As regards the film adaptation of “West Side Story” by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, let’s give the floor to one Mr. Stephen Sondheim.
He died Nov. 26 after an unsurpassed career in musical theater launched when he wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story,” the youngest member of a legendary creative team that included composer Leonard Bernstein, librettist Arthur Laurents, and choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Asked by Stephen Colbert in September about the new adaptation, the 91-year-old Sondheim said: “Movie musicals are hard to do, and this one — Spielberg and Kushner really, really nailed it.’’
He was right on both counts: “West Side Story” is a near-total triumph that captures the pulse rate of the stage musical in a way the Oscar-winning 1961 film version failed to do. What an end-of-life gift for Sondheim, and what an impressive achievement for the now 74-year-old Spielberg, directing the first musical of his own storied career. If it’s possible to check a box with an exclamation point, Spielberg does so here.
His maximalist, go-big-or-go-home aesthetic proves to be a perfect match for the material, yielding a “West Side Story” that sweeps you up in a rush of its sheer kinetic momentum while still making room for moments of ravishing, close-up stillness.
Kushner (”Angels in America,” “Lincoln”), long the sort of writer whom the French would call engagé, ensures that we don’t lose sight of the larger sociopolitical context within which all the singing, dancing, fighting, and swooning unfolds. Bernstein’s score remains one of the glories of musical theater: all thunder and lightning one moment, all tender whispers the next. Justin Peck’s choreography retains the dynamism and expressivity of Robbins’s work while taking advantage of the (literal) running room Spielberg provides for the cast.
“West Side Story” is, of course, a reimagining of “Romeo and Juliet” set in late ‘50s New York City, with the star-crossed lovers of Renaissance-period Verona now the Polish-American Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Puerto Rican Maria (Rachel Zegler, delivering a star-is-born breakout performance).
In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare wrote of “the fearful passage of their death-marked love,” and Tony and Maria’s passage is no less fearful. They’re caught in the crosscurrents of a turf battle between the Jets, a white street gang Tony formerly headed, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (a blazingly charismatic David Alvarez).
Underscoring the fact that the Jets and the Sharks are fighting over vanishing turf — and that larger forces want them and the communities they come from out of the picture — “West Side Story” begins with an extended panoramic shot of the rubble of buildings that have been demolished to make way for what will be the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Throughout the film, Spielberg’s camera is a virtual character of its own, whether swooping into the tightly choreographed maelstrom of the “Dance at the Gym” number or gazing down from above as dancers surge through the streets of the Upper West Side in “America.” (If you’re comfortable in a theater, that’s where the visual sweep of this movie should be fully savored.) An aura of genuine danger hovers over this “West Side Story.” When the explosive rumble takes place between the Jets and the Sharks, the violence feels real and the stakes feel mortal.
Spielberg’s film doesn’t quite solve the tonal inconsistency of “West Side Story,” where one moment the Jets are goofing their way through a witty satire of do-gooderism, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and then, later, those same youths commit a horrific act. Elgort, playing Tony, comes across as somewhat bland. Kushner has given the character a new backstory — he’s just out of prison for nearly beating a man to death — but as with virtually every Tony I’ve ever seen, Elgort is just not persuasive as someone tough enough to have commanded a street gang; Mike Faist, as Riff, is far more convincing on that score.
“West Side Story” occupies a huge but disputed place in the musical-theater canon. Created by four white men, it has long been criticized for a lack of cultural authenticity, with its depictions of Puerto Rican characters seen as thinly drawn stereotypes. There’s a case to be made — and some are currently making it with fervor — that the job of redressing those shortcomings does not properly belong in the hands of two more white men.
Spielberg and Kushner have taken that job seriously, in terms of casting, story, and presentation. Unlike Natalie Wood, who played Maria in the 1961 movie, Zegler is Latina. There’s a substantial amount of Spanish dialogue in the new film, and, importantly, no subtitles — i.e., no assumptions about who this “West Side Story’' is for. Fuller weight is given to the relationship between Bernardo and Anita (a sensational Ariana DeBose). Musicals often feature a secondary romance, but there’s nothing secondary about this one.
The proprietor of the pharmacy where Tony works, named Doc in the original, is now a Puerto Rican widow named Valentina, portrayed by the incomparable Rita Moreno, who turns 90 on Saturday. (Moreno played Anita in the 1961 film and won a best supporting actress Oscar.) Here it is Valentina, rather than Tony and Maria, who sings “Somewhere.” Here, that ballad of yearning widens out to encompass more than the dream-duet of two young lovers. When Moreno — combining a hauntingly elegiac quality with the tragic wisdom of age — sings “There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us,” she’s singing about all of us.
Elgort’s ardor in the love scenes is no match for that of the luminous Zegler. Only 20, she’s the soul of this “West Side Story,” possibly the most affecting Maria I’ve ever seen, in both her joy and her eventual heartbreak. Zegler’s face is frequently alight with youthful discovery; whatever emotion this Maria feels, she seems to be experiencing it for the first time.
As she performs a tune that is all about feelings, “I Feel Pretty,” Zegler signals that this new sensation for Maria represents not just vanity but a no-turning-back step into adulthood. Maria has been infantilized by the overprotective Bernardo, but in Zegler’s hands, the song registers as a defiant declaration of independence.
This new “West Side Story” can be seen in a similar light. There have been countless iterations of this masterwork (it was revived again on Broadway as recently as last year), but Spielberg and Kushner enable us to see it with new eyes. Like the man said, they really, really nailed it.
WEST SIDE STORY
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner; based on the original book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Starring Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Mike Faist, Brian D’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andres Rivera, Iris Menas. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 156 minutes. PG-13 (some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, smoking)