This article contains spoilers for both screen versions of West Side Story.
For most of his career, Steven Spielberg has spoken of his desire to make a musical. It turned out to be well worth the wait. Despite harboring serious reservations about a remake of one of the finest movie musicals ever made—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story movie from 1961—I was entirely won over by Spielberg’s sparkling and passionate reimagining of the original 1957 Broadway show. As if by magic, it returned to the Oscar winning director some of the irresistible exuberance of youth.
A sweeping and majestic reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, the original West Side Story musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was a staple of Spielberg’s childhood, reportedly more so due to the Original Broadway Cast album his mother bought him than the previous movie. Perhaps it’s for that reason one of the greatest living American filmmakers felt he had the ability (or audacity) to remake one of the great American musicals for a new generation. And, indeed, with its themes of bigotry and xenophobia, patriotism and cultural divides, it’s arguable the material feels more potent in 2021 than when the previous movie came out 60 years ago.
It’s also those elements which helped convince Spielberg’s long-time collaborator, the playwright Tony Kushner, to similarly abandon his initial skepticisms toward a remake—“He’s lost his mind,” Kushner recalled saying after Spielberg first pitched the project—and drastically retool it for modern audiences. And that includes more than just white viewers who can turn a blind eye to the original movie’s depiction of Puerto Rican culture.
Below we have attempted to contrast and explore the sometimes subtle, and at other times drastic, differences between the two films, and why we think Spielberg’s version is ultimately an improvement on the 1961 film.
The Actual Upper West Side
One of the most significant contrasts between the ’61 film version of West Side Story and Spielberg’s remake is the titular neighborhood itself. When the original movie came out, it was less than five years after the Broadway musical opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in Midtown—and at a time when the Upper West Side was still synonymous with working and lower class incomes, and the crime that came with it. Indeed, Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, the playwright who wrote the original book for the stage version of West Side Story, were inspired by stories in the newspaper about what then seemed to be the recent phenomenon of gang culture emerging among America’s youth. “Kids these days.”
So when Wise rolled cameras on Hollywood’s West Side Story, it felt like a contemporary story about a crisis in modern teenage culture. The movie thus begins with a god’s eye view of a bustling and orderly Midtown and downtown before flying to the implicitly disorderly and dangerous Upper West Side. These are actual aerial images of the neighborhood during that time (some of the few in the film’s otherwise largely backlot-focused sets), and yet perhaps because the filmmakers didn’t have the benefit of hindsight or the freedom from worrying about 1960s censors, they couldn’t really visualize the actual seeds that would lead angry young white men to want to “rumble” with angry young brown men.
Conversely, Spielberg and Kushner attempt to highlight the anxiety and resentment which can fester into hate and racism. West Side Story ’21 also largely relies on backlots, however they look like a demilitarized zone in post-war Europe as much as the more glistening vision of New York City during the Kennedy years. The first shot is of a house that’s collapsed, and the next is of another that’s been demolished—the Jets have commandeered its bulldozer.
Kushner recently told The New York Times he wanted to frame the story around gentrification and economic striving as much as intragroup hatred. After all, “San Juan Hill,” the largely Puerto Rican neighborhood mentioned extensively in Kushner’s reimagined West Side Story screenplay, was torn down shortly after the original 1961 movie was made—literally paving the way for the shimmering Lincoln Center complex, the jewel of modern NYC’s most elite (and mostly white) culture.
Kushner’s script also pinpoints how both the Sharks and Jets are about to be left out of this impending paradise. Corey Stoll’s Lt. Schrank is rewritten to be a slightly more rounded character. He expresses thinly veiled racism toward the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang in the movie, but he also mocks the Jets, the largely white gang of lower income kids. He calls them the children of “whites who couldn’t make it.” Both are about to be pushed out of the city while at least the Puerto Rican working class can work as doormen at the fancy condominiums that will replace their slums.
It’s a strikingly different context, which provides at least a little more understanding for their hatred—although make no mistake, the hate is also given a more visceral and uncomfortable quality. Whereas the 1961 movie introduces the Jets and Sharks as almost absurdly insular in their little rivalry, snapping their fingers on a playground while kids at the basketball court watch from a distance confused, Spielberg’s West Side Story opens with the Jets committing a hate crime by vandalizing a mural of the Puerto Rican flag.
