Steven Spielberg’s first musical is a challenge – deadline

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During his long and rich career, Steven Spielberg never ventured into the musical genre but always wanted to try it. So now, nearly half a century after his feature debut, he can finally tick that box with his hustle – and, dare I say – necessary face a true classic of American theater and cinema, West Side Story.

It might seem like a mad rush to make a new cinematic version of a film that remains the most honored musical in Oscar history, but it is Spielberg, and it’s clear he has real admiration and respect for what Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins achieved with the 1961 film that won 10 Oscars but also a kind of keen sense of the moment to bring about a new version. on the world. Being a huge fan of the Wise movie, I had to prepare for a new one that just might go its own way.

Spielberg has received immense contributions from Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter and sometimes collaborator Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln). The reason why they have succeeded as well as here is simple: they realize the central message of West Side Story is that in a world torn apart by racism, nativism, impossible division, poverty and lack of hope, there is always the possibility that maybe, just maybe, love can prevail.

‘West Side Story’, 1961
MGM / UA

The original 1957 Broadway production – Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics, Jerome Robbins choreographed and Arthur Laurents wrote the book – designed as a Romeo and Juliet against White Jet and Puerto Rican Shark gang wars in an ever-changing environment and gentrification on New York’s West Side. Although it has been revived and starred on Broadway stages in high school ever since, it was this 1961 film that made it immortal, a brightly colored musical drama that took the world by storm when it first took off. debuted on screens exactly 60 years ago.

Among her stars were Natalie Wood as Maria, a non-Latino actress whose songs have been dubbed, and George Chakiris, who won a supporting Oscar as Sharks frontman Bernardo though is of Greek origin. Of course, there was also Rita Moreno as Anita, who became, and still is, the only Latina to win an Oscar and warmly connects the 1961 and 2021 versions by playing a new character in the story. Spielberg was determined to have every Latinx character played by Latinx actors, a key change from the Wise movie. So Rachel Zegler makes her film debut as Maria, straight out of high school, and delivers a heartfelt and compelling spin as a young woman who falls in love with Tony, a Key Jet fresh out of prison and looking to change her way. life. Ansel Elgort plays it effectively and sings beautifully, as the pair of young lovers try to overcome the ethnic differences and the environment that threaten to keep them apart.

The tone of Kushner’s script, which also intelligently rearranges songs and action, is set from the start with a more mature musical prologue that takes place on the decaying streets of a demolished neighborhood, displacing the descendants of Immigrants from the East as well as the Puerto Rican population (all of this happened in the 1950s to make way for the area that Lincoln Center took). Turf wars are the norm, tensions simmering between the Jets, led by Riff (a truly sensational turn from Mike Faist), preparing to “rumble” with the Sharks, with both camps being eliminated by society and trying to find their own rhythms of life in changing times.

Deadline

The musical has always had relevance, but to me it has never felt more vital than it is today in an era sparked by the xenophobic message of a toxic political era and a country burning with a growing intolerance for our differences. The divide between the Jets and Sharks is here, ultimately leading to a plea for tolerance in the darkening world as a whole and a warning that all of this could lead to tragic consequences if we don’t find our way out. With Kushner’s storyline pushing this theme further than previous versions, it is too obvious that this the weather, West Side Story not only comes across as a masterpiece of entertainment and music, but with real gravity and urgency for today, though Spielberg and his company haven’t changed the 1950s era in which he has always been placed. If one movie can make a difference, I hope it’s this one, a story whose time has come again – and not too soon.

The casting was impeccable with Zegler, a real find with a singing voice and beautiful dramatic talent, although I would say not quite up to the fierce and moving work of Wood in this final scene which plays out a little more rushed. than in Wise’s film. Nonetheless, she’s extremely impressive, as is Elgort, who brings real charm to Tony’s signature numbers like “Something’s Coming”, “Tonight” and the swooning “Maria”, who here even added welcome doses of humor.

Anita is a pivotal role for any actor, and Ariana DeBose, with extensive theater experience and film credits like Prom, does the role with pride even though she’s literally in Moreno’s shadow here. And regarding the latter, his Valentina – who is the widow of Doc, owner of the drugstore where Tony and the Jets hang out – is an inspired addition (she’s also an executive producer), and surprising as a creative team. has found a way to present Moreno with a signature song from the score, “Somewhere”, and she delivers with real emotion as it becomes a way to remember and honor her late husband. This is not a simple cameo or a casting stunt.

David Alvarez is a rambling Bernardo, not as big as Chakiris but more gritty, and he manages to make the part his own. But the real revelation of this cast is Faist, a Tony nominee for Dear Evan Hansen which appears and explodes as Riff. With this performance, we are witnessing the birth of a true star, the kind of actor who cannot be shied away from. I actually felt a certain sense of loss once it was gone. He’s fascinating. Kudos to Casting Director Cindy Tolan, who met the criteria and challenge Spielberg posed and certainly kept her promises.

Awesome too are Corey Stoll as frustrated Lieutenant Schrank, Brian D’Arcy James as Officer Krupke (and that memorable song with updated lyrics), Josh Andres Rivera as Chino, and the outstanding cast of Jets and Sharks.

From a production standpoint, as you would expect, this West Side Story is top notch, with appropriately desaturated cinematography from frequent Spielberg cameraman Janusz Kaminski, outstanding production design by Adam Stockhausen, the costumes, the editing, the sound – it all. Tony winner Justin Peck’s refined and exciting choreography is both a tribute to the role model Robbins posed and to the need for a makeover for the audience who will experience this historic spectacle for the first time. The immortal “Dance at the Gym” and in particular the staging of the rumble seem completely fresh and exciting.

And of course there is that music, with the score conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, arranged by David Newman and other contributions by Jeanine Tesori and Matt Sullivan. They made the pride of the unforgettable music of Bernstein and Sondheim. Sadly, Sondheim, who was heavily involved in the production, passed away last week, just days before the premiere. He had given his approval to the film before, so whatever awards were given to those who made this film, that approval will likely be the most appreciated award.

Stephen Sondheim hailed by the entertainment community for his giant imprint on the arts

For Spielberg, ultimately a musical – a musical that I was initially surprised to hear that he felt the need to reinvent himself, but which comes to life as proof of his endurance and enduring worth. It’s also further proof, if needed, of the gifts of a filmmaker who recognizes the greatness of those who came before him and finds a way to honor them by making everything feel so new again. and important.

The producers are Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Kevin McCollum. Disney is releasing the 20th Century Studios production on December 10. Check out my video review with scenes from the film by clicking on the link above.

Do you intend to see West Side Story? Let us know this you think.

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