Just Because: “West Side Story”

By Tori Kitchens

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the classic musical West Side Story came to theaters on Dec. 10, 2021. With a cast of Broadway members, the screen was filled with talent. 

The most important casting decision that Spielberg had to make was for the iconic roles of Tony and María. Ansel Elgort, best known for his roles in The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver, did not seem like the obvious choice for Tony but surprisingly has a beautiful voice. Elgort lacks dancing skills in comparison to his fellow castmates, but his performance of the song “María” made up for what he lacked in other areas. Newcomer Rachel Zegler was cast as María. With no prior movie acting experience, she isn’t a stranger to being on stage.  At the time of her casting, she was in her high school production of Shrek The Musical. She posted videos of her singing on her YouTube channel for years, and her passion for music was evident through her rendition of “I Feel Pretty.” Similarly to Elgort, her dancing was not at the same level as those around her, but that was expected as she was alongside so many Broadway ensemble performers. 

The Jets ensemble was a group full of Broadway performers. Mike Faist, as Riff, is known for originating the parts of Morris Delancey in Newsies and Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen. His vocals and dancing were impeccable, but he didn’t have the look of Riff. He did not come across as the intimidating character that it was written to be. 

When casting the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, Spielberg required actors with Hispanic ethnical backgrounds. David Alvarez was casted as María’s protective older brother, Bernardo. Alvarez had previous movie experience, but he is best known for his performance in Billy Elliot: The Musical on Broadway. His dancing abilities fit the character perfectly, as did his acting, but he did not look like he could have been related to Zegler. Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita, has plenty of musical theater experience. She is best known for her performances onstage in Hamilton (which you can watch on Disney+ as she portrays the character of “The Bullet”) and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.  She has impeccable dancing abilities that were featured throughout the movie musical. Her voice was not as strong as her dancing talents, but her acting was perfect for her character. So much so that she won a Golden Globe Award for her rendition of Anita.

Spielberg made some adjustments from the original stage production (1957) and from the original movie musical (1961). He had the opportunity to work alongside the late Steven Sondheim, the composer of the score. In this, he had some freedom to move around the order of the musical numbers. In the stage version of the show, both “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” were featured after “The Rumble”. To the directors of the 1961 adaptation, this didn’t fit, as those are two lighthearted songs following a major plot point in which two main characters die. They decided to move both songs to before “The Rumble” to add more intensity following the major scene. Spielberg, on the other hand, decided to move “I Feel Pretty” to right after “The Rumble” in order to show that the female characters continued as they did not know what was occurring in the shadows at night. I think the new order of songs made the movie flow easier and allowed for more character development and real-life reactions and interactions between characters. 

Another big change from the original productions was the way that the musical number “Cool” was done. Originally, this song was a moment for Riff to calm down the Jets about the rumble. In the new film, “Cool” is a fight between Tony and Riff. Tony is trying to convince Riff to make a change in his life. “In this version, we really wanted to expand the storyline between Tony and Riff, and Tony being this guy who comes from this tribe, and wanting to actively be different, wanting to change, wanting to be better than who he was,” Faist toldFilm. “It’s them breaking up, letting go of each other, and just the betrayal of the both of them and how they feel with each other.” This showed the real bond between the two characters, and Elgort and Faist’s chemistry was perfectly portrayed.

“America” is meant to be the shows big dance number. This song was probably the most underwhelming. Instead of being done on the rooftop like in the 1957 adaption, it was done in the streets of New York which provided more color and a happier tone to the screen. The song itself, however, did not provide a wall of sound as anticipated. The song laid there, and there were some great moments in the choreography, but overall, the song did not come together in the way the iconic song was meant to be. 

As a whole, the new adaptation received high ratings at the box offices. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 92% from critics and a 94% from audiences. Spielberg did a great job maintaining the classic film’s integrity throughout all the changes that were made.