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West Side Story: A Musical Theatre Nerd Roundtable

It’s not that our site hasn’t covered the new Spielberg West Side Story thoroughly and well as a film, because we have. But as one of our resident musical theatre nerds, I thought it would be fun to sit down with a couple of our other MT nerds and dig into it from that perspective, which can be a vastly different one. Alex Boruff, Clay Dockery and I all have different theatre backgrounds, but we all loved Spielberg’s take on West Side Story and had a great time talking about why.

Bernardo and the Sharks jump high in the air during a dance number

Cat: I’ve seen the original film a handful of times, but my real West Side Story history is with the stage version. I’ve been in it twice—Anybodys the first time, Anita the second—and I’ve seen a dozen productions. So I know the stage production like the back of my hand. It was one of the things I was looking forward to most about the new film—I am huge fan of Tony Kushner, and since I know every word of the original script, I would recognize all the changes, no matter how subtle. And they were not subtle! Holy overhaul, Batman!

Clay: My closest West Side Story associations are with the original film. Like so much else in musical theatre, I came to the story later (the entire genre was actively banned in my childhood) but my personal tastes drew me to the film, and it never disappointed. Despite the romantic plot, which is not my thing, and the pretty off feeling (for several reasons) of Beymer and Wood as the leads, the movie has an undeniable quality. I’ve seen several versions of the stage show, but I always think of it as a cinematic story—the Jets and the Sharks dancing the fantastic Jerome Robbins choreography on the barren streets of early 60s New York.

Alex: I’m also mostly familiar with West Side Story through the 1961 film, which I watched a lot as a teenager. It feels like a cinematic story to me too, and I think the original film took the first steps to realizing it as such, but looking back, they also feel like just that: first steps. Spielberg and Kushner’s adaptation seems like an evolution from there, a more complete version of the source material, no longer bound by live theatre conventions. The two-act structure informed the order of scenes and songs in the stage version, which has changed progressively over the course of the two film versions to better suit the pacing of a movie. Pushing the rumble much closer to the end of the movie and making more of the runtime about build-up was a particularly smart decision, I think. I also love that the streets aren’t so barren this time—there’s extras! We get to actually see how disruptive the gang war is to other people’s lives. And not to mention we actually get a specific location on where in Manhattan the story’s set. It feels much more real in the ways it needs to.

Cat: First impressions—thank god, a bunch of age-appropriate Jets! Deflated somewhat when I saw the Sharks, who all looked like adults. And as the movie went on, this was reinforced—the Jets were street punks, while the Sharks were grown adults, with jobs. Maria’s parents, though never seen in the stage production, exist, and not so here. And if the Sharks are grown adults, shouldn’t they know better than to get sucked into gang bullshit? Clearly, Bernardo wants that for Chino. I enjoyed the idea of making Chino sympathetic, by the way. Of course, Josh Andrés Rivera looks a lot like Josh Gad, and once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it, and it made me giggle a couple of times where I probably wasn’t supposed to—that happens to me a lot.

Clay: I try not to form impressions of films before I actually see them, with very mixed success. For the Spielberg West Side Story, this meant initially that I was very against it; it just didn’t (and in some ways still doesn’t) feel like a movie that was itching to be remade. But then I started to read about the way Spielberg and Kushner were working to make strides in the representation and was pulled in. With the emphasis on the Sharks being given real characters and the fact that several people in communities of color that I know and respect had been a part of the cast and crew, it started to feel more vital. Once I actually saw it, I must say Rachel Zegler was an enormous improvement as Maria, but I was actually surprised at how much I loved what they had done, and especially by Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, and Rita Moreno. 

Riff and the Jets gather in the street

Cat: Can we just talk about Riff? First of all, Mike Faist is amazeballs. The parade of former Billy Elliots in this movie is only exceeded by the number of guys who have done tours in various productions of Newsies. Anyway, this was such a departure from the Riff we know, and I loved it. It took him back to his Shakespeare roots. Riff may originally have been the calming influence in the Jets, but Mercutio was Romeo’s hotheaded friend who got into duels. Faist’s Riff was also the guy who never let the audience forget that, just because you were white, didn’t mean you weren’t treated like dirt, whether the Sharks recognised that or not. These Jets were the dregs of society, like Riff’s father before him. That said, these Jets were much darker than I usually like my Jets. I will preface this by saying that Team Spielberg made a choice and they made it work, but I’ve never thought the Jets (or the Sharks, for that matter) should be a bunch of hardened criminals and rapists. I think these are a bunch of kids playing at being men, and it gets out of hand, and people die. In the stage version, Riff has a line about how they have always held the neighbourhood with their fists alone. With these Jets, not only did they assume right from the beginning that everyone would be bringing switchblades to the rumble, but Riff was the one who upped the ante by buying a gun.

