The tale of star-crossed lovers is as old as, well, stories themselves. The original Broadway West Side Story, of 1957, may have been inspired by Romeo and Juliet, but we have heard various versions of a boy and a girl divided by family rivalry, or caste, or religion (and now the law) somehow finding love despite the hate.
However, if West Side Story became very much a Hollywood story in 1961, it might be difficult now on to shake it off as the Steven Spielberg story. A musical might seem an unfamiliar terrain for him, but the master filmmaker with the gentle, sentimental touch may just be the man to lift this material, give it a whirl and a twirl, and bring it down to reality with a wistful sadness.
The Jets vs the Sharks — that is, a gang of “couldn’t-make-it Caucasians” vs a group of “profusely producing” immigrant Puerto Ricans — are the reality against which this love story plays out. Tony (Elgort) was once one of the Jets, and having served time for almost beating a man to death, is determined to be different than what he was. Riff (Faist) is the new leader of the Jets, and the relationship between Tony and him is one of the deepest in this version of West Side Story (written by Pulitzer winner Tony Kushner). Riff worships Tony, and because of that and how much he understands Riff, Tony can never really pull away from his past.
On the other side is Bernardo (Alvarez), a boxer, his girlfriend Anita (DeBose) and sister Maria (Zegler). The three of them are co-tenants in a small apartment in the Puerto Rican part of town, working their way up to the great American dream.
However, as West Side Story keeps telling us, that dream is as elusive for the Jets as it is for the Sharks. The Jets are from broken homes, and having been left behind by the others (“including Italians and Jews”), are resentful of the new immigrants on their block. The Sharks see the Jets as a symbol of the many hurdles life has placed in their way, and much as they value fighting as much as breathing, they reserve their highest respect for the one among them (called Chino) who is studying to become someone different.
Both the Jets and Sharks are about to be thrown out of their neighbourhoods by city officials who have begun pulling down their old, decaying blocks for shiny new buildings like the Lincoln Center. And both find themselves in fights unto deaths because “there is nowhere else better they think they can be”.
The film gives us gleaming versions of how the new world sees the rough stones like them, scurrying away as members of the two gangs come singing or dancing down the streets.
It’s this, the distrust of the unknown, the resentment of the have-nots, that is the beating heart of West Side Story. The love which Tony and Maria spot and seize on to – over a dance where people around them are passing by in a blur, in a magical sequence – looks impossible. Sadly, it also seems improbable, with the pretty Elgort a pale, pale version of the hotheaded men around him, and unable to inject much passion into his love for Maria.
Zegler is winsome in her debut role but far from the stunning beauty who would start or stop battles. At barely 18, she does not even have the weariness of wisdom that Tony bears. The two have the briefest of conversations about the incongruity of their situation, and just when they seem to be really getting somewhere, the film rushes into a church-turned-museum and a song.
Spielberg and Kushner perhaps realise that more than love, it is the thread of hatred that connects us to this half-century-and-more-old story. In its divisions, tensions, uncertainties and silences, as much as in some of its songs, we notice our own worlds and realities.
In its Riff, played with sardonic tragedy by Faist, we see an end of innocence. In its Bernardo, played with a bravura verve by Alvarez, we see leaps of faith. And in its Anita, played by a simply superb DeBose, we see the audacity of hope. (Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 version, also plays a crucial role here). DeBose doesn’t just dance to the music’s beat, the music dances to hers, watching her as breathlessly as us in an orange and red dress as bright and shining as the sun, and holding as still as us when the song dies around her.
West Side Story
West Side Story director – Steven Spielberg
West Side Story cast – Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Araina DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Mike Faist
West Side Story rating – 3.5 stars