West Side Story.
The musical has always been among my top five favorite film genres, and 2021 is the year Hollywood at last remembered how to make them.
I will forever contend that the death knell of the movie musical sounded when Hollywood ceased to seek out and nurture talented singers and dancers and instead started to give leading roles in musicals to big name stars, regardless of their ability to carry a tune beyond four beats or execute a simple buck-and-wing. When non-singing, non-dancing Marlon Brando was cast as Sky Masterson in 1955’s Guys and Dolls, and a key song from the Broadway show as cut and replaced with a weaker tune to accommodate the star’s limited vocal range, the downward spiral began, with only occasional bright spots (among them 1961’s West Side Story) popping up along the slow descent. Recent financial successes like Mamma Mia and critical successes like La La Land only serve, for me, to illustrate the depths to which the genre has fallen. In a musical, the songs should be highlights, the moments when an audience’s emotions are most powerfully stirred. But in Mamma Mia, which serves up such horrors as Pierce Brosnan singing (two numbers!) and Meryl Streep frolicking, the numbers only serve to make us roll our eyes, while in La La Land, the songs are the dreariest moments, shining a light on Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s inadequacy as musical performers. These two films fail to stir the slightest emotion other than cynicism and boredom, because none of the players has the slightest clue how to sell a song. By and large, it’s been up to animated films to keep the musical’s flame alive during this Dark Age.
But earlier this year, just when I was ready to despair of ever seeing a soul-stirring big-screen live action musical again, along came In the Heights, with music and lyrics by Broadway’s wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda. The only widely known name in the cast is Miranda himself, who plays a minor role; even in his case (of course), songs and dances are not sacrificed on the altar of celebrity. Everyone involved with this film, including the cinematographer, knows what a musical should look and sound like, and it is on all accounts a stunning experience. It deserves its own blog post, but it’s been several months since this movie dazzled me, and I would need to watch it again in order to give it a properly detailed review.
Far fresher in my mind is a recent release, West Side Story, which hits some very different notes from In the Heights. While it does touch on some serious themes, In the Heights stands out in my memory as an explosion of joy, a celebration of community. By contrast, West Side Story is a tragedy, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which, as anyone who passed ninth-grade English could tell you, does not end well. With the “houses both alike in dignity” represented by a pair of rival street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, it asks its audience to make an emotional investment in characters we know to be doomed. If done well, it will break your heart. And this version of West Side Story is, to me at least, done very well.
I am not a West Side Story purist. I like and appreciate the 1961 film, but I don’t find it to be an unassailable masterpiece beyond all possible improvement. It’s a product of its time. Of the three actors who play the principal Puerto Rican characters, Maria, Bernardo, and Anita, only Rita Moreno (Anita) is actually Puerto Rican, and she and George Chakiris (Bernardo), Natalie Wood (Maria), and the other performers playing the Sharks were made to wear the same dark make-up so that all the Puerto Rican characters would have the same skin tone, denying the racial and ethnic diversity in the Puerto Rican community. Granted, Natalie Wood, despite not sharing her character’s ethnic background, gives a strong performance that reaches devastating levels in her final scene, but Richard Beymer’s Tony is so pretty-boy bland that she has nothing to work with in terms of creating chemistry; as a result, the romance that should be the movie’s heart becomes its most underwhelming feature, and Wood, good as she is, is overshadowed by such forces of nature as Moreno, Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn.
Another weakness was pointed out to me by my husband as we were on our way home from seeing the remake. I asked if he’d seen the earlier version, and he admitted he’d never watched it from beginning to end, because he’d always found the Jets and the Sharks too clean-cut in their appearance and movements to be believable as street toughs. I hadn’t considered that before, but he has a point. The actors might have been convincing in 1961, but they’re less so to a modern eye.
Steven Spielberg’s remake addresses every one of those issues.
First of all, from the opening moment we can see the grittiness and the current of violence in the world the characters inhabit. Grime is everywhere; dust permeates the air. The streets down which the Jets and the Sharks dance in the 1961 movie are swept and deserted; in Spielberg’s film, those same streets are choked with traffic, with people constantly knocking against each other. The Jets and the Sharks are of a piece with this chaos, and the actors bring a feral energy to every move they make, even when they’re dancing and singing. “Someone gets in our way, someone don’t feel so well,” boast the Jets. I know I wouldn’t want to get in these guys’ way.
Second, the Puerto Rican characters are all played by Latino actors, which gives them a degree of authenticity the 1961 film couldn’t manage. Moreover, their community isn’t racially homogenized; actress Ariana du Bose, who plays Anita, is black. She’s terrific, by the way, imbuing the character with hope, humor, and fun — which makes what happens to her near the movie’s end all the more devastating.
Then there’s the love story. Some critics don’t agree with me, but I think it works this time around. Tony (Ansel Elgort), so dull in the ’61 version, is given some shading here. He has a backstory to explain his desire to distance himself from the Jets, and it adds a sense of urgency to his love for Maria, since she’s the ray of hope that shines upon him, the force that, as he says, stops him in his long fall off a cliff. Their relationship is his lifeline. It also helps that he shares a good bit of screen time with Valentina (Rita Moreno herself, also an executive producer), who runs the drug store where he works after her husband, Doc, has died. Their scenes together radiate tenderness, warmth, and humor, and they make Tony easier to engage with and root for.
Rachel Zegler, as Maria, has more difficult shoes to fill, but for me, she ends up being the movie’s biggest find. She’s pictorially exquisite, a bit like a young Catherine Zeta-Jones, and she uses her eyes to convey the character’s earnest innocence, as well as the conflict within her between her loyalty to her brother, the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez, not quite as gorgeous as Chakiris but still an intense and powerful presence) and her love for Tony and her desire for a future different from the one Bernardo wants for her. Also, unlike Wood, Zegler does her own singing. Her bright, clear soprano voice rings rich with feeling. She, more than anyone else, will make you never want to hear the likes of Emma Stone or Pierce Brosnan attempt a musical number again.
Sadly, West Side Story isn’t doing as well at the box office as I wish it were; perhaps its bittersweet melancholy and its inescapably gloomy ending aren’t quite what the crowds flooding theaters to see Spider-Man: No Way Home are looking for. But it just might, like its 1961 predecessor, win some love on Oscar night, pointing the way for future musicals with actors skilled in dance and song.