Clay: Faist’s work as Riff was incredible. The physicality of his performance, the vulnerability, the pain and the trauma; it made the character really come alive for me for one of the first times. His Riff is far edgier, but also has the same soft tender touch that we see from Russ Tamblyn in the original too, particularly with Tony. The one part of the film I was iffy on was Ansel Elgort’s Tony, but when he and Faist perform the balletic pageant over the gun in  “Cool,” it is an amazing rendition, and truly an amazingly effective scene.

Alex: Elgort is also in the unenviable position of being surrounded by such world-class performances. I agree 100% on Faist; he’s absolutely amazing to watch and I love the new scary intensity this version brought to Riff. I was wondering at first how they were playing that in relation to the other Jets, but looking back, giving Tony the new backstory of going to jail for beating someone nearly to death really says it all. These Jets are all living very much on the edge. I also think that sort of captures the balance of the Jets and the Sharks here as well; the Sharks may be functionally adults, but the Jets are so intense and belligerent in this version that they can’t simply be ignored. As migrants and outsiders, the Sharks are already in a position where they’re ready to fight to defend their livelihoods, and the Jets aren’t just some punks, they’re kids from extremely dire living situations who’ve gone practically feral. They’re dangerous, and they can’t be ignored.

Clay: Alex, I think that is what really struck me about the Jets overall. I have never felt like they were actually unhinged before, but I do here. They are losing everything and they seem to know it, even if they don’t want to show it.

Cat: Speaking of darker, that “rape” scene, or whatever you want to call it. Shudder. I gotta say, I think the original film got this one right. Once again, what they did in this one worked with the choices they made, but to me, the whole thing felt rushed. Right from Anybodys’s warning to Anita to leave (presumably because Anybodys knows damn well what is about to happen—how? From personal experience? From having witnessed that kind of thing before? Just a vibe?), it’s scary, especially with Graziella and Velma in there too. No, there’s no love lost between these two girls and Anita, but they don’t want to see her abused either, and the Jets physically throw their own women out of the store when the girls come to Anita’s defense. The assault itself, I thought, was rushed, and looked too premeditated. In the original film (and most stage versions I have seen), it’s teasing, it’s hostile, they are directing their anger over Riff (who used to be the cool head among them) at Anita, and testosterone and mob mentality take over.

In this, I didn’t see the buildup, because it happened too fast. Most importantly, what this version left out was the moment of remorse afterwards that is there in every other version where the Jets aren’t actual rapists. At least a few of them need to realise what they were just about to do, and they need to FEEL BAD ABOUT IT. And I think it was a mistake to cut the exchange that’s usually there between Doc and (I think) Action—“you make this world lousy.”  “That’s the way we found it.” Okay, so they ARE hardened criminals and rapists, so the remorse isn’t there afterwards, but then I have to call bullshit on them halting their behaviour because one little old lady tells them to, even if she’s Queen Rita. The only reason a bunch of hardass criminals listens to a little old lady is for the reason she gave, that she has known most of them since they were kids—but then that should have made them feel at least a little bad about it. And Anita’s very justified rage afterwards was now not just at the Jets who had attacked her, but it was also at Valentina for being a collaborator. Which I get, because earlier in the show she had defended America, and by shaming Valentina, it is like she is shaming the whole country.

Clay: I’ve gone back and forth about that scene. I always thought it was unquestionably dark from the beginning, but I agree with Cat here; it felt rushed and calculated in a way that would seem to undo some of the positive aspects we are supposed to feel for the characters. I think that the reason for that is that, in the original presentation, the audience is left confused about Anita’s intentions. She seems to swing from anger at Maria for Bernardo’s death, to being on her side, to the scene causing her to switch and take her revenge out on Tony really quickly. Here, with both Anita and Valentina seeing this darkness, her decision to lie about Maria being dead seems to come more naturally in the moment. The Jets characterizations are more stark in the service of that story, which I definitely think hurts the Jets and how we should see them, but it serves what the movie is trying to do pretty well, unfortunately. I also think that DeBose blows the scene and the aftermath of how torn up she is by it out of the water. Everyone talks, rightly, about her singing and dancing, but she, like Rita before her, really seals the deal in the dramatic moments, both here and earlier in the apartment with Maria.

