Birth to Earth. Womb to Tomb. That’s how I feel in my loyalty to the musical genre in general, and my love for West Side Story in particular. And although I can’t count how many times I have seen the 1961 film version (for reference one of DOZENS of films I lost count of after 25+ viewings), the 1961 film competes with the production at the Naval Academy in the late 80s for most memorable, most endearing. I have seen West Side Story in every kind of venue but you can’t forget sitting in the balcony at the climax and a real life baby cries in the audience literally one second before Chino shoots Tony. Nothing can match that timing.
I also have a wide berth for remakes of any kind – especially musicals since the whole point of theatre is to keep putting on productions of the written word – night after night, generation after generation. And so even though I had reservations about the 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story, I also had hope. With any remake, I tend to go in with low expectations so not to disappoint myself, but with others giving it good reviews I started to have hope that it would be good, or at least good enough.
But let me back up a moment. Most of the time it’s the main character(s) that carry a production. That actually was never the case with the 1961 film version. I always like Natalie Wood but she didn’t do the actual singing and while I wished Richard Beymer was in other musicals I could watch, I could have lived with different actors as Tony and Maria (if they could sing and had enough chemistry). Beyner and Wood were good enough but it was the supporting cast… Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris…that I could watch all day long. And the songs. The passion in the songs. So even when my instincts were telling me the main characters in the new film would not be that great, I didn’t care because I would be happy with just adequate as long as everything else had that spark I hope for in any West Side Story production.
The spark wasn’t there. At all. There is potential in Rachel Zegler as Maria (and I am looking forward to her as Snow White) but I saw zero connection with Ansel Elgort, even in the beautiful backdrop of The Cloisters where they partake in their vows. And I wished we had more from Ariana DeBose, but I feel we didn’t come close to seeing her full range as Anita. The actors playing Riff and Bernardo, along with the rest of the Jets and Sharks, were all huge let downs to me. I saw zero chemistry anywhere, in what almost was an amateurish attempt to be in a musical. The Annapolis High School version in the 1990s was better. The one shining light in terms of role and change was Rita Moreno replacing Doc as Valentina.
Yet the failure in the casting was not what has led me to turn this review from a normal Facebook post into a blog post. Spielberg – who yes I love as well – made what some call a racist musical (If you dig deep) even worse. With the exception of the addition of Valentina, the changes to the storyline along with some of the settings were cringeworthy to me. In no particular order, I hated every second of the scene where Riff bought the gun. It was unnecessary and had no relevant dialogue to carry the storyline forward. Which leads me to maybe the biggest draw from the 1961 film, I despised the new twist on “Cool” when Tony took the lead of the song to try to get the gun from Riff. Sorry, but even with “Cool” not even being in my top five musical number, out of all the scenes in the 1961 film, nothing can replace that sensation as Ice takes control in the darkness of the parking garage. And why revert to the Miracle on 34th Street throwback of Gimbels instead of a normal local bridal shop (or Maria’s bedroom) for “I Feel Pretty”. Speaking of which, I wholeheartedly agree with the critics who are accusing the film of increased stereotypes by changing the group in “I Feel Pretty” from garment workers …which were a fixture of the fashion industry at the time…to our stereotypical Hispanic cleaners.
Here is another thing that can be an aha moment for those who pay attention. I praise the fact they changed the character Anybodys from a tomboy to a transgender male. BUT if you are going to do that, pay attention to the whole script. I have always loved “Gee Officer Krupke”, even have it as a downloaded song on my phone. But after today, I am deleting it. The line “My brother wears a dress” after a list of other family problems and right before “Goodness Gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!” is not humorous or appropriate if we are going to fully support the transgender community or others who don’t adhere to gender stereotypes. If the 2021 film of In the Heights can change a line in “96,000” because of a now inappropriate reference, why couldn’t the 2021 West Side Story do it?
Put it all together and there simply was no world full of light, with suns and moons all over the place in this production of West Side Story.