Steven Spielberg’s reboot of classic stage musical West Side Story is wowing audiences and has just collected three Golden Globes, but why is a story about gangs in 1950s America proving so appealing to a generation of streamers and TikTokers?
Multi-Academy Award winning director Spielberg is known for directing some of the greatest action movies in history, but the musical West Side Story has always had a place in his heart and he thought it was time for the story and the themes it holds to be shared again – themes as relevant today as 65 years ago.
“After 60 something years, the time has come again because this should be shared generationally,” he told the US’s ABC News.
Love bridges every divide. It’s timeless in the sense that we [are] reminded of that story as often as possible.
The movie itself follows on from the original mega-successful 1957 Broadway musical, as well as the 1961 film adaptation that swept the Oscars, winning 10 Academy Awards.
Here are 10 things you should know about the original West Side Story and the new hit film.
The story takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the warring Capulet and Montague families, but replacing them with street gangs the Jets (whites) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans). Both despise each other for reasons of race and territory. Tony, a former Jet falls in love with Maria the sister of the Sharks gang leader. The story depicts themes of racism, violence and love set in New York in 1950.
2. The Spielberg Connection
Spielberg first heard the original Broadway score of West Side Story when he was 10 years old.
“My parents bought the original broadway cast album for West Side Story and [I] memorised every song and it was my favourite musical my entire life,” he said.
It appealed to him, too, he said because: “Love bridges every divide. It’s timeless in the sense that we [are] reminded of that story as often as possible.”
Spielberg, the highest-grossing director in Hollywood, is known for film classics such as Jaws, the Indiana Jones franchise and ET, however, he has never directed a musical. He took most of his inspiration from the 1957 Broadway show, working with screenwriter Tony Kushner on the script for five years.
3. Original Composers
The opening of the original 1957 production on Broadway, brought together playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer and director Jerome Robbins. Following the success of the Broadway musical Robbins took the story to the big screen and directed the 1961 film starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno.
Sondheim, who contributed to Spielberg’s 2021 film, passed away a month before its release.
4. Timeless Themes
The story was incredibly timely when it was first released in New York in the ’50s. And notions of racism and migration have remained topical, with Spielberg saying: “I actually think it’s more relevant today than it was in ’57.
“Divisions between unlike-minded people is as old as time itself … the story of those racial divides not just territorial divides more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”
Race, a central element of the film, has been a particular touchstone in America in recent years. The deaths of a number of black men at the hands of the police, including George Floyd, sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
And for the past two years both the Golden Globes and Oscars have been engulfed in controversy over their lack of diversity, with the hashtag #GoldenGlobesSoWhite trending in 2020 and 2021. This year the organisers of the Globes attempted to quash criticism by hiring a chief diversity officer and the whole event was held privately, as much it seemed to deflect criticism as for reasons to do with COVID-19.
5. Inclusive Casting
The cast of the 2021 film was by far the most inclusive version with Spielberg ensuring characters were cast authentically. In the original 1961 film, most of the Sharks were not of Puerto Rican descent. Many of the actors were fair and make-up was used to darken their skin, including Puerto Rican actors whose skin was considered too light.
6. Rachel Zegler (Maria)
For a highly extensive auditioning process spanning more than a year, the bar was set high for the cast, particularly the two titular characters. Rachel Zegler was one of 30,000 applicants who auditioned and was cast as Maria at the age of 17 and while still in high school for her film debut. This week her performance won her a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical or Comedy and has garnered her a nomination for a Critics Choice Award. Zegler was widely praised for capturing the innocence and zest of Maria, and for her impressive vocals.
7. Ansel Elgort (Tony)
Ansel Elgort is known in the industry for drama and action films, starring in movies such as The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver. He had never acted in a movie musical before although had a history of performing arts and stage musicals from school age. Elgort excelled in his acting and displayed his singing talent in the solo song Maria.
Other Puerto Rican actors were scouted for roles, including Tony Award winning David Alvarez (Bernardo) and Ariana DeBose (Anita) who won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes.
8. Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno starred as the character of Anita in the original movie version of West Side Story, winning an Oscar for her performance before going on to scoop an Emmy, Tony and Grammy in later years for other roles.
For the 2021 film screenwriter Tony Kushner wrote in a role for Moreno, replacing the character of Doc with Valentina (Doc’s widow) a Puerto Rican woman who married a white American. Her character is a confidante for Tony and can empathise with the struggles of falling in love with a member of a different race.
Her role becomes a mediator between the Jets and the Sharks as someone both groups can turn to. She further intervenes when singing the song Somewhere, which is sung in the original film as a duet between Tony and Maria. Moreno sang the song live and without any studio recording. The multifaceted song about unity has a message that someday there will be a place where people from opposing sides can be safe and accepted together.
Moreno was also an executive producer for the film.
9. The America Sequence
One of the most well-known numbers is the song America, which has been given three different treatments across stage show and the two films.
On stage, the song America is a battle between two Puerto Rican women, one arguing how they wish to go back home to Puerto Rico and the other praising Manhattan.
In the 1961 film, the concept of the song remains, however, it becomes a battle between the Puerto Rican men and women. This scene is well known from the original film on a rooftop in New York.
But Spielberg’s film took this sequence to the streets of New York during the day for a mammoth dance sequence. The style fit Spielberg’s modern use of camera angles and showed the enormity of the production.
10. Different Mediums
Since its Broadway debut, the musical has reached international stages with a number of iterations across different countries. Sydney’s most recent variant was at the Sydney Opera house in 2019. Spielberg’s film included small changes in the sequence of some songs, where some songs were set and were used to have different meanings.
The final scene is the same in both film’s and theatre, the Jets and Sharks carrying Tony’s dead body away in an act of unification with Maria walking behind them.
Currently showing in cinemas nationally.
Main picture courtesy 2oth Century Studios.