By David T. Valentin
Friday night I had the opportunity to see the remake of West Side Story, directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria respectively. And while everyone was comparing it to the original, either commenting the remake couldn’t live up to the original or nervous they’d change so much, I found the remake both respectful of the great original while also trying to create its own thing.
For those who might not know, West Side Story is a modern day take on Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, in which two lovers from rival families fall in love with each other but their love is doomed to fail from the moment they begin to elope with one another. But in West Side Story, instead of rival families it’s rival gangs and the rivalry isn’t fueled by petty family quarrels but by racism. Tony and Maria find themselves falling in love during an intense turf war between the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and the rest, well, that’s history.
Now, like any remake for any popular musical, movie, or whatever, no matter how much you want to see the remake as its own thing, you can’t help but compare the two. And that’s what I did through a lot of the film—tried to figure out whether this scene or that scene was in the original and how faithful they decided to stick to the original material. In that, West Side Story (2021) stays mostly faithful to the source material, from pieces of dialogue to set designs, the script is almost word from word with only a few things moved around here and there.
Now, it’s obvious in the original when you compare the cast members from those of the remake that, finally, they’ve cast actors who actually look the age of the characters (roughly around 18-20 years of age). Because of an age appropriate casting, the weight of the situation and the racial tension between the two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, feels very much more real, but also sad considering what these kids have to go through. Dealing with keeping themselves on their toes despite their financial realities, gentrification in their area, and, in the Sharks case, racism, the stakes seem much higher and believable for these children which creates a different kind of empathy you might form with the 1961 cast of the movie.
Not only is the casting closer to the age of the characters, but the setting and choreography surrounding some of the songs is made clearer in the 2021 version of the film as opposed to the 1961 film. To be honest, with this I’m not quite sure how much of this is because I don’t remember the 1961 film as much as I would want to or not, but I felt myself understanding the lyrics of the songs better because of what’s going on in the musical acts. Specifically, the infamous song “Officer Krupke” really goes all out in acting out every lyric so the audience really understands what’s going on with these kids and how screwed up the situation really is. On top of that, with the age-appropriate casting of the Sharks, the musical number “Officer Krupke” feels like something a bunch of boys around the age of 18-20 would absolutely do in their socio-economic situations, whereas I feel the 1961 film with its older casting just makes the song and the choreography of it all an immature statement from a bunch of emotionally immature men who don’t want to grow up. Of course, there’s commentary to be had in both those interpretations, but I very much prefer the 2021 take on the song and its choreography.
Along with the more age-appropriate casting comes different interpretations of the characters, specifically the relationship between Tony and Maria. With the older cast members in the 1961 take of the film and the characters being played by 22-year-old Richard Beymer as Tony and 23-year-old Natalie Wood as Maria, the relationship between the two felt more mature, sexy and fueled by passion. But as for the 2021 adaptation where Tony is played by the 27-year-old Ansel Elgort and Maria played by 20-year-old Rachel Zegler who both look younger than they are, the relationship seemed playful, innocent and naïve. Whereas Natalie Wood played Maria with intensity, passion and fierceness, Rachel Zegler played the character with innocence, curiosity and passiveness. Because Zegler played the character as such, the delivery of the theme of hate felt more complete in the closing minutes of the musical film when Maria cries over Tony’s dead body and declares that she now “hates.” As if to say, “my love for this boy was pure, fueled by curiosity and passion but now I hate, hate not only the Jets who seemed unfamiliar and scary to me, but also the Sharks who tried to tell me their hate was justified because they were protecting me.”
Of course, because the couple is played more innocent and naively, their flirtations between each other do come off as a bit goofy and immature, especially their wanting to run away and start a family after hanging out with each other just for one night. In certain scenes, specifically in the song “Tonight,” some lyrics are either moved around or removed entirely. I know this was an attempt to create something new, but in this situation specifically it removed some of the playful flirtatiousness between the two, specifically when Maria asks Tony what does Tony stand for. Rather than her trying to guess, in the original he tells her, and there’s this cute back and forth between the two of them without one seeming too pushy like in the 2021 adaptation. I guess at the end of the day you can chalk that up to the two being portrayed more child-like than feeling like a mid-20-year-old couple.
I can honestly say, walking out of the theatre, that I very much enjoyed both the 1961 and 2021 adaptation of the musical West Side Story. I didn’t walk out of there feeling like one was significantly better than the other one. Instead, I found myself appreciating the different ways the actors interpreted and played their characters and felt each adaptation emphasizing different themes in different ways.