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Remake of West Side Story Updated for a New Generation But Keeps its Classic Appeal

By Joanna Reid

“West Side Story” is a classic musical written by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents in 1957. Though Laurents wrote the book for the original Broadway musical, the script was adapted by Ernest Lehman for the original 1961 screenplay, which starred Natalie Wood as Maria, Richard Beymer as Tony, Rita Moreno as Anita and Russ Tamblyn as Riff.

“West Side Story” is far from your typical forbidden love story, and delves into the love of two teenagers from different ethnic backgrounds

The 2021 film was created to bring the everlasting story to a new generation. It stars Rachel Zegler as Maria alongside Ansel Elgort as Tony, David Alvarez as Benardo and Mike Faist as Riff. The new screenplay is written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg. The film is rated PG-13 due to the violence and harsh themes depicted.

Moreno makes an appearance in the new film as Valentina, the character that acts as Doc from the original. In the 1961 film, most of the main cast’s singing was dubbed by professional singers. For example, Marni Nixon recorded all of the singing for the part of Maria, rather than Wood, who we see on screen. Something I find to be especially problematic with the original is that most of the actors playing the Sharks and Puerto Ricans were not of Hispanic descent. Not only is this an issue, but it weakens the plot since Tony and Maria’s love is forbidden due to their races. Maria is Puerto Rican, so the fact that she is portrayed by a Russian actress in the original is questionable.

However, in the 2021 version, all of the Hispanic characters are portrayed by Hispanic actors and all of the actors did their own singing. Both films are set in 1950s New York City, where everything is divided. Some of the main differences I noticed between the two movies were the scene that takes place at the dance, the Officer Krupke scene and “America.” Originally at the dance, the rival gangs are forced to dance with each other and Riff is the first one to initiate this. However, the dance scene in the recent film is much different. The gangs don’t even attempt to dance together, despite being told to. As this quickly becomes out of hand and hostile because the Jets and the Sharks show their competitiveness through dancing. The aftermath of this sparks a fight. Additionally, the original dance scene incorporates effects, which I think are really beautiful and capture Maria and Tony’s essence. One of the effects is the transition between Maria spinning in her dress as colors surround her to everyone on the dance floor. These are missing in the updated version, possibly because when Tony seeks out Maria through the crowd they meet behind a set of bleachers. This differs in the original because everyone can immediately see that Tony and Maria are eying each other.

The scene that features the comedic song, “Officer Krupke” didn’t include Riff like it originally does. This gives the rest of the Jets the time to shine, especially Mouthpiece (Ben Cook). And arguably the new one is better because of the choreography, energy and setting. It takes place at the police station instead of outside Doc’s shop. I think it makes more sense and it reiterates to the audience that the Jets are truly criminals, despite the fact they seem just like rambunctious and foolish teenage boys.

I liked the “America” scene better in the new version as well. It was more interesting as Anita and Bernardo are walking down a crowded city street, while the original scene takes place in the dark on top of a building, though neither of the scenes lack dancing. The placement of songs was slightly altered, but that was to compensate for how the writers changed the plot. Specifically, “I Feel Pretty” is sung after the rumble in the new version.

New characters were added to the new film; some combined into one character and some scrapped altogether. I didn’t find this to be an issue. It was commendable to have the role of Anybodys played by a transgender actor (Iris Menas) as the Jets constantly refer to Anybodys as a girl. (In the 1961 version, the character was played by actress Susan Oakes.)

I was hoping that Maria would be updated to represent a strong female character, but she seems to be just as naive in the original as she is in the remake. However, Zegler performed to the best of her abilities as Maria, a mostly one-sided character, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet.” Zegler is a radiant and talented singer and actress who was deserving of the sizable role.

On the other hand in this version, Tony was lacking. Elgort portrayed Tony as strange and almost creepy, especially when he seemingly stalks every window in his neighborhood to be reunited with Maria after sharing a single dance with her. Upon locating her, he shouts, “I’ve found you!” and that was off-putting. Beymer did a better job making Tony seem young and innocent.

The two actors who stuck out to me the most were Ariana Debose as Anita and Faist as Riff. Debose strengthens her character and creates a tear-jerking atmosphere by the end of the movie. Faist is an intense dancer, singer and actor. His work as Riff is so captivating and put me on the edge of my seat. He brings such excitement to the new film and almost makes it feel like a live musical. All of the actors who played the Jets and Sharks were talented and did a fantastic job capturing the vibe of their character in the original.

The 2021 “West Side Story” film was updated for a new generation, but still stays true to its original source material. And it can’t be forgotten that the music and lyrics are what makes this musical so imaginative and beautiful.

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