We similarly see how in their escape, the Jets can terrorize and abuse the local Puerto Rican businesses who have nothing to do with gang grievances, and are as equally disgusted as the Sharks who respond not with pirouettes but by putting a nail through the ear of Baby John. But that’s because the Sharks and Jets have a much more brutal dynamic here…
Tony and the Jets
In the original ’61 film, the Jets are largely presented as, if not the good guys, then the general protagonists of the story. They’re far more developed than their Puerto Rican counterparts, and we see the impending “Rumble” largely from their point-of-view. When Riff (Russ Tamblyn) sings “When You’re a Jet,” he seems like a swell alpha kind of guy who’s being an upright pal to his other friends and Tony (Richard Beymar), the ostensible Romeo of this story who’s sworn off being a Jet.
Conversely, Mike Faist’s Riff in West Side Story (2021) is a charismatic but ultimately toxic hard case who appears doomed to a violent end. Faist gives a terrific performance that’s easy to imagine as compelling when amongst teenagers. But the friendliness in the eyes belies an angry, broken piece deep within. It drives him toward violence against the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), and toward trying to drag Tony down with him. Returning to Kushner’s desire to underline the role of economic and generational desperation in fermenting crime and violence, Riff dismisses the idea of thinking about adulthood and, in a new scene where he buys the fateful gun he brings to the Rumble, he’s told by a bartender he looks like his out-of-the-picture old man.
Meanwhile, Ansel Elgort’s Tony shows promise. It’s why Rita Moreno’s wonderful new character Valentina (more on her in the below sections) tells Tony to stay away from Riff. The Jets are heading toward an inevitable dead-end, and Tony shows such promise and sensitivity. He’s also a much better developed character in the 2021 movie. In ’61, Beymer’s Tony left the Jets simply because he seemed bored with all their joshing around and wanted to grow up. He’s all giggles and smiles when he sees Riff later though, and talks about how the rest of the boys should get jobs like he did at Doc’s Drugstore. Be a good member of society, kids.
Elgort’s Tony is clinging to his job at Doc’s as his last hope. We learn that this Tony was really the Jets’ muscle, with Elgort’s tall-frame proving useful in a fight… including the last one he had with a gang which led to him beating another kid half-to-death. Tony spent a year in prison for almost murdering someone, and after getting out he’s tried to steer clear of the Jets, of Riff’s toxicity, and generally clung to the only paternal figure he has in Moreno’s Valentina. Unlike the ’61 film, this Tony has no off-screen parents who Riff fondly talks about. He’s an orphan who’s hidden from the world in shame for the last several years… until the night he meets a girl named María.
María and the Sharks
Perhaps where Spielberg and Kushner wanted to most surpass the previous West Side Story is in the depiction of María and the life she lives as a migrant who came for the seeming promise of America. There are of course significant homages to the ’61 film in this regard too, from the casting of Rita Moreno as Valentina to duplicating the white dress and red belt Natalie Wood wore in the iconic sequence where she meets Tony at a dance.
However, just by the simple casting of Colombian-American Rachel Zegler as María, this is obviously going to be handled with much more respect and thoughtfulness. Indeed, as was common custom in mid-20th century Hollywood, white stars were asked to wear make-up when playing non-white “ethnic” characters, as Wood did in the original film. This is not to discredit Wood’s famous performance, which was quite glowing in its own right. But Zegler eminently makes the part her own in an even more youthful (she was 18 when she played María) and multifaceted turn.
But more than just casting a Latina actress to play a Latina role, the new West Side Story takes great pains to better develop the Puerto Rican side of the story. In the new film, Bernardo’s leadership of the Sharks is somewhat treated as a misguided necessity as opposed to pure boyish foolishness. The cops are not protecting their shops and businesses from vandalism and hate crimes, and Bernardo would initially rather be fighting as an amateur boxer in the local gym. He also doesn’t want this kind of lifestyle for his little sister María.
