reimagining of the original 1957 Broadway show. As if by magic, it went back to the Osvehicle winning director some of the irresistible exuberance of youth.

A sweeping and majestic reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, the original West Side Story musical, through music by Leonard Bernstein and also lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was a staple of Spielberg’s childhood, apparently even more so because of the Initial Broadmethod Cast album his mom bought him than the previous movie. Perhaps it’s for that factor one of the biggest living Amerideserve to filmmakers felt he had actually the capacity (or audacity) to remake among the good Amerideserve to musicals for a new generation. And, indeed, with its themes of bigoattempt and xenophobia, patriotism and cultural divides, it’s arguable the product feels even more potent in 2021 than when the previous movie came out 60 years ago.

It’s likewise those facets which aided convince Spielberg’s long-time collaborator, the playwright Tony Kushner, to similarly abandon his initial skepticisms towards a remake—“He’s lost his mind,” Kushner recalled saying after Spielberg initially pitched the project—and substantially retool it for modern-day audiences. And that consists of even more than just white viewers who have the right to turn a blind eye to the original movie’s depiction of Puerto Rihave the right to culture.


Below we have actually attempted to comparison and explore the sometimes subtle, and at various other times drastic, differences in between the 2 films, and also why we think Spielberg’s variation is eventually an advancement on the 1961 film.

The Actual Upper West Side

One of the most significant contrasts in between the ’61 film version of West Side Story and Spielberg’s remake is the titular neighborhood itself. When the original movie came out, it was much less than five years after the Broadway musical opened up at the Winter Garden Theatre in Midtown—and at a time as soon as the Upper West Side was still identified via working and reduced course incomes, and also the crime that came via it. Without a doubt, Bernstein and Arthur Lauleas, the playwbest who created the original book for the stage version of West Side Story, were motivated by stories in the newspaper about what then seemed to be the current phenomenon of gang culture arising among America’s youth. “Kids these days.”

So as soon as Wise rolled cameras on Hollywood’s West Side Story, it felt choose a modern story around a crisis in contemporary teenage society. The movie for this reason starts through a god’s eye watch of a bustling and orderly Midtvery own and also downtown before flying to the implicitly disorderly and also dangerous Upper West Side. These are actual aerial images of the community throughout that time (some of the few in the film’s otherwise mainly backlot-focused sets), and yet probably because the filmmakers didn’t have the benefit of hindsight or the flexibility from worrying about 1960s censors, they couldn’t really visualize the actual seeds that would certainly lead angry young white guys to want to “rumble” with angry young brown males.


Conversely, Spielberg and Kushner attempt to highlight the anxiety and resentment which have the right to fester into hate and racism. West Side Story ’21 also largely depends on backlots, however they look favor a demilitarized zone in post-war Europe as a lot as the even more glistening vision of New York City during the Kennedy years. The initially shot is of a residence that’s broke down, and also the next is of an additional that’s been demolished—the Jets have actually commandeered its bulldozer.

Kushner newly told The New York Times he wanted to frame the story approximately gentrification and financial striving as a lot as intragroup hatred. After all, “San Juan Hill,” the largely Puerto Rihave the right to community mentioned extensively in Kushner’s reimagined West Side Story screenplay, was torn dvery own quickly after the original 1961 movie was made—literally paving the means for the shimmering Lincoln Center complicated, the jewel of modern-day NYC’s a lot of elite (and greatly white) culture.

Kushner’s script also pinpoints exactly how both the Sharks and Jets are around to be left out of this impfinishing paradise. Corey Stoll’s Lt. Schrank is rewritten to be a slightly more rounded character. He expresses thinly veiled racism towards the Sharks, the Puerto Rideserve to gang in the movie, but he likewise mocks the Jets, the mainly white gang of lower income youngsters. He calls them the children of “whites that couldn’t make it.” Both are around to be pumelted out of the city while at least the Puerto Rican functioning class have the right to job-related as doorguys at the sophisticated condominiums that will replace their slums.


It’s a strikingly various context, which provides at leastern a little more expertise for their hatred—although make no mistake, the hate is additionally provided a much more visceral and also uncomfortable quality. Whereas the 1961 movie introduces the Jets and Sharks as almost absurdly insular in their bit rivalry, snapping their fingers on a playground while youngsters at the basketround court watch from a distance puzzled, Spielberg’s West Side Story opens with the Jets committing a hate crime by vandalizing a mural of the Puerto Rihave the right to flag.


We similarly watch how in their escape, the Jets have the right to terrorize and abuse the regional Puerto Rihave the right to businesses that have actually nothing to execute with gang grievances, and are as equally disgusted as the Sharks who respond not through pirouettes yet by placing a nail via the ear of Baby John. But that’s because the Sharks and also Jets have actually a much more brutal dynamic here…

Tony and also the Jets

In the original ’61 film, the Jets are largely presented as, if not the excellent guys, then the basic protagonists of the story. They’re far more emerged than their Puerto Rican counterparts, and also we see the impending “Rumble” mostly from their point-of-check out. When Riff (Russ Tamblyn) sings “When You’re a Jet,” he seems prefer a swell alpha kind of guy who’s being an upappropriate pal to his various other friends and also Tony (Rictough Beymar), the ostensible Romeo of this story who’s sworn off being a Jet.

Conversely, Mike Faist’s Riff in West Side Story (2021) is a charismatic but ultimately toxic difficult situation that appears doomed to a violent end. Faist gives a great performance that’s basic to imagine as compelling once amongst adolescents. But the friendliness in the eyes belies an angry, broken piece deep within. It drives him towards violence versus the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), and also towards trying to drag Tony dvery own via him. Returning to Kushner’s desire to underline the function of financial and also generational desperation in fermenting crime and violence, Riff dismisses the idea of reasoning around adulthood and also, in a brand-new scene wbelow he buys the fateful gun he brings to the Rumble, he’s told by a bartender he looks choose his out-of-the-picture old man.

