West Side Story – Rebooting A Stalwart Classic

“I believe that great stories should be told over and over again, in part to reflect different perspectives and moments in time into the work,” says Steven Spielberg of his reimagining of the beloved musical West Side Story. “This film is probably the most daunting of my career. ‘West Side Story’ is arguably the greatest score ever written in the theatre, and that’s not lost on any of us,” Steven Spielberg says. “It’s very intimidating to take a masterpiece and make it through different eyes and different sensibilities without compromising the integrity of what is generally considered the greatest music ever written for the theatre. “

“In the theatre, West Side Story has been performed all over the world, from high schools to community theatres to Broadway revivals. Part of its power is its ability to be restaged and reimagined,” says Spielberg, who directs West Side Story from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, telling the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City.

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Created by four undisputed geniuses, director and choreographer Jerome  Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents, it is more than just a classic film and a historic, seminal Broadway production

It’s an American cultural symbol, beloved by a wide international public; since it premiered on Broadway September 26, 1957, at the Winter Garden Theater,  and has been continuously revived both professionally and in amateur productions in countries throughout the world.

West Side Story has been adapted for the screen from the original 1957 Broadway show. Original choreography by Jerome Robbins, based on the stage play, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, play conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Leonard Bernstein.

“Those four guys [Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim] created a masterwork for the theater,” Spielberg says. “It redefined Broadway musicals, it was the first of its kind, utterly original, and no one can capture that kind of lightning-in-a-bottle twice. We understood that, but while we worked to honour this masterwork, to live up to its demands, we also hoped to try to find our way into the energy it took to make something that new, that fresh. ‘West Side Story’ is both incredibly assured, and also incredibly young. And also, it’s deeply true – about love and life and death. I wanted everyone on the creative team to feel part of bringing the profound and beautiful truths of this story to contemporary audiences.”

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“You have to demand of yourself, over and over again, justification for treading on what feels like sacred ground. We all did that. The riskiness of this enterprise was not lost on any of us. But everyone involved entered this project with tremendous love and respect, bordering on reverence, for the show and obviously for its legendary creators. But we also knew we had to make a movie for our times and make it with a contemporary understanding and with contemporary values that we subscribe to,” says Spielberg.

Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“What is so wonderful about this story is that no matter how much the world around us changes, the lessons and insights it offers us do not. It’s a story that has captivated audiences for decades because it is not just a love story, but also a culturally significant work with a central premise – that love transcends prejudice and intolerance – that hasn’t lost its relevance over time. West Side Story means so much to so many, and I’m thrilled to have this chance to give it new life and share it with a new audience.”

A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The word that Spielberg was interested in remaking the film had been circulating in Hollywood and on Broadway for several years, as it was widely understood how much the director loved the property

“My mother played the piano, and music was a great love of both my parents,” Spielberg says.

“My sisters and I grew up listening to my mom’s repertoire: Schuman, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Shostakovich. I think it was her love of music, combined with my insatiable appetite to understand everything about movies and movie making, that led me to start collecting motion picture soundtrack albums when I was young, around ten or eleven years old. I’m not sure who got the soundtrack album for ‘West Side Story,’ or if my parents had already bought the Broadway cast album before the film was released, but I know I loved it the first time I listened to it. “As a kid, I could sing every one of its songs by heart – and I did sing them, at dinner, till I wore out the patience of everybody in my family. The score feels like it’s always been part of my DNA. I didn’t know how, exactly, but it’s always seemed inevitable to me that eventually, I’d find some way to work on ‘West Side Story.’”

At the same time that it was becoming clear that Spielberg was seriously interested in directing a new adaptation of the film, Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (Rent, In the Heights) was also eager to produce a new film version. When McCollum met the filmmaker on the set of the NBC television series Smash – which Spielberg executive produced – McCollum broached the subject of the film.

At that point Spielberg’s desire to reimagine West Side Story had only increased; he had already discussed collaborating with one of his long-time collaborators, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Tony Kushner, to write the screenplay. Kushner had written the scripts for two of Spielberg – Munich and Lincoln. The involvement of Kushner only added to the buzz.

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner

“Arthur always said we didn’t need someone who understands stage musicals to make another version. We really needed a genius of film,” says David Saint, the executor of Arthur Laurents’ estate as well as associate director of the 2009 Broadway production.. “Arthur added, ‘I want a screenwriter who will respect the essence of what I wrote, not the particulars. He’ll recreate the cake, not the frosting.’ So, when we heard there was a possibility that Steven Spielberg was interested, I went, well, check that off. That’s a cinematic genius. And that Tony Kushner – another genius whom Arthur loved – would be writing the screenplay! Then several years later when I met with Steven Spielberg to discuss the film, I was knocked  out by him.”

