Film Review: The West Side Story – Is It Our Story?

Is it the music, the dance, the storyline, the romance, or the ‘50s urban vibe that connects you to this time-honored musical?  Or is it the timeless Romeo & Juliet impossible love affair that allures? Or maybe the fact that this musical comes alive just as much on stage as it does on screen?

As much as I enjoy all of the above, for me it’s world-class music, like that of one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Leonard Bernstein, that keeps me coming back; “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “Make of Our Hearts One Heart,” “I Just Met A Girl Named Maria” all hail from this masterpiece.

So going to see the new screenplay was a no-brainer.  Especially with the likes of Steven Spielberg’s name topping the credits.  Elsie and A.J. and I went to see it last night.

It did not disappoint.  First of all, it is important to clarify that all the same musical selections were used from the original but it was a different script entirely.  Tony (Ansel Elgort) is tall, Polish, and moves with an endearing casualness.  Anita’s persona (Ariana DeBose) and outlook are far more developed than in the earlier version.  Valentina, the aging storekeeper, played by Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the first screenplay, actually sings “Somewhere” and the dialogue makes her much more cognizant of the significance of the tragedy.

But Spielberg honors the original film by maintaining the state of the art.  The choreography boggles the mind in its complexity; it’s a visual feast of color and flash.  The casting is innovative: Mike Faist’s wiry, lightweight body would not have been my first choice for a bully, until I watched him con, trick, and manipulate his way around town with aplomb.  And Rachel Zegler makes for a playful, fun-loving Maria, more spunky and less distant than Natalie Wood.  The set design certainly delivers as well.  Spielberg also takes full advantage of his cinematic genius, from the clever use of sunlight to a myriad of camera angles to enhance the mood.

Don’t be caught off guard, though.  It is, after all, a tragedy.  The ending is (spoiler-alert!) . . . sad.  Very sad.  And when it concludes we remember that whether it’s Shakespeare or Arthur Laurents, this story is and always has been a social commentary.  And we are in denial if we think that the Civil Rights Movement resolved the issues it brings to the surface.  In fact, it continues to speak to us on many levels.

On the most basic level, it reminds us that after decades of increased police presence, welfare programs, social services, school reform, and job training, we have still not turned our inner cities around.  We are sending tourists into outer space but we can’t honestly tell a teenager from the hood that he has a good chance of heading out of poverty!  The scathing critique of ‘the system’ so creatively portrayed by the Jets while being held in the precinct office in the song “Gee Officer Krupke” effectively spells out why.  We could if we wanted to.  We have the means.  But it’s not a priority.  Shame on us.

But on a broader scale, it demonstrates the difficulty of reconciliation across racial, ideological, political or other barriers when camaraderie, loyalty, and cultural bonds are at play.  Whether you’re an Alt-Right conservative or a flaming liberal, when you’ve been wronged and the person who wronged you looks, talks, thinks, and acts like the members of a certain group, it is difficult not to hate or at least resent folks from that group.  Spending quality time with the ‘other’ is risky, takes patience, and is fraught with pitfalls of misunderstanding.  Small victories can easily be subsumed by larger, more powerful forces at play in the community.  Justice and peace are arduous pursuits and don’t always bear positive results.

And third, it is hard to ignore the global connotations of two tribes stuck on one piece of turf fighting for survival while their entire eco-system is scheduled for demolition.  Sound familiar?  Whether it’s a city block or the planet we call earth, it makes little sense to be at odds with each other when we share the same plight.  And yet, the prospect of war with another country is here again!

While this musical, in both screenplays, has consistently doled out a more-than-adequate dose of reality – for many of us, maybe more than we were bargaining for – it is, on the other hand, thin on hope.  The poignant lines “We’ll find a new way of living, We’ll find there’s a way of forgiving . . . somewhere” are prescient, as if to say, important as it may be to find, you won’t find that in this musical!  Well, to its credit, reality is a good place to start.  Now, let’s find hope too – somewhere!

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