Stephen Sondheim died on Nov. 26, 2021 in his Roxbury, Connecticut home. The acclaimed lyricist was 91 years old.
Sondheim was known for his inventive musicals, such as “Company” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” which touched on social problems through clever lyrics. Throughout his life, he won an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards and eight Tony Awards, as well as a Pulitzer Prize.
For his first musical, Sondheim teamed with playwright Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein to create “West Side Story” in 1957. The story was inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and depicted two young adults falling in love in the midst of a gang war.
“West Side Story” was well-received, and four years later, a film adaptation was released. With its stunning cinematography and dancing, the 1961 film instantly became a classic.
Now, director Steven Spielberg’s rendition of the stage musical has been released by 20th Century Studios after being pushed from a 2020 release date by COVID-19.
With help from screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg’s new “West Side Story” retains the original story and songs while revamping the musical for a modern audience.
The 2021 film’s greatest strength lies in its sensational choreography. The dancing, arranged by Justin Peck, fits perfectly with the film’s music. The film’s fights, despite mild violence, incorporate Peck’s choreography to become their own dance numbers.
The updated “West Side Story” also shines in its casting. Unlike the 1961 film, white actors do not play Puerto Rican characters. The film also relies on rising actors rather than stars.
Ansel Elgort plays the main character Tony, who works at a drugstore while he’s on parole. Elgort does well, but his performance isn’t as memorable compared to the other actors. With the accusations of sexual assault against him, Elgort will likely be forgotten when remembering the movie.
Rachel Zegler stars opposite Elgort as the young Maria and shines as Tony’s love interest. Zegler beat 30,000 people in auditions to gain the role, which is her first movie credit.
Tony’s friend Riff, played by Mark Faist, leads the Jets, a gang of white boys. He and Tony started the group, but Tony has avoided it since his parole. All Riff cares about is the gang war he continuously tries to drag Tony into.
Possessing the spirit of a fighter, Bernardo, played by David Alvarez, leads the opposing Puerto Rican gang, known as the Sharks. He’s also Maria’s older brother and disapproves of her love for Tony.
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Ariana DeBose, who rose to prominence through “Hamilton,” plays Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita. While Bernardo believes America is against Puerto Ricans, Anita has faith in the American Dream.
Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original movie, plays a character specifically made for this movie. Her character, Valentina, provides a job and place to stay for Tony. Married to Doc, a white character from the original film, Valentina demonstrates a possibility of racial harmony.
The new “West Side Story” also reimagines the character Anybodys. In the film, Anybodys rejects the notion of being a girl. Non-binary actor Iris Menas plays the character who constantly tries to participate in the Jets’ activities.
The Sharks don’t only have to deal with the Jets; the police in the city also give the Sharks a hard time. Corey Stull plays Lieutenant Schrank who favors the Jets and doesn’t want Puerto Ricans in the city. Brian d’Arcy James plays Officer Krupke who can hardly handle all the rebellious teens.
Spielberg also expands the setting with this new adaptation. The Jets live in a slum in Manhattan that is undergoing renovations while also becoming more diverse. This changing setting fuels the Jets’ rebellion as they vandalize businesses and harass civilians.
With its updates that help it fit better in a modern setting, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” will likely replace the 1961 version as a classic. Despite its low box office earnings, the film has already earned four Golden Globe nominations and 11 Critics Choice Awards nominations.
Released exactly two weeks after his death, “West Side Story” remains faithful to Sondheim’s original lyrics. With this film, his songs will continue to inspire new generations of theater geeks.