With their mother dead and father still in Puerto Rico in the new film (instead of inexplicably being off-screen and never mattering in the original movie), Bernardo feels responsibility toward his sister and is urging her toward a relationship with Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera).
In the original film and show, Chino is just a background player—a darker skinned stand-in for the Paris character in Romeo and Juliet. But as played in the new film, he’s introduced as an academic and bookish type who despite wanting to be a member of the Sharks is kept at arm’s length by Bernardo. He sees Chino as one of the smartest boys in the neighborhood with a future that doesn’t involve violence. Which makes it all the darker when, after Beranrdo is killed, Chino picks up a gun to kill the white boy who murdered his alpha male idol.
“The gringos will kill you if you shoot one of them,” his friends warn. He forlornly replies, “The gringos kill everything, eventually.”
But more than the violence, the new West Side Story tries to explore how the Shark characters live. Much of the dialogue in scenes between María, Bernardo, and Anita (Ariana DeBose) are spoken in Spanish, and never once with a subtitled caption. Firstly, this emphasizes the acting and Spielberg’s visual storytelling, trusting audiences will understand what is happening even if many viewers won’t know the language. It also reduces the distance between the white and Latinx characters in the film, not even othering the latter by insisting they need subtitles to be comprehended.
Among them, there is also a greater emphasis on warmth. We’re introduced to this Anita by her giving María her iconic red belt off her own dress, and being much more sisterly to Bernardo’s sibling. Of course Moreno’s Anita was one of the best parts of the 1961 movie too, winning Moreno an Oscar (a first for a Latina woman), but little shifts like the belt, or having Anita and Bernardo discuss María’s future in Spanish, go a long way to developing the family dynamics among the three characters.
There is also, of course, Moreno herself who is still present in the new movie and an executive producer on the film. In a major change designed to make room for the 90-year-old actress, the Doc character has been written out of the film, revealed to have died of a heart attack some years ago. Moreno’s Valentina is his widow and heir to the drugstore. This also allows Spielberg and Kushner to develop an originally tertiary role into a much more dynamic presence.
Valentina is genuinely motherly and compassionate about Tony’s future, attempting to steer him away from the Sharks, but her role as a Latina character who married a white man during a more openly segregated era also causes her to be stuck in No Man’s Land. When the third act tragedies come, Anita—Moreno’s most famous role—calls Moreno’s Valentina a traitor to Puerto Ricans in Spanish.
It adds an uncomfortable context. It also provides the film’s diverse and rich book of musical numbers to more fully hit their high notes. Mostly.
Musical Numbers and Rumbles
As the aspect which folks are likely most interested in comparing when it comes to a musical remake, the musical numbers are the cornerstone of both films. And frankly, with two glaring exceptions, they’re generally done far better in the 2021 film.
If Spielberg waited his whole life to do a musical, he shows all that pent up dexterity here. Nearly every scene reveals a kinetic virtuosity for blocking and camera placement. This is probably most notable in the “Tonight” sequence, the first duet between Tony and María. In the original film, the pair largely sit next to each other on a fire escape in a two-shot, proclaiming their love for each other. It’s sweet and a great movie moment, but Spielberg’s camera rarely ever stops save for extreme close-ups on both Zegler and Elgort’s faces in states of complete longing. Otherwise, the filmmaker is always moving and capturing the unbreakable barriers between the pair, such as when he places the actual grating of the fire escape between their faces like a wall, or later the stairs.
But that is just one example of how Spielberg has reimagined and revitalized musical sequences. Robert Wise, a brilliant director in his own right, was able to create many an iconic image in the ’61 film. They’ve lived on in the public imagination for six decades and almost as many generations. However, one aspect of the classic film which never quite worked for me was the emphasis on transporting all (or most) of the elaborate dance choreography from the stage show to the screen. This is likely due to Robbins, the director and choreographer of the Broadway show, being the choreographer and credited co-director of the 1961 movie. Although he might’ve been most focused on just photographing his elaborate choreography on-screen.