“I was obsessed with the original cast album of ‘West Side Story,’” Kushner says. “I was only four when the film came out, so I’m not sure when I first saw it, probably in college. It’s a great film, immensely influential, and I loved it a lot. I saw it on stage for the first time in Arthur Laurents’ revival. There’s no other musical quite like it, it’s inarguably among the best ever written. West Side Story redefined the form as much as Rogers and Hammerstein had redefined it a generation before.”

“I knew that Steven’s mother was a pianist, and he’d played the clarinet since he was a kid, and I knew he loved musicals. After we made ‘Lincoln,’ he told me that he wanted to make a film of ‘West Side Story,’ and he asked me to do the screenplay. I was really intrigued by his interest in taking it on, amazed as I often am by his chutzpah, his appetite for risk.”

David Alvarez as Bernardo Vasquez in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“I was moved by how many of our current struggles Steven felt could be explored in this 60-year-old masterpiece – I guess moved and troubled, in a good way, because the racism, xenophobia, the legacies of colonialism, the effects of poverty, the evils that catalyzed the creation of the musical, are still very much with us. Steven felt the time was right to take a new look at ‘West Side Story,’ and he’s always been remarkably attuned to the zeitgeist. As we talked, we both came to believe that, proceeding from our  shared love and respect for this musical, we could find new and exciting things to try, new ways of bringing this story and this score to the screen.”

Faithful to Laurents’ original libretto, and with the blessings of David Saint, the Leonard Bernstein estate, the Robbins estate and Stephen Sondheim, Kushner dug deep, not only into the history of the destruction of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill, but also into how it would affect the characters in “West Side Story.”

In his retelling, Kushner portrays each character in the story as multi-dimensional, with individual backstories that motivate their actions.

Kushner says, “The story is both big and political, yet at its heart, it’s as private and personal as can be, two young people who fall fiercely in love; but the love that blossoms between them is murdered by the big political world surrounding them. The story is a warning: racism and nativism and poverty are democracy’s antitheses and if not resisted and rejected, they will atomize the bonds that hold us together as a society. Love, as they say, is the answer, love can transform the world, it can transform malevolent reality, but love doesn’t conquer all, or at least not all threats in the immediate moment. In a context of hatred, love is in danger. And that is tragic, that’s the tragedy of ‘West Side Story.’”

Going even further, Spielberg and Kushner reconceived one character altogether – the kindly druggist Doc – transforming him into his widow, a nurturing Puerto Rican woman who befriends young  Tony. From the start, the role was intended for Rita Moreno, who also joined the project as an executive producer.

Rita Moreno as Valentina and Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Spielberg was immensely excited by Kushner’s screenplay. “Tony called me early on and told me that his husband, Mark, had had a great idea: ‘What would you think if Doc is deceased? We still have Doc’s Drugstore, but his widow, a Puerto Rican woman, is the proprietor, and we ask Rita Moreno to play her.’ And I said, ‘What a good idea!’ And that began our conversation with Rita Moreno. Rita got so involved in the production, not just as an actor playing Doc’s  widow, Valentina, but also as our executive producer. She has a completely unique perspective, one that bridges the generations between movies, and makes a living connection between the first film and ours.”

“What we wanted to do was basically reinvent, explore the characters much more deeply, give them reasons for being who they are,” Spielberg says.

Spielberg says, “Tony Kushner has really provided depth and colour and motivation, much more interplay among the characters. In musicals the audience already comes in with a suspension of disbelief because the genre allows it. Here we’re telling a real street story with real street characters. “This is ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but it’s also a very relevant allegory for what’s happening along our borders and for the systems in this country that reject anyone who isn’t white. That’s a big part of our story. The characters say and do things in our ‘West Side Story’ they didn’t say or do on stage or in the 1961 film, and much of that difference came from our determination to explore the story, its historical context, and what the young people of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill were really like – the Sharks and the Jets. The Puerto Rican community that’s involved in ‘West Side Story’ existed at that time mainly between West 64th and West 72nd Streets. There’s a rich and important history of that community which we wanted to incorporate in our version of the musical,” Spielberg says.

(L-R): Mike Faist as Riff, Ansel Elgort as Tony and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Justin Peck, New York City Ballet’s Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor and one of the foremost choreographers of his generation – who has created more than 35 ballets – was honoured and thrilled to be approached by director Spielberg and his team.