Alex: I’ve always felt that Anita’s arc is one of the very strongest things in the story, and it’s still that way, whatever changes are made along the way. DeBose absolutely knocks it out of the park on every front and was a huge part of the reason I was in tears the entire last half hour of the film. I am very pumped for her winning all the awards. (That said, I was also rooting for Rita Moreno, who’s as fantastic in this movie as she was in the original, and in, y’know, everything. Couldn’t they just both have won the Oscar in a tie? The same role and the same actor winning the same award for two versions of the same movie, that’d be great!)

Cat: Clay, weren’t you the one who told me that you had friends who worked on the film, and huge amounts of backstory went into the gang members, Jets and Sharks alike? Because we didn’t see any of that. It may have been great for them as actors, but the audience never had any idea who these people were as individuals. What makes Diesel different as a human from Action, or A-rab from Baby John? I’m using the Jets as examples because typically we (the audience) get to spend more time with the Jets guys than the Shark guys—we usually know about the Shark girls. The balance of that dynamic, by the way, is why I have always been against the idea of coed “America”. I DO appreciate the updated lyrics, but I’ve never understood why it needed to become a war between the sexes, with the boys saying America sucks and the girls saying America rocks. The Shark boys have all the gang stuff to do, it’s not like the Jet girls do stuff (though Spielberg balanced this out a bit more), and the “America sucks” POV could have easily been presented by Rosalia or any of Anita’s friends.

Anita in the street, surrounded by the Sharks, in the middle of a dance number
Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Alex: Yeah, I wasn’t getting much distinction among the Jets, which might be a thing that becomes clearer with subsequent viewings. The film as a whole is so detailed that I imagine I’ll start noticing a lot of new things the next couple of times I watch it. I never minded battle-of-the-sexes “America,” maybe just because I grew up with the movie, so it just feels like The Way It’s Supposed To Be, but thinking logically, I do absolutely agree with you there.

Clay: You are quite right, Cat, on all of these points. I did mention to you that I discussed some of the character expansions they were trying to do with some of the actors. I know two of the Sharks (a tiny bit—through some friends) and they spoke a lot about working with Spielberg to try to distinguish each character and give them more nuance. I do think Kushner wrote some additional lines for some of them but that wasn’t in the film. The thing I remember liking about this version regarding this is that while I still couldn’t tell you who is who, it did visually seem like each of the Sharks had more personality. And I like that the Jets girls and Sharks guys got more to do, but would have enjoyed the reverse staying true as well. I guess give me the 5 hour long “Dockery version” of the movie with everything back in it. Actually, yes, I will take that.

Cat: Queen Rita—my god. I didn‘t think I had any tears left in my cold, dead, burnt-out-on West Side Story heart, but damned if she didn’t find them. I didn’t miss the “Somewhere” ballet, and Valentina doing the song sitting at the table in her American late husband’s drugstore was simple, elegant, and perfect. And Valentina was a real character, not just a gender-flipped Doc. Honestly, I expected nothing less, trusting Kushner and knowing Rita was one of the executive producers. She added a beautiful facet to the story too; a Latina woman who married an American, and both took crap for it back in the day, and she is still taking crap for it in a lot of ways. And she may want to support Tony and the idea of his new young love, but she also has experience in how difficult a relationship of this kind can be.

Clay: Rita Moreno is a treasure and when she sat down to sing “Somewhere,” it really did break me. I am already a bit of a sucker for the type of continuity-building cross casting that would have her be in the movie, but I don’t think I was prepared for how central and emotionally resonant the role would be. I’ve never identified with the crazy kids in Romeo & Juliet, even back when I was in high school I was just never that “young”. But the type of pain and longing for a better world informed by the years of struggle that Moreno brings to the portrayal of this woman who has dealt with loss and hardship for her whole life? That story is resonant with me. Valentina’s story, Rita’s story, are the ones I care about.

Alex: Cat, when you and I first talked after seeing the movie, you said that Valentina’s line to Tony, “Life matters even more than love,” was an extremely Tony Kushner kind of line, and that’s so true. I like the perspective of it. Almost everyone in West Side Story is so impulsive and emotionally driven, partly because they’re young, and partly because of their circumstances. They have so little control over anything in their lives that they lean full-tilt into whatever feels right, whether that’s love or hate. Valentina knows how wonderful love is; she spent decades with the man she loved, but it was clearly very difficult. She wouldn’t be singing “Somewhere” if she didn’t feel like their happiness together was compromised by their circumstances. She wants Tony and Maria to find love, but she also wants them to live long enough to find that time and place she’s singing about.

Two divided crowds meet at the center of a gymnasium.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

We probably could have gone on longer, because that’s what theatre nerds do when we like something (you should hear us when we hate something). In any case—see Spielberg’s West Side Story, if you haven’t done. From a film standpoint AND a theatre nerd one, he shoots, he scores.

Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

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