There is no denying much of the dancing in the original film is beautiful, but there are times where it frequently appears to overreach and be “extra,” to use modern youth lingo. To put it nicely, seeing gang members so insistent on doing ballet during the film’s opening moments on an outdoor basketball court, or later bring the movie to a screeching halt for an extended freestyle jazz number after the Rumble where their leader, Riff, has been killed, has always been kitschy.
The latter sequence, “Cool,” was also inexplicably moved in ‘61 from its first act placement in the stage show to appearing on-screen after Riff and Bernardo have died in the second act of the film—and yes, given the original film included an overture and intermission, it was divided like a two-act play. Spielberg wisely returns the song closely to the beginning of the film, so audiences are not impatient about getting back to the plight of Tony and María, and he and Kushner also light on the idea that the song is about Tony trying to prevent Riff from bringing a gun he bought to the Rumble. So the entire sequence keeps much of the jazzy movements but recontextualizes them as a fight between two old friends over a weapon that will eventually get one of them killed later that night. It’s just a much more engaging scene, daddio!
Similarly, Spielberg returns “I Feel Pretty” to immediately after the Rumble, with María’s happiness having an added air of tragedy since we know it’s already been damned. It also allows the film to bring back the original lyric of “I feel pretty, and witty, and bright, and I pity any girl who isn’t me tonight!” Which, for reasons beyond the film’s control, has aged better than the new lyric invented for the ‘61 movie: “I feel pretty, and witty, and gay, and I pity any girl who isn’t me today!”
The actual dynamics between María and the other characters are largely heightened by the new film as well. María and Tony’s wordless courtship at the dance in the new film occurs in private, behind the gym’s bleachers, allowing the pair to share an enchanted moment and an actual flirtatious conversation, as opposed to it happening in front of everyone, a la the ’61 film, and being immediately interrupted by Bernardo. And, in fact, Bernardo’s fly-off-the-handle rage in this regard is much more understandable, and not only because he discovered his little sister coming out from behind the bleachers with a white boy.
Continuing with its desire to better develop the Puerto Rican characters’ perspective, the ‘21 movie’s Bernardo is enraged not just because Tony is a white man, but by the perceived arrogance of a white man taking what he wants from his little sister because he thinks it might absolve him of his own sins of once indulging in racism. The condescension and entitlement Bernardo sees is what drives him into a rage—and why he and Riff discuss the terms of the Rumble at that very dance (which moves the plot along faster on-screen).
The Rumble likewise is given new immediacy, and not just because of the choice to set it inside of a salt warehouse instead of under a highway overpass. For starters, Kushner throws out the element from the original show about Tony getting the Sharks and Jets to let this be decided by “our best versus your best.” Instead it’s going to be an all-out brawl. Initially, María wants Tony to stop it in the 2021 film, but he convinces her it’s a lost cause, and she ultimately expresses gratitude when she thinks he has been able to avoid it. Of course Tony doesn’t and when he’s there, it escalates from a brawl into full-scale murder as Bernardo eventually stabs Riff (although he wanted to kill Tony).
Again, emphasizing the benefit of making changes appropriate for cinema instead of theater, having Riff’s death rattle not be visualized as a free-style dance move, nor having both gangs move in rhythm to the music as they run from the cops, is a smart change. To put it mildly.
However, one of the two numbers I believe to be superior in the original is the iconic “America” sequence where Anita and her friends argue a glass half full vision of being a migrant in New York City against Bernardo and his pals’ glass half-empty cynicism. Yes, it’s also stagey with it being a big ensemble number, but since it is also a party on a rooftop it plays more naturally, and the choreography is electric when Moreno takes center stage–although DeBose’s Anita makes a hell of a charismatic presence too in her version of the song, which is done as more of a cinematic montage of Anita and Bernardo commenting on the sights they’re seeing on the street of their neighborhood.
The other change I’ll tip toward the original comes near the end of the film, but only after the biggest musical change of the movie: Moreno’s Valentina singing “Somewhere” instead of Tony and María, who sing the song as a duet after deciding they still love each other even though he killed Bernardo. It’s a poignant addition, allowing Valentina to be the older generation who sees this whole tragedy playing out on a macro-level. She can also better lament the sorrow since her lifetime of striving in an interracial relationship with Doc—as heartbreakingly underlined with a photo of her dead husband on the wall at the beginning of the song—has not saved the next generation from the slings and arrows of bigotry and hate.
