extremely deep dive

How West Side Story Reset Itself

Vulture’s theater desk considers Tony Kushner’s song reordering as a deep reenvision that changes the musical’s core qualities. Photo: 20th Century Studios

Steven Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner’s 2021 film West Side Story is a movie in conversation with its own history. Neither a remake of the 1961 film nor a dutiful filming of the Arthur Laurents–Stephen Sondheim–Leonard Bernstein 1957 Broadway musical, it’s actually a deep reenvisioning, a way of resetting by-now familiar material in a way that actually changes some of its core qualities. (The original was sentimental and tragic; the new one, while still lushly beautiful, is clear-eyed and bleak.)

The 1961 movie, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, reordered songs, often placing numbers in frankly weird positions. Spielberg largely restores the original Broadway sequencing, though he also rethinks the logic beneath those numbers, making changes (in casting, in context, in who sings which song) that critique its antecedents and, occasionally, itself. The book too has been radically overhauled: Kushner set aside much of Laurents’s script to rework motivations, reimagine backstory, and revisit the original’s glancing and stereotypical approach to its Puerto Rican characters.

Here, Vulture’s theater desk, Helen Shaw and Jackson McHenry, discuss the 2021 version, how it alters a hugely familiar piece of art, and how and where those changes worked. (It seems wild to say about a show that is more than 60 years old, but spoilers ahead.)

Jackson McHenry: I think the most striking change came with the song “Somewhere,” in what’s basically the second act of the new movie.

There’s a place for us, a time and a place for us

Hold my hand and we’re halfway there

Hold my hand and I’ll take you there

Somehow, someday, somewhere

In the 1961 film version, Tony and María sing “Somewhere” together. (In the stage version, it’s usually sung by a Shark woman who is offstage during a dream ballet as everyone imagines their “place for us,” et cetera.)

It’s sung in the 2021 film by Rita Moreno, playing a new character named Valentina, the wife of Doc, the drug-store proprietor in the original show. In this version, Doc, who’s white, has died, and his widow Valentina is Puerto Rican. You get all the emotional impact of Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar playing Anita in 1962) singing this ballad, but it also brings you into the place of not necessarily two lovers imagining their own future, but Valentina mourning, on a generational level, the missed opportunities for the young people in the movie.

I was both very moved and somewhat conflicted, because I wondered if we were then losing track of the two lovers at that moment. The romance is already so sidelined by the very nature of West Side Story overflowing with more interesting side characters …

Helen Shaw: For me, this 2021 film is as much about the musical West Side Story as it is about the lovers. It’s a film looking back at a film looking back at a musical. I came to think of the distance in time between the composition of the musical and the production of this film as a sort of ghost partner in Rita’s not-a-duet. There’s such a huge space between 1957 and 2021 — and it’s so full of things that should have happened. It’s a duet with absence. Valentina performs the song to the memory of her husband, refuting the possibility that romantic interpersonal love can meaningfully bridge the distance between these warring groups. Ask Valentina: Love will not conquer racism. Valentina and Doc’s romantic story has done nothing to heal this community, so neither will the love story of these two younger people.

It turns “Somewhere” into something that is almost too cynical and too realistic to bear. Sondheim’s lyrics are escapist, but by showing it to us as sung by this woman, sitting in a ruined neighborhood and surrounded by even further human ruin, it says there is no escape on earth from this violence, and there’s only escape in fantasy and music. So, for me, it was incredibly successful, but mainly because I thought it amplified the kind of brokenhearted maturity that I think Kushner and Spielberg were trying to bring back into the musical.

JM: I did keep wishing that there would be a reprise for María of “Somewhere” at the end (instead, she does a bit of “Tonight”). Maybe just because it’s a gorgeous melody and I wanted to hear Rachel Zegler sing it, but also because — and maybe I’m too optimistic — I wanted just that little shred of hope that comes along with it. But speaking of that sociological focus: One song that always bounces between positions in the show is the Jets singing “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,

Ya gotta understand:

It’s just our bringin’ upke

That gets us outta hand.

Our mothers all are junkies,

Our fathers all are drunks.

Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks.

“Officer Krupke” originally came in the second act of the stage version, then the Robbins–Wise movie moved it before the rumble in the first act, switching places with “Cool.” (Sondheim has said he suggested that order of these songs in the 1961 film because it was weird to see the comedy of “Krupke” after the rumble, but he was ambivalent about the result.)

Where it is in the 2021 version feels a bit like Kushner and Spielberg walked up to a chalkboard, cleared their throats, and went, “Okay, before we get to the action, you need to understand this about society.”

HS: Performed in this configuration, in this order, the musical does still tip toward the interests of the Jets. As we learn the “truth” of the Jets in this scene (songs tell the truth), the movie clearly thinks that the Jets are still children. They are playing dress-up, frolicking in an antic way in the empty police station. And the kind of psychic mood of the musical adjusts — we see how immature the Jets are, how innocent they are, even though they’re capable of really horrible actions. (They’re imitating social-worker speak when they say, “Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!” — but they still get to say it.) And the fact that it builds this compassion for the deprived/deprived, I thought, This is so odd that there is no equivalent moment for the Sharks. If you want to see the “truth” of the Sharks’ situation through song, it’s going to have to be through their girlfriends when they sing “America.” That’s why so much of Kushner’s new, thoughtful book has to make up that ground — it’s just not going to come through the songs.

Though, and here I’m catching myself thinking, I felt the way that Spielberg dealt with the opening number was so clever. He has us watch the Jets strutting around the devastated San Juan Hill neighborhood to the Prologue. Sort of the way the 1961 film did, Spielberg’s lens chooses to focus on the community around the Jets, on how destructive and destabilizing the young men’s mischief is. You add that to “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and Spielberg is saying something about what it does to a city to allow some of its violent young men to just — never grow up.

So another huge song that has also sort of slalomed all over the musical historically is the Jets song that you mentioned, “Cool.”

Boy, boy, crazy boy,

Stay loose, boy.

Breeze it, buzz it,

Easy does it,

Turn off the juice, boy.

Whether it is placed before or after the rumble makes a really big dramaturgical difference — the stage version happened before the rumble (the gang leader Riff sings it to his boys to get their heads together). The 1961 film put it after the big fight, so the two gang leaders are already dead. I would say that I don’t think that the placement of “Officer Krupke” does make a huge dramaturgical difference to me, because it is a charm song and not particularly linked to the plot. But “Cool” — boy, where you put “Cool” really matters. So what did you think about them putting it where they did?

JM: What really worked for me about “Cool” is how they brought Tony into it and made it a song about the highly charged Tony–Riff dynamic. There’s a lot of it in dialogue elsewhere, especially the classic “sperm to worm” line, but the movie brings out a specific form of latent attraction and anger between them, especially on Riff’s end — Mike Faist’s performance is very Mercutio. He resents Tony for trying to move on from gang life, for having a romance outside of it, and using that as the premise for this song works very well.

Ansel Elgort, accused of sexual assault which he has denied, has the presence of a guy who’s here because the lacrosse season got canceled, which considering West Side Story’s long high-school-musical history, is about average for a Tony. But anyway, yes, the way the movie stacks up “Gee, Officer Krupke,” then “One Hand, One Heart” [a duet for Tony and María], then “Cool” — that adds up to a lot of Jet psychology in a row, and also feels like a lot of table-setting before we get to the rumble. If we were sitting in a theater watching this song order onstage, I think I would be getting very fidgety before intermission, even if the way Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kamiński literally elevate the “Cool” sequence by setting it in the ruined docks as the boys dance over holes in the construction is sublime.

HS: And, as with everything that they’re doing here, Spielberg keeps the focus on the infrastructure of New York. The reason these kids are in that neighborhood is that their parents and grandparents worked on those docks, and now those docks are gone. So it’s yet another chance for the movie to say, you know, we’re going to show you the road that gets them to this rumble. Because once the rumble happens, it’s true that the musical just takes off into the stratosphere. I watched it behind a person of my, uh, basic demographic, who cried so hard from about an hour into the musical that it was nearly impossible to pay attention to what was happening. And it’s true that once the rumble happens, you had better have made all the sociological points that you’re going to make because from there on in, it’s just pure emotional devastation. It makes sense to me that you would put as much as possible before that turn, so that you can get your licks in against the city of New York and disaster capitalism while you have the chance.