“I had to think long and hard to see if there was room for me to take my own approach to this material. And obviously I found a way to say, ‘yes.’ One of the reasons was because of Tony Kushner’s script, which is both reverent and respectful to the original, while also having its own point of view, its own language and its own distinction. It helped me understand that I could do something similar with the dance and the movement.

Sondheim says, “The whole thing has a real sparkle to it and real energy. And it feels fresh. It’s really first-rate. And movie musicals are hard to do, and this one – Spielberg and Kushner really, really  nailed it.”

Spielberg vision was cohering: a fresh, original, unique perspective on the material

“We needed to discover our voice so that [the new film] would be the same but distinctly different. We didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken, but we did want to justify why we were telling the story again,” Spielberg says.

“Part of that is the cast. On stage the actors have largely not been Hispanic, and in the 1961 movie they’re in their 30s, and many who were portraying the Puerto Ricans are white. I wanted to cast it authentically, to ensure that the actors playing the Shark boys and girls were one hundred percent Latinx, and young.”

“This is one production I never wanted to see end,” Spielberg says. “I had the greatest time making ‘West Side Story.’ The last time I had a great time making a movie to this level was ‘E.T.’ in 1981, and that movie certainly put in my head fatherhood and all sorts of things I never contemplated. Maybe this movie put in my head musicals and things I always have contemplated but until this time had never really had the courage to do.

© 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Ramona Rosales. (Left to Right:) Anybodys (Ezra Menas), Mouthpiece (Ben Cook), Action (Sean Harrison Jones); Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist); Baby John (Patrick Higgins); Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler); Maria’s brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez); and Sharks members Quique (Julius Anthony Rubio), Chago (Ricardo Zayas), Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Braulio (Sebastian Serra) and Pipo (Carlos Sánchez Falú).

“The message of ‘West Side Story’ is what is going to live forever. It is even more timely today than it was in 1957, when they mounted the production on Broadway. Even more timely than it was with the film in ’61–’62. What it’s about is what we are living in this country today – a time of tragic division and distrust, and the waste of human life through violence, racism and xenophobia. And even though the story is a tragedy, like all great tragedies, including ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘West Side Story’ suggests that hope can be born amid devastation and despair, and thanks to Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s score, there’s a feeling that despite all the sorrow and ugliness, love transcends. So don’t ever give up! That’s why I wanted to tell this story right now. It is even more about now than it was about then.”

Spielberg spoke to his cast and crew, and later in a post online, seeming to address the world at large.

“On every day of the past four years during which we’ve been preparing, casting, imagining ‘West Side Story,’ I, and my team, cast and crew have been walking in the footsteps of four giants: Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim. For the light they’d shed on the world, for Stephen Sondheim’s insight, guidance and support, and for the openhearted support of the Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins estates, I owe them more than I can possibly express.

Mike Faist as Riff in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Spielberg wanted to make clear in the film the context and landscape in which these rival gangs endured

“The same wrecking ball was obliterating the turf of each faction, entire neighbourhoods being torn down, populations being displaced. All of these kids – Jets and Sharks – were subjected to that upheaval. These kids are fighting for territory that’s disappearing before their eyes.”

This was an issue the filmmakers would emphasize in their new version, even if, as Spielberg notes, it only increased the enmity between the gangs. Kushner, on the same page, dove into the project with immense enthusiasm, conducting research into the background of the story, especially the destruction of an entire section of the Upper West Side.

The action of the new film occurs in the summer of 1957 on the streets of adjoining Upper West Side neighbourhoods, Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill. Together, the neighbourhoods encompass the area west of Broadway from West 60th Street to West 70th Street to the very edge of the city at the Hudson River.

A scene from 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

In the early 1950s, Robert Moses – the New York City Commissioner for Public Works – razed the entire stretch of land for the construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Fordham University, among other projects. At the time, Lincoln Square was populated by the descendants of people who had immigrated to the U.S. during the 19th Century, mostly from Europe. The residents of San Juan Hill were, mostly,

Puerto Ricans who were part of the mass migration from the territory to New York in the wake of World War II. The destruction of the neighbourhoods drove most of the area’s inhabitants from their homes. For the most part, the city relocated descendants of the early immigrants from Europe, as well as the recent Hispanic arrivals, elsewhere.

The displacement of these populations and its impact on the neighbourhoods form a crucial element to Kushner’s screenplay. He describes the area at the start of the film as “a vast wasteland of rubble, demolished and partially demolished tenements, crisscrossed by streets, all the way to the Hudson River.”

Mike Faist as Riff and Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

© 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.