West Side Story

For us, stars will stop where they are…sing Tony and Maria in Tonight, and they certainly do when you’re watching the new Steven Spielberg film of West Side Story.

If you were worried beforehand why anyone would bother tinkering with a classic (both the stage production and the 10-Oscar-winning 1961 Robert Wise film of it), all fears are allayed in the opening five minutes. Spielberg doesn’t fuck it up and, if you can improve on a masterpiece, then I think they might well have done that. Look, West Side Story done well is always one of the greatest things ever, and there’s no question for me that this latest version is the film of the year.

That may well be because Spielberg – who’s always had a way with Sharks, let’s remember –  mainly trusts the Bernstein music and the Sondheim lyrics and leaves them well enough alone. They’re the text here, the sacred road map, and they are gloriously intact and, indeed, given a new power by the production. 

What’s changed most is the script – and if you’ve ever tried to perform it on stage, you’ll know that was always the most dated and difficult aspect of it, so Tony Kushner’s subtle alterations are welcome and rather brilliant, focusing on the racial tensions and sense of alienation and dispossession felt by these young people. 

There’s also a lot more Spanish dialogue, none of it subtitled, and I think it brings an immediacy and an authenticity, this dual identity, linguistic and cultural, that so many immigrants will be familiar with, and with which New York is always humming with, an isle full of noises.

In 1961, West Side Story was current, relevant, responding to news stories about juvenile delinquents and Puerto Rican gangs. This new film, 60 years on, has a sense of history and period and that’s a crucial difference – the computerised (I imagine) images of Manhattan in the rubble during the slum clearances that make way for what will become the Lincoln Centre (where this film premiered on Monday in New York) are a haunting backdrop and the social changes being swept in are going totally over the heads of the young disenfranchised kids below. This film has more of a sense of place, even if that place is the past…

The cast are terrific, even Tony and Maria, who are often the least interesting characters in any production of this. Rachel Zegler, I really warmed to her and her singing is lovely. Ansel Elgort has the requisite goofiness for Tony (as stipulated by Richard Beymer’s original film performance and by the text itself) and I really believed their love-at-first-sight ardour. Indeed the film achieves a wonderful, floating ease from the dance at the gym, into Maria and Tony’s meeting and then into Tony’s delirious incantation of Maria, up the fire escape for the balcony scene of Tonight. It’s some of best 20 or so minutes of Spielberg’s career.

And then it gets even better as they melt into America, which gives back the prominence to Anita, played wonderfully by Ariana deBose in a performance the oscar-winning Rita Moreno herself would be proud of. We can ask her, actually, because she’s an executive producer on this and plays one of the film’s key altered roles, Valentina, the widow of Doc who now owns the drugstore, and who’s seen it all. She’s funny and warm and her delivery of a soaring Somewhere is a stand-out new moment.

The costumes are superb (Paul Tazewell who won a Tony for Hamilton), coming to life in a brilliantly shot Mambo gym dance, and the choreography by Justin Peck pays homage to the hallowed Jerome Robbins steps but tweaks it with a few modern moves.

Another example is the subtle change of Cool to being an exchange between Riff and Tony, rather than a showcase for the Jets’ Action and Diesel (they still get a crack at a great Officer Krupke, so…) and it makes so much more sense, with some business about a gun being the “got a rocket in your pocket” line). 

So much of the new dialogue fills in backstory – Tony’s fresh out of jail for a terrible act he regrets –  and the cop Schrank, played now by Corey Stoll, may not have the gangster B-picture grizzled Edward G Robinson quality of the original’s Simon Oakland, but he’s got some great lines here, particularly wary of the future of shiny new apartments and what’s coming and how there’s no place in it for any of these kids. Gentrification is the running theme of this West Side Story and that makes it feel so very relevant.

But as I say, it’s the music and the lyrics that suddenly pop and hit home with added zing. Amid all this very delicately-adjusted new framing, I don’t think the withering line “If you’re all white in America” has ever landed with such power.

I’ve been humming and singing the tunes and the lyrics for days now, my heart soaring from just hearing it all again and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up like they’re doing their own finger-clicking down the street.

Always fantastic, West Side Story just got a little bit more fabulous, receiving the big screen booster jab that’ll ensure its genius will endure for another 60 years.

in UK cinemas from December 10