Have you ever seen a remake that was better than the original? Or at least as good as the original? Neither have I. So why do they continue to go down this road? Has Hollywood run out of new ideas?
The entertainment business is a land of superlatives. So, let’s get this out of the way. Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest film directors of all time. Stephen Sondheim is one of the greatest composers/lyricists of all time. West Side Story, in its various incarnations, the book of the 1957 Broadway musical the work of Arthur Laurents, is a modern implementation of the outline drawn by William Shakespeare in his drama Romeo and Juliet and as such, one of the greatest romance stories of all time. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. Jerome Robbins was the choreographer along with Peter Cennaro. More of the greatest.
The Broadway musical shocked audiences and drew mixed reviews. But it went on to run for 732 performances, was nominated for six Tonys and won for best choreography and best scenic design and has been revived many times in venues around the world.
The 1961 film brought Robert Wise, another of the greatest American film directors, into the creative mix as he and Jerome Robbins, who shared the director’s credit, opened the staging to fill a wide Super Panavision 70 movie screen. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won ten, including best picture. Yes, it is regarded as one of the greatest musical films of all time. It is number ten on Scott’s 100 favorite films.
Despite the film’s success, there has always been lingering dissatisfaction with the finished product. Much of the singing was dubbed, sometimes without the knowledge of the performer. Natalie Wood, “Maria,” for example, knew her contract gave the producers the right to replace her singing voice, but wasn’t informed they were planning from the start to do so.
And as America moved into the new millennium, criticism of the entertainment industry for using white actors to play roles of various colors arose. In that light, the casting of Wood as a Puerto Ricans particularly rankled. It didn’t help that Maria’s brother, Bernardo, was played by George Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrants.
I get the message here. People of color are underrepresented in many fields, including entertainment. The casting of Wood and Chakiris as characters who are Puerto Ricans can be seen as offensive. But these casting criticisms miss the point. These are actors. They are playing roles. They adopt the characteristics of other, often fictitious people. It is their ability to lose themselves in the characters they play that is a mark of their excellence. How can we tie their hands with constraints that they be the character in real life? That’s not acting.
Do you want a rule that only a Puerto Rican can play Maria? Are you willing to limit Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones to Othello, the one Shakespearian role written for a black man? Must a gay actor only play a gay character? And vice versa? I thought not. And our new Maria, Rachel Kegler, is a 20-year-old actor from Clifton, New Jersy. Her family roots are Columbian.
So, let’s forget all this political correctness stuff and head back to the original question. Why? I haven’t been able to answer that one. It is true that New York City, the setting for West Side Story, is much more a character in this Spielberg version than in the original. It is dirtier, grittier, and truer to the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the 1950s. So what? It doesn’t add a thing to the story line.
And the more natural location shots, contrasted with the original film shot on sets built on sound stages, lose the high contrast, stylized, artistic feel of the original. Here movement is realistic to be sure. Every movement is just a movement. In the original, the motion feels like the ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins staged it to be. Here every movement is a work of art.
It was nice to have Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original film, return as a new character, Valentina, widow of the original’s “Doc,” owner of the corner candy store and hang out. But to assign her the iconic “Somewhere,” originally consigned to Tony and Maria as an expression of their forbidden love? “There’s a place for us. Somewhere, a place for us.” This was most definitely not the place for Somewhere.
I’ve always believed West Side Story is a great American opera, and that the original film is the truest telling of that vision. From the opening dance scene through the dance at the gym to the rumble under the highway to the closing “mad scene” with Maria, standing over Tony’s body and breaking into spoken prose, a cappella. And that moment, in my option, is where Wood’s skill as a dramatic actress is worth the price of your ticket. I heard an interview with Bernstein once arguing that this stylistic change at the end is what takes the work out of the opera category. I have always wished I had been able to meet him and point out that Carmen, which I saw him conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, ends the same way.
Spielberg has directed a decent film. Writer Tony Kushner has delivered a more colloquial script. New York has shown itself off in all its gritty details. But they haven’t produced a work of art. For that, see the original.