Steven Spielberg was 10 when it was released West side story on Broadway and 14 when its adaptation hit American theaters. It was 1961 and the director came from a family of Orthodox Jews of which he was sometimes ashamed. Anti-Semitic stigma, beatings and insults had dogged him from Ohio to California, so young Steven avoided airing his roots or inviting friends over. This scourge spread throughout North America in communities of different origins and religions, and somehow removed him through the script of West side story.
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The story that made him run away and dance in the armchair ended up becoming the most acclaimed musical in the history of cinema. Six decades later, he pays homage to him with a version close enough to that of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, albeit retouched to bring it closer to current times and his own experience. The end result is vibrant but unappealing to the competitive Christmas card – hence the unexpected bump.
As in the old, two youth gangs vie for the portion of New York they share: the Jets, second-generation Irish, and the Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants who arrived later but thrived in the area. Above all of them, like a sort of Matrix Architect, stand the giants of real estate development, who in the 50s sought to expand the skyline of New York in the slums. Both of them represented a hindrance to the urban and commercial project of the city because both were poor. But, if you had to choose, the gyrfalcons and law enforcement officials always stayed with those with white skin.
In the midst of these futureless brawls, modernized Romeo and Juliet appear on the scene to muddy things up even more. She is María, played by the actress with Colombian roots Rachel Zegler, and he is Tony, played by Ansel Elgort, known for Baby driver and the remake of Carrie. On the other side is María’s brother and leader of the Sharks, Bernardo, paired with the charismatic Anita (the unreal dancer Ariana DeBose), and Riff, the head of the Jets since Tony went to jail for hitting a Puerto Rican boy almost to death.
Both their links and their disagreements will develop between dances, mythical songs and an exquisite soundtrack reinterpreted by the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel. Here is the first advance compared to the original: there is no blackface nor an imposted racial arrogance. Much of the team is Latin American or descendant, and Spielberg took special care when it came to documenting the Puerto Rico of the time and its exiles. Proof of this is the incorporation of the revolutionary version of The Borinqueña – “We want freedom, our machetes will give it to us” – or that he did not want to subtitle the numerous fragments in Spanish into English to highlight both languages.
Director of Saving Private Ryan Y ET he has freed himself from the racist hindrances of the 1961 version, without forgetting that it is a script written in the 1950s. Spielberg has really juggled to balance his passion for the original film and tact to solve his problems. It was not an easy job: Puerto Ricans were watching him with a magnifying glass after years of complaints about the first musical.
The efforts of a huge fan
In 1960, actress Rita Moreno attended the filming early every day to undergo a long make-up session. It came from Puerto Rico, but it was too white for those in charge of the casting of West side story, so they anointed his face in black potingue to darken it. The actor who played Bernardo, the Greek George Chakiris, and the native Maria, Natalie Wood, of Russian parents, were put through the same thing.
“It was like mud”, Moreno recalled in a recent interview. It was not the only time he complained during the recording. He also forced, after many attempts, to remove a phrase from the mythical song America, that she sang like Anita, for being totally racist and prejudiced. Despite everything, she won the Oscar in 1961 and became the first Latin American to win a Hollywood Academy Award.
Moreno, who is now 90 years old, has been a key figure in the new West side story. Spielberg not only wanted to give her a pivotal role, but made her an executive producer because of her extensive knowledge of the story and its mistakes. He was very close to Anita’s new actress, Ariana DeBose, and created a climate of community among all the actors, Latinos and Americans. So does Valentina, the role that was invented for her as a fully integrated Puerto Rican in New York and almost a matriarch of the Jets.
Although his character sometimes sins of equanimity, it serves as a link for one of the toughest scenes of both West side story: the attempted rape of Anita by some of the Jets. “It is a strange and painful experience to live it again,” Moreno acknowledged in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes. “During the filming of that scene, when I was playing it, I ended up crying.” In the new version, even the girls from the Irish gang try to help Anita, whom Valentina saves from the attackers: “I have seen you grow up, and I see that you have become rapists,” she rebukes them.
These are just some of the details in which you can see that the director has put his body and soul. Also in the most political: “I am worried, very worried, even more than two years ago, about what is happening in the United States. I believe that democracy is in danger”, has expressed Spielberg during the promotion. He places as a key date the rise of former President Trump, in 2016: “The themes that the play deals with in 1957 were relevant, but today they are ten times more relevant.” Hence his commitment to inclusion, coherence, the mixture of Spanish with English and criticism of the great american dream compared to “violent” Puerto Rico.
“In my research, I became very interested in the issue of guns and crime rates in the 1950s. When I looked up crime statistics in Puerto Rico, I discovered that New York was a much more dangerous place than San Juan,” explained the screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg’s colleague, a Time. All that has disappeared from the current version, which also has an exquisite workmanship. But is it enough to attract the public? At the box office, as Bernardo sings in America, the country has once again been a disappointment.
What could have gone wrong?
West side story opened the billboard on December 10 with one of the worst data of the year. It debuted in the US well below expectations, raising 10.5 million dollars (9.3 million euros) in its first week and 3.4 million in the second (3 million euros). The film cost a whopping 100 million euros. It is true that there are still several countries to release it, but it is very difficult for it to recover from this situation: it should accumulate at least 300 million to be considered solvent.
One of the reasons for this bump could be the “musical” label itself. A divisive category and too willing to accept its defeat in the face of drama and reconcile with the public. Sometimes it works, as in The Greatest Showman, which precisely attracted theaters for its catchy soundtrack, and in others quite the opposite, such as Cats. Like the latter, West side story It does not even have a new or risky repertoire, but uses that of the great Leonard Bernstein. Despite Dudamel’s meritorious efforts, the musical virtues predate Spielberg and to appreciate the differences you have to have a highly trained ear or the very fresh old version.
This links directly with another of its possible obstacles: 60 years ago it was released West side story. In a moment of embarrassment remakes, franchises and reunions with great classics, modern audiences may feel less rooted in this musical than in trilogies like that of Matrix. In addition, the people who, like Spielberg, attended his rise, range between 60 and 75 years and less and less go to the movies. Especially since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
Another issue that has done him no favors is the accusations of sexual abuse of its protagonist, Ansel Elgort. In June 2020, a woman singled out the 27-year-old actor for raping her when he was 20 and she was 17. Afterwards, more testimonies came out of how he allegedly used his fame to approach young women from his DJ social media. He has always denied controversy, but has also made it a matter hushed up during promotional interviews from West side story. Though he plans the cancellation culture myth, Tony is the latest successful role of the many Elgort accumulates.
Whatever the causes of the failure at the box office, some think that his foreseeable run at the Oscars – which will be held next April – will give him a good boost. Spielberg has not commented on the matter. The only thing that he has said and that seems to be clear in the making of is that “I had not felt that feeling so intense and wonderful since I filmed ET “. Will satisfaction be more powerful than ambition?