West Side Story is one of the most popular musicals of all time. Conceived by Jerome Robbins with music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by a then relatively new Stephen Sondheim, and a musical book by Arthur Laurents, the story is a modern reimagining of William Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet, set in the upper West Side of New York in the 1950s with a conflict between two rival street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.
The musical opened on Broadway in 1957 and was eventually adapted into the iconic 1961 film with Robbins co-directing alongside Robert Wise. The film starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Marano, Russ Tamblyn, and George Chakiris. The film was a box office hit, becoming the highest-grossing film in 1961 and was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning all but one of them and walking away with the Best Picture win that year. It is often regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time and is a classic, so remaking it was always a daunting task.
The one filmmaker who could get away with remaking a timeless classic is Steven Spielberg, often regarded as one of the greatest directors ever. In 2021, after being delayed a whole year due to the COVID-19 pandemic Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story opened in theaters. The film starred Rachael Ziegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, and David Alvarez. While the film was not the same box office sensation as the original and was considered a bomb, it received rave reviews from critics and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning Best Supporting Actress for Ariana DeBose in the same role that Rita Moreno won for.
Both versions of West Side Story serve as an interesting exploration of how various creative decisions can alter, change and sometimes keep similar the same story. How does a movie made in 2021 by one of the greatest living filmmakers, who has been making films for six decades, compare to one of the most iconic films of all time, and how do the various stylistic choice inform this story of two young lovers doomed to tragedy.
Casting Decisions of West Side Story
One of the biggest differences between the 1961 West Side Story and Steven Spielberg’s recent remake is the casting, more specifically, the casting process. In the original film, actor Rita Moreno was the sole Puerto Rican performer in the cast, and even still her skin was darkened, like her white co-stars who were cast to play Puerto Ricans, and was told to put on a thicker accent. For the 2021 remake, Spielberg cast the Sharks with all Latino performers to give a greater emphasis on authenticity. Spielberg allows the Puerto Rican characters to shift from English to Spanish but opts out of subtitles, allowing them to exist as they are without the need for explanation.
This also becomes a clever bit of characterization, as it ties into Anita’s desire to further integrate into America by reminding both Bernardo and Maria to speak English, laying the groundwork for her big expression of the American dream in the song ‘America’ and how tragic her disdain for the country will be following her assault.
This focus on authentic representation extends further out into other creative avenues in the film. 2021’s West Side Story’s first musical number is not one of the film’s signature songs but also instead the ‘La Borinqueña,’ the national anthem of Puerto Rico, signifying to the audience that this story as much as it is about Tony and Maria will equally explore the Jets and the Sharks and their motivations.
Rita Moreno Jumps From Original West Side Story to Remake
Rita Moreno portrayed Anita in the original West Side Story and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. As Marino was arguably the most famous cast member from the original, bringing her back for the remake seemed like a must. Yet this was no mere cameo, but instead, a new character that alters many aspects of the original story.
In the remake, she is cast as Valentina, the shop owner replacing Doc in the original (here, Doc is Valentina’s husband who passed away). She is a Puerto Rican who married a white man and serves as an inspiration to Tony that his and Maria’s love can work. Yet she is also torn between two sides, her Puerto Rican heritage and her close proximity to the Jets as she has been a nurturing figure to many of them in their youth. They don’t have an issue with Valentina because they’ve known her their own lives, highlighting how petty their grudge with them all is.
Moreno is also given the song ‘Somewhere,’ which is originally sung by Tony, with Spielberg’s version switching the song to Valentina, who sings it to her deceased husband Doc. Whereas in the original film the song is a hopeful ballad about what Tony and Maria’s future might be, in the remake of the film the song becomes a somber reminder of what has been lost. Happiness is out of reach, signifying the tragic path Tony and Maria will find themselves on.
Focus On Gentrification in West Side Story
Both versions of West Side Story are focused on gentrification, highlighted specifically by the song ‘America’ in both versions, the 1961 original film uses it more as a backdrop to the central unrequited love story between Tony and Maria, with the conflict between the Jets and Sharks meant to be an obvious stand-in for conflict between the Capulets and Montague in Romeo and Juliet. The 2021 remake digs deeper, highlighting the various members of the Jets and Sharks and how their economic situations have led to this conflict.
The remake draws a particular parallel that the Jets themselves are descendants of immigrants like the Puerto Ricans, just not as recent. It makes this explicitly clear when they comment that Puerto Rico is part of America despite not having statehood, making the Jets as much Americans as their white rivals. The two gangs have more in common than are different, and their true enemy is the upper classes who are demolishing their home to make way for the Lincoln Center. Yet the two gangs fight each other because it gives them a sense of control in a world trying to phase them out. For each respective side, they are losing everything so all they have left is their identity, and will do whatever they can to cling onto it even if it is pointless.
Contrasting Styles Reveal a Greater Truth
The original West Side Story was released in 1961, following a wave of big-budget adaptations of stage musicals like The King and I and South Pacific, and it was the success of West Side Story that led to other great stage musical adaptations like Bye Bye Bird, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. Because of this, West Side Story ended up setting a template for the Hollywood movie musicals to come, in how they were shot and designed. The New York of the original West Side Story is a more idealized version, one of heightened reality with bright colors.
The 2021 West Side Story, while vibrantly painting the songs and dance numbers, opts for a more grounded realism. As mentioned earlier this extends from the casting but also to other aesthetic choices. The 2021 remake instead goes for a bleaker more broken-down aesthetic. The colors are worn and washed out, yet still able to pop in key scenes, typically to showcase Tony and Maria’s love for one another. The gang violence is more visceral in the remake, giving both the Jets and the Sharks a sense of danger as opposed to the more choreographed playful nature of the original film which fits its more artificial design choice. The original film is embracing its roots as a stage show, while the remake wants to imagine it as realistically as possible.
These choices both serve to highlight a certain element of the story. The original film’s heightened reality draws the material back to the source of Romeo and Juliet, showcasing this story’s roots and embracing the doomed tragic love story. While the remake’s more grounded style highlights the universal nature of the story, mirroring the prejudice of the time period with the modern reality and showcasing that, for as much as things change, sometimes sadly they remain the same.