The great renovator of American cinema, Steven Spielberg, He had a thorn in his head: directing a musical. For this he has chosen nothing less than West Side Story, a classic written by the recently deceased composer, Stephen Sondheim, and made into a movie in 1961 by Robert Wise. Iconic musical where there are any that speaks of totally current themes, the same ones that Spielberg has wanted to accentuate in his rereading of the original. “Since I saw him for the first time, I jumped out of my chair singing and dancing,” said the director at an online press conference.
“I had not felt that intense and wonderful feeling since we shot ET,” adds the director of films as Jurassic Park, Lincoln or Minority Report. The film repeats the original script almost point by point and tries to make the scenes of the Wise film less theatrical, in which he starred Natalie Wood. A Romeo and Juliet that tells the story of impossible love between Tony and Maria, in the midst of racial conflicts between Irish and Latino immigrants.
Spielberg exudes mastery and gives evidence of the money he has counted on to bring the musical to the streets of New York. It has cost more than 100 million dollars, without adding the costs of having it in a drawer for more than a year due to the pandemic. The director’s intention was to highlight the political messages of the first. “This is much more political,” says Rita Moreno, an actress who won the Oscar for her role as Anita. in the first version and that in Spielberg’s also has its leading role, it interprets the role of Doc’s widow, one of the few changes in the story since the role did not exist in previous versions.
“I will not say that I was not envious of my companions, that would be a damn lie,” said the actress at 89 years old. “I wanted to be able to go back to being so young and to do it again. The result in the end, I love it, it is very beautiful,” explains Moreno, who acknowledges that it was rare to see his successor interpret the key scene of the musical, ‘America’, the number most famous shot in the heart of the Latin Quarter of Harlem. Moreno was the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award. Now his replacement is Ariana DeBose, another actress of Latin origin who is already in the prize pools. The same as the new Maria, the Latin actress Rachel Zegler.
The film was indeed shot in pre-pandemic New York. The intention was to avoid digital as much as possible, but there were tricks, as the director acknowledges. “The guys worked so hard they sweated through their dresses, that’s why we used the magic of digital technology, to wipe all the sweat in post-production.”
The Sharks and the Jets fought for control of the territory, the neighborhood; without realizing that something bigger was going to take away their houses. Spielberg speaks of gentrification, of urban speculation and how those two gangs clashed over racial issues, actually have the same problems. “The territory for which they say they are at war is under the shadow of demolition,” added the director about one of the problems that New Yorkers are suffering right now and that has increased more after the pandemic.
Without a doubt, one of the keys to this new West Side Story is that it takes another step in representation and diversity. Spielberg declined to subtitle parts of the dialogue in Spanish out of respect. “The language had to exist in equal proportion to English,” he explained. “The objective is that the Anglo-Saxon public and the Latin public sit together in the stalls and enjoy the same movie,” he added.
The film team never considered moving the action into the present, mainly because the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who died last month at 91 and was heavily involved in the production, were written in the language of the young people of the 1950s. .
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.