West Side Story 2021: A Timeless Classic Revived

Maria (Natalie Wood) from the 1961 version (left), Maria (Rachel Zegler) from the 2021 version (right)


Maria (Natalie Wood) from the 1961 version (left), Maria (Rachel Zegler) from the 2021 version (right)

We all know the classic Shakespeare play featuring two star-crossed lovers fated to meet, fall in love, and die tragic deaths. Many filmmakers have taken creative liberties with Romeo and Juliet in the past and have come up with… interesting concepts. Gnomeo & Juliet, Rodeo & Juliet— the producers at Hallmark have my full admiration. However, not all Romeo and Juliet-based films have a cheesy spin-off name like that, nor are they all comically bad.

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story is a musical set in modern Manhattan, focusing on the rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets, gangs divided by racial differences. Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet of the film, are from opposite sides of the rivalry, but after they have their ‘love at first sight’ moment at a dance, nothing– not even worsening discriminatory gang violence– can keep them apart. 

The musical opened on Broadway in 1957, and was later adapted to film by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1961. And for a musical of the 50s, it was such a bold stroke introducing themes such as racism into an age old Shakespeare classic, but they pulled it off successfully. The song “America” sung by Anita, Bernardo, and the rest of the Sharks illustrates the inequality immigrants face with blunt sarcasm: 

“Life is alright in America… if you’re all white in America.

Here you are free and you have pride… as long as you stay on your own side.

Free to be anything you choose… Free to wait tables and shine shoes.”

The film went on to win ten Oscars at the Academy Awards the next year and was a turning point in cinematography in regards to diversity representation. However, looking back from a 21st century lens, there were certain elements that wouldn’t be accepted nowadays. In the production aspect, few actors portraying the Puerto Ricans were actually of the ethnicity, most being white in tan makeup and thick accents. Even Anita, who was portrayed by Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the entire cast, was caked in a darker shade of make-up to “enhance” her ethnicity. 

George Charkis who played Bernardo, a Shark and Maria’s brother, can be seen with brownface in the image above. (Youtube- The Gangs fight in the street (West Side Story))

With Stephen Spielberg’s 2021 remake on the horizon, there are so many things to be excited for: the cast, the choreo, the set designs. I’m excited for a fresh take on the songs, too. Before his passing, Sondheim actually worked with the cast in the recording process, so we can be sure that the film holds true to the original creators’ vision.

From what I’ve seen of the trailer, the cinematography is beautiful. Of course, it’s Stephen Spielberg. I don’t know the correct terms, but the sweeping shots of the city and rubble make me feel some type of way — then again, that could just be the city girl in me. The show stopping dance scenes were choreographed by Resident Choreographer of New York City Ballet Justin Peck, who has worked on many Broadway shows, including the 2018 revival of Carousel. In certain scenes, dancers fill up entire city blocks which gave me In the Heights vibes, another movie musical that came out this year.

Anita (Ariana Debose) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. (digitalspy.com)

The film is scheduled to come out this Friday, and West Side Story fans hold their breaths in anticipation. One thing to appreciate is Spielberg’s efforts to make sure the casting was perfect. The remake features rising star Rachel Zegler as Maria, and Ansel Elgort as Tony. Zegler would now be the first Latina to take on the role of Maria on film. Ariana Debose from Hamilton and The Prom took on the role of Anita. Rita Moreno, mentioned previously, also makes an appearance in the 2021 film as Valentina, the drug store owner, replacing the role of Doc in the 1961 version. Another Broadway star, Mike Faist from Dear Evan Hansen, landed the role of Riff, and famous dancer Maddie Ziegler will be Velma. It is surely a diverse cast, fit to do their roles justice.

In a behind-the-scenes interview, Spielberg said: “It’s such a profound story. It speaks to every generation. It’s timeless in the sense that we should be reminded of that story as often as possible.”

At the Los Angeles premier of West Side Story, David Alvarez said: “One of the most powerful messages that stands the test of time and that needs to be retold and reminded through generations is the power of love.”

Love transcends all boundaries, and we need that now more than ever. 

Don’t forget to see West Side Story coming out in theaters this Friday, and I would recommend watching the 1961 Robbins and Wise version as well!


Elyza Tuan ‘23, Co-Assistant Editor-in-Chief