The new “West Side Story” doesn’t entirely answer the most obvious question, which is why essentially remake a 60-year-old classic. Director Steven Spielberg nevertheless justifies the effort as a dazzling showcase for this generation’s talent, in a film whose ties to lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died last month, adds to its emotional resonance.
Adapted by playwright Tony Kushner, the film – described as a “reimagining” of the original – possesses a grittier edge, directly connecting gentrification of New York’s slums in the 1950s to the two gangs battling over their shrinking turf as if their lives depend on it. The casting and subtle touches, like not subtitling the Spanish dialogue, also possess considerably more cultural authenticity than a period where non-Latinx actors would be cast in pivotal roles.
As an added bonus, the filmmakers have not only included Rita Moreno – an Oscar winner for the 1961 movie – as the drug-store owner, but cleverly expanded that role in a way that showcases her. If the intention was to provide a reminder that the 89-year-old Moreno, a winner of every award imaginable, is a national treasure, mission accomplished.
Beyond that, the bones of “West Side Story,” itself inspired by Romeo and Juliet, remain very much intact, with the mix of jaunty tunes and lushly romantic ballads courtesy of Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein, in its tragic tale of love at first sight.
Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler play the star-crossed Tony and Maria, whose instant infatuation comes in the midst of racial strife between two gangs: the Sharks, headed by her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Jets, run by Tony’s longtime pal Riff (Mike Faist), who’s mystified by Tony’s desire to leave that brutal life behind.
While the dance numbers are muscularly choreographed, Spielberg has tamped down some of the magic associated with director Robert Wise’s version, a decision evident when Tony and Maria first meet at the dance. Back then, the world stopped around them; here, they discreetly retreat to a quiet spot behind the gym bleachers.
It’s no slight to the male cast members to say the women outshine them. Zegler (who’ll follow this debut with another iconic role as Snow White) is positively luminous as Maria, and Ariana DeBose ably fills Moreno’s shoes as Anita, who possesses faith in pursuing an American dream that Bernardo and his rivals have given up hope of achieving.
Of course, “West Side Story” has hardly been dormant in the intervening decades, with stage revivals and more high-school productions than anyone could count. Yet Spielberg and Kushner have toed a delicate line in crafting a movie that exhibits fidelity to the original while tinkering with it in ways that invite comparisons to the variations – some completely logical, others a bit more arbitrary.
The film marks the first time Spielberg has tackled a musical in his storied and eclectic career, which makes the effort an occasion on that level. That he has done so in a year populated by several others, including “In the Heights” and “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” reflects how cycles shift and the appetite for content has grown.
Ultimately, “West Side Story” passes the “why” test and will likely leave fans debating which version they prefer. Even those of the opinion there wasn’t a burning need for a redo – reimagined or otherwise – should conclude there’s a place for this one too.
“West Side Story” premieres in US theaters on Dec. 10. It’s rated PG-13.