On the other hand, Ansel Elgort’s Tony reflects promise. It’s why Rita Moreno’s wonderful brand-new character Valentina (more on her in the below sections) tells Tony to stay ameans from Riff. The Jets are heading towards an unavoidable dead-end, and also Tony shows such promise and sensitivity. He’s also a better occurred character in the 2021 movie. In ’61, Beymer’s Tony left the Jets simply bereason he appeared bored via all their joshing around and also wanted to prosper up. He’s all giggles and smiles once he sees Riff later on though, and also talks around just how the rest of the boys have to acquire work prefer he did at Doc’s Drugsave. Be a great member of society, youngsters.

Elgort’s Tony is clinging to his task at Doc’s as his last hope. We learn that this Tony was really the Jets’ muscle, via Elgort’s tall-framework proving valuable in a fight… consisting of the last one he had actually with a gang which caused him beating one more kid half-to-fatality. Tony invested a year in prikid for nearly murdering someone, and also after getting out he’s tried to steer clear of the Jets, of Riff’s toxicity, and generally clung to the just paternal number he has actually in Moreno’s Valentina. Unfavor the ’61 film, this Tony has actually no off-display paleas who Riff fondly talks around. He’s an orphan who’s concealed from the people in shame for the last several years… till the night he meets a girl named María.


María and the Sharks

Perhaps wbelow Spielberg and also Kushner wanted to most surpass the previous West Side Story is in the depiction of María and the life she lives as a migive that came for the seeming promise of America. Tright here are of course considerable homages to the ’61 film in this regard too, from the spreading of Rita Moreno as Valentina to duplicating the white dress and also red belt Natalie Wood wore in the iconic sequence where she meets Tony at a dance.

However before, simply by the basic casting of Colombian-Amerideserve to Rachel Zegler as María, this is obviously going to be taken on with much more respect and thoughtfulness. Indeed, as was prevalent practice in mid-20th century Hollytimber, white stars were asked to wear make-up once playing non-white “ethnic” personalities, as Wood did in the original film. This is not to discredit Wood’s famed performance, which was rather glowing in its very own right. But Zegler eminently provides the part her very own in an even more youthful (she was 18 as soon as she played María) and also multifaceted rotate.

But more than just spreading a Latina actress to play a Latina role, the new West Side Story takes excellent pains to better build the Puerto Rican side of the story. In the brand-new film, Bernardo’s management of the Sharks is rather treated as a misguided requirement as opposed to pure boyish foolishness. The cops are not protecting their shops and businesses from vandalism and hate crimes, and also Bernarcarry out would certainly initially fairly be fighting as an amateur boxer in the local gym. He additionally doesn’t want this type of way of living for his little sister María.

With their mother dead and father still in Puerto Rico in the new film (rather of inexplicably being off-display and also never before mattering in the original movie), Bernarcarry out feels responsibility toward his sister and also is urging her toward a connection via Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera).

In the original film and display, Chino is just a background player—a darker skinned stand-in for the Paris character in Romeo and Juliet. But as played in the brand-new film, he’s introduced as an scholastic and bookish type that despite wanting to be a member of the Sharks is maintained at arm’s length by Bernardo. He sees Chino as among the smartest boys in the community with a future that doesn’t involve violence. Which makes it all the darker once, after Beranrexecute is killed, Chino picks up a gun to kill the white boy who murdered his alpha male idol.

“The gringos will kill you if you shoot among them,” his friends warn. He forlornly replies, “The gringos kill whatever, inevitably.”


But more than the violence, the brand-new West Side Story tries to check out exactly how the Shark characters live. Much of the dialogue in scenes between María, Bernardo, and Anita (Ariana DeBose) are spoken in Spanish, and also never when through a subtitled caption. Firstly, this emphasizes the acting and also Spielberg’s visual storytelling, trusting audiences will certainly understand also what is happening even if many kind of viewers won’t understand the language. It likewise reduces the distance in between the white and Latinx characters in the film, not also othering the latter by insisting they require subtitles to be comprehended.

Amongst them, there is additionally a higher focus on warmth. We’re introduced to this Anita by her providing María her iconic red belt off her own dress, and also being much even more sisterly to Bernardo’s sibling. Of course Moreno’s Anita was among the ideal components of the 1961 movie also, winning Moreno an Oscar (a very first for a Latina woman), yet bit shifts like the belt, or having Anita and also Bernardo comment on María’s future in Spanish, go a lengthy way to arising the household dynamics among the 3 personalities.

Tright here is additionally, of course, Moreno herself who is still present in the brand-new movie and also an executive producer on the film. In a significant change designed to make room for the 90-year-old actress, the Doc character has actually been written out of the film, reveabrought about have actually died of a heart strike some years earlier. Moreno’s Valentina is his widow and heir to the drugkeep. This additionally allows Spielberg and Kushner to develop an initially tertiary function into an extra dynamic existence.

Valentina is genuinely motherly and compassionate about Tony’s future, attempting to steer him ameans from the Sharks, but her role as a Latina character who married a white guy in the time of a much more openly segregated era also causes her to be stuck in No Man’s Land. When the third act tragedies come, Anita—Moreno’s most famed role—calls Moreno’s Valentina a traitor to Puerto Ricans in Spanish.

It adds an uncomfortable context. It likewise offers the film’s varied and rich book of musical numbers to more totally hit their high notes. Mostly.

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Musical Numbers and also Rumbles

As the aspect which folks are likely many interested in comparing once it concerns a musical remake, the musical numbers are the cornerstamong both movies. And frankly, with 2 glaring exceptions, they’re mainly done much much better in the 2021 film.