The announcement last year of the impending release of Steven Spielberg’s new movie version of West Side Story was an exceptionally exciting prospect which I keenly anticipated for several months. But, exciting as that prospect has been for me, this brilliantly reimagined movie has not yet realised a break-even financial return at the box-office. As I write this, we don’t yet know if it will make the Oscar nominations, but maybe if it gets an award or two it will surely repeat the success of Cabaret in 1972 when, in New Zealand at least, the original release passed by almost unnoticed until its haul of eight Oscars brought its immediate and hugely successful return to our screens.
I saw the new West Side Story at the start of January at Christchurch’s Academy Gold Cinema, one of the very few daytime showings in recent years when I’ve been in a movie theatre that was completely sold out. And, while I loved the movie as a whole, I was initially rather disappointed by the musical impact – or lack of it. The emotional clout of this great score just wasn’t there!
A few days later I listened to the music soundtrack at home on my own sound system and the experience was totally different. Everything, as my wife and I both agreed, was so much better. The singing was heartfelt, and the orchestral balance was much more immediate and powerful. What had seemed rather lame in the cinema, came fully to life in my living room. I can only presume that the Academy Gold didn’t have the volume level turned up high enough. A few days later, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth at the Lumière cinema in the Christchurch Arts Centre had all the audio impact one could wish for, which added so much power and atmosphere to that movie.
Although the 1961 West Side Story (Best Picture plus 9 other Academy Awards that year) remains a classic, nothing about this new 2021 version is inferior – and much is superior, further demonstrating that Shakespeare’s timeless masterpiece Romeo and Juliet (1595) via West Side Story (1957→1961→2021) remains as topical and relevant as ever. Spielberg’s movie fully communicates the profound humanity of the story – it has the rare quality of compelling our sympathy for every character and enabling us to understand the motivations of every side of the conflict. This is partly the result of setting the production in the reality of Manhattan’s Upper West Side slum clearances on San Juan Hill in the late 1950s, exactly at the time when West Side Story was first staged, and which displaced over 7000 families. Ironically (deliberately?), the world premiere of this new movie screened at Lincoln Centre’s Rose Theatre on the very site of the slum clearances where the movie is set.
As I listen again to that stunning new soundtrack, I hear so much more characterisation in every part than ever before; even single lines and phrases from individual ensemble characters are teeming with personality, expression and heart. Officer Krupke is the most obvious example with its wonderfully-conceived improvisatory beginning, but characterisation and individuality are equally to the fore in every ensemble piece from The Jet Song, to America, and from Cool to the ensemble sections of I Feel Pretty. If some of the orchestrations sound a bit homogenous as recorded (where are the all-important guitars in America that Bernstein was so insistent on hearing clearly in his own 1984 recording?), all the instrumental colours and originality of the composer’s and his assistants’ imaginations astonish anew; and the vocal rhythms and textural clarity of the five individual lines in the quintet version of Tonight are simply stunning.
As usual with movie musicals (although West Side Story is more than just a musical), much of the musical soundtrack was pre-recorded and used as playback during filming, but I found Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler (Tony and Maria) so convincing in their singing of One Hand, One Heart that a bit of research revealed that several songs (One Hand, One Heart; Somewhere; A Boy Like That/I Have a Love; parts of Maria) were indeed sung and recorded live on set during filming. And what a stroke of genius to make the store owner Doc into the Puerto Rican Valentina (played, incidentally, by Rita Moreno, the 1961 film’s Anita) – her performance of Somewhere brought a tear or two, even if, in 1961, she had a ghost voice for A Boy Like That.
For this new version, arranger David Newman has retained and respected the 1961 film’s superb original orchestration with a few adaptions and enhancements, all to positive effect. The order of the songs is slightly different from both the original stage score and the 1961 movie – the placements of Cool (here with its chilling undercurrent of commentary on America’s gun culture) and Officer Krupke both make convincing sense in 2021. America retains the Puerto Rican boy vs. girl of the 1961 movie as opposed to the less potent girls-only of the stage musical. And the addition of the Puerto Rican anthem La Borinqueña, sung by the Sharks in the opening sequence, gives them a sense of purpose, personality and validity that balances their status with the Jets in the following Jet Song.
The amount of untranslated Spanish in the movie gives the Puerto Rican characters new authenticity, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay brings the original rather stagey dialogue into the twenty-first century. Some of that dialogue restores one or two of the grittier elements of the stage script (“sperm to worm”) that were softened in the 1961 movie. Justin Peck’s choreography is also less stagey than in 1961 – the sizzling spectacles he provides with the help of equally spectacular cinematography in the Jet Song and the Dance at the Gym are exhilarating, and the way America races through the streets instead of being confined to a rooftop (1961) is electrifying!
I really need to see this movie again, but I also need to know that the cinema will give it the audio presentation that it deserves.
Tony Ryan has reviewed Christchurch concerts, opera and music theatre productions and many other theatre performances since the mid 1990s.
Tony has presented live and written radio reviews of numerous concerts, opera and other musical events for RNZ Concert for many years. An archive of these reviews can be found at Radio New Zealand - Upbeat
His reviews of opera, music & straight theatre and numerous reviews of buskers and comedy festival performances are available at Theatreview
An archive of Tony’s chamber music reviews is held at Christopher’s Classics
He has also reviewed for The Press (Christchurch). Links to Tony's Press reviews are listed below:
A Barber and Bernstein Double Bill – Toi Toi Opera
The Strangest of Angels – NZOpera
Will King (Baritone) and David Codd (Piano) – Christopher's Classics
Ars Acustica – Free Theatre
Truly Madly Baroque – Red Priest
The Mousetrap – Lunchbox Theatre
Iconoclasts – cLoud
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
An Evening with Simon O’Neill NZSO
Catch Me If You Can – Blackboard Theatre
Brothers in Arms – CSO
Fear and Courage – CSO
Sin City – CSO
Don Giovanni – Narropera at Lansdowne
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Funatorium
Weave – NZTrio
Tosca – NZ Opera
Sister Act – Showbiz
Broadway to West End – Theatre Royal
Chicago – Court Theatre
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 – CSO
Homage – CSO
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
SOAR – NZTrio
Pianomania – NZSO
Rogers & Hammerstein – Showbiz
Songs for Nobodies – Ali Harper
The Beauty of Baroque – CSO
Travels in Italy – NZSO