West Side Story

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

I usually discourage remakes on the theory that if a movie is bad it does not deserve to be remade, and if it’s good it doesn’t need to be remade.

Robert Wise’s 1961 filmed version of “West Side Story” was good – musically, choreographically, and entertainingly.

Conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents, this Broadway musical was a not-so-thinly-disguised retelling of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

In 1961 “West Side Story” was adapted for the screen, co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise. Starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, the film won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

So why remake it?

Two words. Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of our time.

With a total worldwide box office of $10.5 billion, he is the most commercially successful director of all time. Aside from that, he has won three Academy Awards, a Kennedy Center honor, a Cecil B. DeMille Award, and an AFI Life Achievement Award.

He has directed such box office successes as “Jaws,” “E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the Jurassic Park movies and the Indiana Jones movies.

And he’s made such acclaimed films as “Schindler’s List,” “The Color Purple,” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

Yes, he’s good.

So wouldn’t you want to know his take on this classic movie? What would it have been like if Spielberg had directed “West Side Story” instead of Robbins and Wise?

Now we don’t have to play “What if …” Steven Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story” is now showing in theaters.

Back again are those stand-ins for those star-crossed lovers, Romeo and his prospective girlfriend – Tony and Maria. They are connected to rival New York street gangs, the Jets and Sharks.

But we know this is a thinly disguised story about love crossing racial and ethnic line, a turf war between white and Puerto Rican gangs. Both groups being squeezed by gentrification – “which is to say, part of their tragic folly is they never realize they’re in the same boat.”

For Spielberg’s updated version, Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”) steps into Tony’s sneakers and Rachel Zegler (a newcomer who won the role out of 30,000 competitors) stands on the fire escape balcony to sing “Tonight.”

With a nod to the original version, Rita Moreno has a role (as well as being an executive producer. Three of the Jets from the 1961 film appear as extras. And Andréa Burns, who played Maria in the 1992–1993 European Tour of the musical, has a part.

Spielberg brought in Tony Kushner (Pulitzer Prize-winner for “Angels in America”) to spruce up the screenplay and Justin Peck (Tony Award-winner associated with the New York City Ballet) to choreograph the dance sequences. But it kept the Bernstein music and Sondheim songs.

Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” will have an exclusive 45-day theatrical run, including engagements in Dolby Cinema and IMAX, before going over to streaming video.

How did Spielberg do?

Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 95% ranking. The Critics Consensus: “Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ presents a new look at the classic musical that lives up to its beloved forebear — and in some respects might even surpass it.”

My take is that we see Spielberg at the top of his game. The original film felt very much like a Broadway-to-the-screen adaptation. This version has a much more cinematic feel, like Spielberg is making a movie. It has a big-spirited grandeur, a crackle of excitement that will make your pulse race. Variety calls it “a brash effervescent.”

This is Spielberg’s first musical. It will likely become a classic, overshadowing it predecessor.

Should it have been remade?

You bet … when you can get a master filmmaker like Steven Spielberg to do it.

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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