JM: The other song that provides that context about a neighborhood is “America,” which also has to do the work of filling in the Shark perspective. After the 1961 film version modified Anita’s verse to cut some of the most offensive lines (including one infamously inaccurate one about tropical diseases), the new version simply has Ariana DeBose sing the verse in praise of Puerto Rico’s tropical breezes sarcastically. It’s a clever reversal, and it also leads into a number that involves everyone in the community on the street as Anita and Bernardo [David Alvarez] sing their pro-con debate across from each other. It’s a way for the movie to also revive the community of San Juan Hill, soon to be destroyed by Robert Moses’s city planning, so even as you’re awed by DeBose and Alvarez’s incredible dancing, it’s driving this melancholy point home.

HS: Absolutely. What did you think of the new situation for “I Feel Pretty”?

I feel pretty

Oh so pretty

I feel pretty and witty and gay

Instead of María singing it at the bridal shop, she and her Puerto Rican workmates sing it at a department store, as she dances rapturously through white mannequins set in positions that connote wealth and leisure and privilege.

JM: “I Feel Pretty” is one of the most obvious “Hello, we’re here to fix this song” sequences in the movie, though I have to admit I bought the fix. It’s now, as it was originally, back after the rumble, so after things accelerate, we suddenly pull back to see María lost in her reverie about a future we know for sure will not come. Sondheim has said he thinks the lyrics here are too prettified, but I have always liked the artificiality of it — let this girl have her fantasy! — and the movie underlines the fact that it really is fantasy. She’s singing while working as a maid in a department store, surrounded by advertisements for beauty products and clothes aimed at white women, looking at herself in the mirror in some shots that resemble kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley moments. Though I sense that you were not as won over by the cleverness of these tweaks?

HS: Well, I thought it was extremely clever. But I also thought it felt a bit too present that this musical movie is in conversation with its own history. We know from reading Sondheim’s annotated lyrics that he can’t stand that he used the word “witty,” since he feels it’s not a word the character would have chosen, so in Spielberg’s version there’s a sign on a mannequin for “Witty Wear.” You can see the apology there, you know, that sense of “Can we save it?” Intellectually, I think that they do; emotionally, I feel that it might have been a moment that required a more radical excision.

Another huge shift here is obviously the gun and the focus on the gun. In Kushner’s script, there’s a new scene about Riff getting the gun, and the movie always clocks where it is — Riff’s pocket, the floor, Chino’s hand. Many of us have been thinking about Sondheim’s other shows — particularly the recent revival of Assassins, which has an entire “Gun Song,” and it’s interesting to see the Spielberg-Kushner project carry West Side Story closer to the message and mood of Assassins.

JM: At one point, I remember thinking clearly, Is Chino just going to start singing, “It takes a lot of men to make a gun …”? because the movie is just so obsessed with that gun. As soon as it appears, from “Cool” onward, we’re just watching it move from character to character, waiting for it to go off, as Spielberg keeps nudging you like, “Hey, look, this is the thing that’s going to make all this tension we set up snap.” It all builds up to María’s classic “How many bullets are left, Chino?” speech at the end, the bathetic peak of so many high-school productions. Though Kushner modifies some of the dialogue there, maybe just so that you don’t quite flash back to how you saw it done as a kid.

HS: Right, that gun’s the real apple of discord here. Without the gun, it’s not the same story. I think everybody has an apocryphal/secondhand/thirdhand story about a high-school production, where someone forgot the gun. I have a friend who claims she was in one in which they forgot to bring in the gun completely, so poor Chino strangled Tony, and then, in the climactic moment, María cried, “Are there enough fingers left for you, Chino? Are there enough fingers left for me?” I defy that lady sitting in front of me to sob through that.

