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A Spielberg ‘West Side Story’ remake? It needs to happen

Everyone loves the film classic ‘West Side Story’. Here’s why we can’t wait for Steven Spielberg to remake it.


Aja Romano


The Internet loves to grumble, but while the rest of the Web is lining up to handwring over the news that Steven Spielberg wants to remake West Side Story, we’re celebrating. It’s true that Robert Wise’s film adaptation of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical is a classic, featuring an all-star cast and iconic choreography by Jerome Robbins.

But here’s why we want Spielberg to tear it all down and start over.

1) The original movie score is lifeless

In addition to suffering from a number of awkward musical cuts, the 1961 West Side Story score drags and drags. Its bloated and outsized orchestra produced a sound Bernstein himself called “overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety.” And it’s easy to hear why. When you listen to the 1957 Original Broadway Cast Recording, the aggressive energy of Bernstein’s notoriously difficult score almost makes it seem like notes are flying off the page and hitting you in the face. It’s exactly how a rough, violent inner-city Romeo and Juliet should sound:

In contrast, when you listen to the film score, most of the musical numbers which had vibrance and energy onstage get slowed down to a snail’s pace in comparison.

The dramatic quality of the film suffers because of the tepid score. Onstage, the fervid “Cool” is restless, aggravated, anything but cool. The movie’s setting makes this song into a laidback, hip walk in the park, which robs it of its dramatic function as a stand-in for Tony’s mental anguish. Do-over, please.

2) More authentically Hispanic? Si, por favor

In the 1961 film, Russian actress Natalie Wood played the Hispanic Maria, with her voice dubbed by famed Hollywood songstress Marni Nixon. Spielberg is unlikely to whitewash the casting, so we would actually have a Hispanic actress play Maria. Equally important to the show’s authenticity: actual Spanish in the script. In 2009, the show’s original librettist, Arthur Laurents, helmed a revival that utilized a wealth of new Spanish translations and insertions to the original text, written by Tony-award-winning In the Heights composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. The chance for new film audiences to see the musical with this additional context is one we shouldn’t pass up for anything.

3) It should be longer

You know what’s better than music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins? More music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins. The original film clocked in at two-and-a-half hours, and cuts were made to the score and dance sequences. Today no one would cut a word or remove a single step of Robbins’ asphalt jungle ballet step. But Bernstein had to fight to keep his score intact even before the stage production opened, and when the editing room got hold of Robbins’ ballets, they savaged many of the moments that make the stage musical resonate, like, oh, the entire “Somewhere” ballet sequence. No big loss, it’s only one of the most iconic ballets in American musical theatre.

Thankfully, no one loves a good three-hour epic like Spielberg. Go ahead, Steve, put back all the incidental music and majestic tours jetés. The audience for three-hour musicals like Les Miserables has proven we’ll eat up every note and go see it twice.

4) MPAA censorship

The censors had a field day with the original West Side Story film adaptation, and many of the lyrics had to be altered or cut altogether to avoid racy lines like “the whole ever-mother-lovin’ street.” As if the lackadaisical score isn’t enough, taking the bite out of the Sharks and the voom out of the Jets guts the heart and soul of the ’50s punk culture the musical embodied so well.

5) Kill your darlings

I love West Side Story, but I also love the opportunity to remake things that are flawed. A few years ago, I spoke to a bitter 13-year-old who walked out at intermission during a performance of West Side Story because he felt the story he was watching was old and racist. To a kid like that, the 1961 film adaptation probably looks hopelessly dated and inauthentic. Give that kid a contemporary Spielberg musical, with actual Spanish elements, full of epic and larger-than-life visuals and Shakespearean tragedy. He deserves it. And so do we.

Photo via pacificnorthwestballet/Flickr

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