Tonight, Tonight, ‘West Side Story’ Is Full of Light

By Edward Simon Cruz, age 16, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, Plainsboro, N.J.

Musical theater is, at its best, exhilarating and immersive. The catchy tunes, dynamic choreography and live environment form an experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else. No wonder film adaptations of musicals frequently fall flat.

“West Side Story” provides an interesting exception to the rule. The musical and its 1961 film adaptation are both notorious for their inauthentic depictions of Puerto Ricans, but they remain cultural touchstones. In an age of remakes, another adaptation of a semi-problematic work could very easily fall flat.

This one, thankfully, does not.

Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made several wise adjustments, like casting Latinx actors as Latinx characters and adding dialogue that mixes English and unsubtitled Spanish. These changes do not erase the original’s issues, but they do help reimagine “West Side Story” for a new era.

The famous score from Leonard Bernstein and the recently-passed Stephen Sondheim remains, and the Shakespeare-inspired premise still revolves around two star-crossed lovers (the white Tony and the Puerto Rican Maria) associated with rival gangs (the Jets and the Sharks, respectively) in 1950s Manhattan. While Ansel Elgort is merely serviceable as Tony, newcomer Rachel Zegler is graceful in Maria’s softer scenes and achingly vulnerable amid her heartbreaks. The supporting performers, many of whom are Broadway veterans, are all commanding presences: Mike Faist and David Alvarez bring edge as Riff and Bernardo (the leaders of the Jets and Sharks, respectively), and Ariana DeBose’s lively portrayal of Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita, lives up to Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning performance in the same role.

Spielberg combines these performances with Janusz Kaminski’s arresting cinematography and Justin Peck’s sharp choreography to create musical sequences that are in themselves exhilarating and immersive, especially when viewed in a big theater. Some numbers, like the vibrant “America,” could have come from a classic Technicolor extravaganza; others, like the toe-tapping “Cool,” are inventive in using their environments, be they platforms hanging over the water or displays in a department store. One reprise of “Tonight” encapsulates this film’s strengths, using overlapping voices and quick cuts to crescendo both musically and emotionally in the buildup to a climactic fight.

In Spielberg’s hands, “West Side Story” is both a glorious throwback and a grittier update. It’s also a poignant tribute to the living legend Rita Moreno and the late legend Stephen Sondheim. Fittingly, Moreno appears as a wise mentor, bridging the gap between past and present in a film that purports to bridge the gap between stage and screen. She even gets one of the show’s most iconic (and heartbreaking) numbers, singing, “There’s a place for us / Somewhere, a place for us.”

There is, indeed, a place for another “West Side Story”: right here.