Anyway! You know, it strikes me that those Jet songs can move around as much as they do because — I don’t want to say that they’re unnecessary, because they’re beautiful things, but they are not hooked deeply into the drama at any specific point. It’s the same as “I Feel Pretty” — you can move it around because it doesn’t already have an integral place in the story.

JM: The movie also adds “La Borinqueña,” the Puerto Rican anthem, sung by the Sharks, to the set of songs at the beginning. It feels like them admitting that there is a lack of songs that actually explore the psychology of the Sharks, especially the male Sharks, but because it’s sung as simply as an anthem, it’s not necessarily providing much more depth to them.

HS: It’s complex — interesting, but complex — that they sing that song first sheltering behind the police, and then at the police. I need to see it again to think about it more carefully. I do, though, think the movie works together so well. I will admit that I did not love the ending (there were some muffled/obscured moments in the staging), but for the most part, I was swept away and impressed. What was your first reaction?

JM: For whatever reason, I was wary going in — because it is a remake, because there are so many flaws in West Side Story, because I’d seen some of the scenes done to death so many times before. But when it’s all buffed and shined and stood up together, man, it really works! And seeing something like “America” done full-out just wows you. There’s the intellectual aspect of “I can see all the little changes Kushner has done to the book to try to realign the story,” but there’s also the emotional aspect of hearing that immense score done by the L.A. Phil, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, that got me at the level of my marrow. I think I have a Pavlovian response where I just start crying when I hear “Somewhere” done with a complete string section.

HS: That’s not one French horn, it’s French horns, plural, people. Yes. There’s so much majesty in it. Gosh, now I’m quoting Assassins again, but if, you know, there is another American national anthem, some of these Leonard Bernstein chords are in the running. When I hear them, there’s this kind of deep-woven, this-is-America string that gets played in me. And this movie plays those sounds, those majestic, beautiful national sounds, below the image of a bunch of violent white teens standing on top of a pile of rubble. I thought, yes, this is it. America in 2021: kings of trash mountain. I think Spielberg and Kushner have not only made something which is a beautiful adaptation, but also something that brings out that deep, scathing, often invisible irony of the original.

JM: There are two touches in connection to the score that hit, respectively, on the movie’s romanticism and irony. The first is that you can hear the opening “There’s a place …” from “Somewhere” hummed by the subway as Tony and María go off to the Cloisters, in the most geeky, Tony Kushner wink at an actual New York phenomenon. That’s the kind of thing that indicates this real love for this piece and sense that it is the New York musical.

But then, there is the fact that it starts with the shot of the plans for the construction of Lincoln Center itself, and the constant reminder that soon, this turf everyone is fighting over will be bulldozed and replaced by concert halls. Concert halls where, eventually, wealthy New Yorkers will go pay to see things like the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story! The film wants you to think about how the musical co-opts these characters’ stories even as it tells them. As with the way that Rita Moreno sings “Somewhere,” it’s quite a despairing and self-critical move.

HS: Yet it also manages to say, “Transit system, we love you.” We may fight it, like anything, but we can still all agree it’s amazing that for only $2.75, you can go anywhere in this great city.

JM: And go to the Cloisters! It does feel like Tony Kushner was like, “Have you guys heard of the Cloisters? You should visit!”

HS: I loved that Tony and María go to the Met’s medieval collection at the Cloisters on their date. I thought that was such a clever choice because you simultaneously have them go somewhere which is a walled garden — the literal meaning of the word paradise — and you get to have a reference to the contemporary connection between medievalism and white supremacy. What would touch this Polish American boy who is looking for reasons to be proud and looking for things that will feel like beauty? A museum full of items that have been carried around the world as part of various European imperial projects! And yet it’s also a place of sublime loveliness, where Kamiński can pour in that backlight. So, again, one of the ways that I thought the movie was so sophisticated — it shifts and turns the musical in its hands, showing it to us in many different ways, even in a single moment.

JM: And! The thing that connects their being Polish and Puerto Rican would of course be Catholicism. The religion doesn’t get commented on directly, but of course lingers with its own colonial history over the whole planet. Again, Tony Kushner wants you to open up your textbooks, kids, and do some reading.

HS: [Sobs.]

How West Side Story Reset Itself