With that said, as poignant as the addition is, not having Valentina begin the song and then letting Tony and María carry it on when the edit cuts to their lovemaking is a missed opportunity because of what comes next…
West Side Story (2021) ends in much the same manner as the 1961 picture. Tony hides at the drugstore, María is delayed by the cops, and fate intervenes. Anita is even forced to reluctantly help after bitterly discovering María and Tony’s affair. (Also props to how justifiably wrathful DeBose sings “A boy like that will kill your brother.)
Yet the execution of the ending moments are subtly, yet strikingly, different. This begins with how the near rape of Anita is handled much more honestly in the 2021 film. When Anita goes to Doc’s to begrudgingly tell Tony to wait a little longer for María, she is warned to “leave” by the Anybodys character. Still underdeveloped in the 2021 film, Kushner and Spielberg more openly imply that Anybodys (Iris Menas) is likely trans, and is indeed played by a nonbinary actor. In the 1961 film, Anybodys is presented on-screen as a tomboy who gets angry when she’s told a man would never marry her.
In the ’61 film, she also revels in her Jets buddies trying to rape Anita. When they see a brown woman come into their shop and ask to pass, they howl, “She’s too dark to pass!” in both versions, although in ’61 Anybodys unbelievably partakes in this violence against a woman. In the new film, Anybodys tries to get Anita to avoid the Jets inside the shop, and one of the Jets’ girlfriends is also there. She initially participates in the racist catcalls hurled at Anita, but then tries to prevent what is clearly about to become a gang rape. Spielberg also unsurprisingly avoids Robbins’ tone-deaf choice to include some mild dance choreography as one of the lads is carried into position to assault Anita.
When Valentina thankfully breaks up the incident, Anita still makes the choice to send Tony to his doom by lying that Chino has killed María and is still looking for him. She also insults Valentina for living among these hateful white devils. And to be fair, Valentina doesn’t sugarcoat it. While the ’61 film incredulously underplays this sequence with Doc finding the boys attempting a rape and just whining “why do you kids have to make the world such an ugly place?” (Kidz these days, amirite?), and then the picture sanctimoniously picks this moment for one of the Jets to make a moral stand by whining back, “We didn’t make it, Doc,” there is no hand-holding here. Valentina calls these kids she watched grow up rapists and drives them from her store.
Then, instead of taking her anger out about kidz on Tony like Doc did, she tries to give him money to get out of town and comfort him while revealing María’s “death.” It, sadly, doesn’t work and Tony goes looking for Chino.
The way Spielberg films the killing shot, with María holding a suitcase and seeing Tony and Chino in the same frame right before Chino pulls the trigger, is terrific. But ending on the pair reprising “I Have a Love” instead of “Somewhere” as Tony dies is objectively weaker than how the 1961 film ends because “Somewhere” is objectively a better song than “I Have a Love.” Admittedly, Spielberg is returning to how the original 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story ended. As initially conceived, “Somewhere” was to be sung by another actress as Tony and María danced in an overly long ballet (Robbins loved his ballet sequences). However, Wise sharply convinced Robbins to cut another momentum-killing dance sequence in the third act of the movie, and instead they had María and Tony sing “Somewhere” as a duet.
While the ’57 production didn’t do it that way, almost every production since 1961 has. The thwarted hopefulness of “Somewhere” makes it a more powerfully bittersweet song and having that be the music playing over María’s breakdown and choice to hold Chino’s gun in his face, as well as the face of all the Jets and all the Sharks, is thus a more powerful way to end the musical. Giving the beginning of “Somewhere” to Moreno earlier in the movie was poignant; not letting Tony and María have it at all (and thus removing it from the death scene) was a mistake.
Nonetheless, West Side Story ’21 still has a heart-rending ending, as the gangs agree to carry Tony’s dead body together and instead of Chino being left to be fed to the cops alone, is here at least accompanied by Valentina as he awaits his fate.
As with the ’61 movie, it’s a bitter end note—but also a beautiful one that’ll likely live on for years and years to come.