West Side Story Premiere
Outside El Capitan for the premiere of West Side Story | Credit: Jim Farber

Ever since its Broadway premiere in 1957, West Side Story has been a constant in our lives, a pole star of the American musical theater. Its songs, music, and lyrics are iconic. Its cinematic adaptation in 1961 dominated the Academy Awards. And somewhere in a press archive there’s a black and white photo of Elizabeth Taylor and Clark Gable dressed to the nines, arm-in-arm at the glittery Grauman’s Chinese Theatre premiere on Hollywood Boulevard.

Thursday, exactly 60 years later (and just across the street), the marquee of the El Capitan Theatre (one of L.A.’s best preserved movie palaces) was ablaze with lights proclaiming the opening of Steven Spielberg’s reimagined West Side Story — a retelling that is strikingly original and acute in its updated cultural awareness, while at the same time paying homage to the show’s original creators: Leonard Bernstein’s score, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and the choreography of Jerome Robbins.

The Mighty Wurlitzer at El Capitan
The Mighty Wurlitzer at El Capitan for the premiere of West Side Story | Credit: Jim Farber

The El Capitan Theatre (which is owned and operated by the Walt Disney Company) features a special “Opening Night Fan Events” designed to evoke at least an echo of Hollywood’s golden age. The highlight is a pre-screening concert by Rob Richards who emerges through a trap door in the stage enveloped by the gilded glory of the El Capitan’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ. But the real star is the theater itself, with its ornate auditorium, massive screen, and state of the art sound system. What better way could there be to reenter the world of West Side Story?  

As the lights dimmed, a hauntingly familiar three-note whistle transported us back to the 1950s mean streets of New York City and its two competing gangs — the Jets and the Sharks. And as in the 1961 film, the opening shot is a bird’s-eye view looking down at derelict blocks of brick tenements. But as depicted by Spielberg, and through the cogent new screenplay by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), the neighborhood is not just decrepit, it’s under demolition, victim of a wave of gentrification. Then the camera pans up revealing a shimmering rendering of the future that will rise from the rubble — the theaters of Lincoln Center.

Spielberg's "West Side Story"
Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg | Credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

West Side Story is an urban tragedy set in the past. But for Spielberg and Kushner, it is a past that mirrors so many issues of today: systemic racial injustice, poverty, immigration, wealth disparity, gender prejudice, gun violence, and repressive policing. The irony of the opening shot is that after all the disruption and chaos, Lincoln Center became the conducting home of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and served as the 1961 host for the film premiere of West Side Story. The New York Philharmonic was also chosen to record the new movie’s score, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

As that lone whistle gives way to finger snaps and the syncopations of Bernstein’s score, the turf war between the Jets and Sharks unfolds as a street ballet that combines the leaps and thrusts of Jerome Robbins’s original with an abundance of new, high-energy  choreography by the New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck.

Spielberg's "West Side Story"
The Jets face off against the Sharks at the dance in 20th Century Studios’ West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg | Credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Kushner’s screenplay adds depth by introducing back stories. We discover that Tony (Ansel Elgort) is on parole after serving a year in prison for nearly killing a rival gang member. His struggle to change is central to the evolution of his character, as is his growing love for Maria (Rachel Zegler) who is depicted as a strong-willed young Latina woman, both self-reliant and self-aware. Bernardo (David Alvarez) is an up-and-coming boxer who hopes to escape the violence and racial prejudice of the streets by way of the ring.

Spielberg's "West Side Story"
Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg | Credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The paternal character of Doc is gone. His drug store, the Jets favorite hang-out, is now run by his Puerto Rican widow, Valentina (Rita Moreno). She is a woman whot knows first-hand the challenges an interracial love and marriage can bring. Far from a cameo, Moreno offers a full-out performance, including a tearful solo rendition of “Somewhere” that is likely to get her a second West Side Story supporting actress nod.

Spielberg’s scene for Moreno, however sensitive, results in the omission of the “Somewhere” duet and ballet for Tony and Maria which represents some of Bernstein’s most beautiful and rhapsodic music. Here is the scene in the original Broadway cast recording.

Enhanced by the dance-like movement of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, the film combines moments, such as the balcony scene, that exactly mirror the 1961 film, as well as the introduction of entirely new locations, such as the Cloisters Museum, which provides the background for Tony and Maria’s marriage scene, “One Hand, One Heart.” In Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, Spielberg found a pair of newcomers who fill the heart of the story as well as the heartbreak of its tragic outcome.

Other key members of the cast are New York stage veterans: Mike Faist (Tony Award nominee for Dear Evan Hanson) is a tendon-taut Riff; Ariana DeBose (Tony Award nominee for her starring role as Donna Summer) is a dramatic powerhouse and dancing tornado as Anita; David Alvarez, a former American Ballet Theater dancer who played the title role in Billy Elliot: The Musical, is a rage-packed Bernardo.

Spielberg's "West Side Story"
Left to Right: Anybodys (Ezra Menas), Mouthpiece (Ben Cook), Action (Sean Harrison Jones); Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist); Baby John (Patrick Higgins); Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler); Maria's brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez); and Sharks members Quique (Julius Anthony Rubio), Chago (Ricardo Zayas), Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Braulio (Sebastian Serra) and Pipo (Carlos Sánchez Falú) | Credit: Ramona Rosales. © 2021 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

If you grew up with West Side Story as I did, having seen the original Broadway cast, memorized the recording and was totally absorbed by the film, you will find yourself rediscovering the wonders of West Side Story in this new version. If you’ve never seen the show, go! You’re in for a wonderous experience.

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