Did Spielberg blow it with ‘West Side Story’?

If Andrew Wyeth decided to paint “Christina’s World” again, doing it exactly the same except for changing the color of her pastel dress, would it still be a masterpiece?

Would Wyeth remake “Christina’s World”?

And would redoing it have been worth the effort?

That brings us to “West Side Story – Redux,” a remake of the 1961 American classic movie. (The stage version made its premiere in 1957.)

In all major respects, the remake is faithful to the original.

The choreography is very much the same. Not a step-by-step duplication, but stylistic similarity. The Jets and the Sharks don’t breakdance. Thank God. 

The score is the same, it hasn’t been remixed as hip hop. Praise Jesus.

The show is set in Manhattan in the ‘50s, and cars on the street are mammoth Detroit steel, not Korean plastic. Bless Yahweh. 

So, yeah, WSS-2 is great, but not as great as the original, which won 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.

Was a remake necessary?

To steal a tune from another Broadway smash of that era, “Damn Yankees,” whatever Steven Spielberg wants, Steven Spielberg gets, and the auteur wanted to direct this baby.  Spielberg has the Midas touch, he is a proven creative genius.

But why use a Xerox?

It’s a long haul at 2 hours, 40 minutes.  The original (which I have On Demand) ran 2 hours 32 minutes. 

The added 8 minutes covers some unnecessary exposition — such as Tony having served a year in prison for almost killing a kid in a gang fight. There’s also a new backdrop: urban renewal (today’s hiss word: gentrification), which within months will devastate the neighborhood (largely Hispanic from the look of the store signs and people in the street around 68th & Broadway).

One thing that changed in the mind of this viewer: The female named Anybody’s is a tomboy, as seen through of 1961. In 2021, she seems to be trans. That’s on me, I guess.

Not just on me is the not-so-subtle message that the Jets (white) and the Sharks (Hispanic)  are fighting over something that doesn’t exist, or soon will cease to exist.

Perhaps the “biggest” change is the casting of actual Hispanics as the Puerto Ricans on the West Side. (The original, fiery Anita, was a genuine Puerto Rican named Rita Moreno, who went on to major stardom. She gets a supporting role in WSS-2, and an executive producer credit.)

The original opened with a protracted aerial view of Manhattan. WSS-2 opens on the ground level, with tenements being leveled to create Lincoln Center.

So, yes, urban renewal is sometimes called Negro removal, and massive remakes often take place in the worse parts of town (where the property values are the lowest).

It can be uncomfortable for the current residents, and Philly has some programs to protect their interests, but is the public good better served by allowing slums to stand until they collapse under their own weight? Choices must be made.

When the musical opened on Broadway, I was spitting nails.

I was still living in the South Bronx which was being destroyed by the arrival of Puerto Ricans, in my opinion — and the opinion of all the other whites who went screaming from The Bronx to the safety of the islands. (The “islands” were the other four boroughs. The Bronx is the only one of the five boroughs connected to the mainland of the U.S.A.)

By the end of the show Maria has learned to hate, as her Tony is murdered with a single gun shot. It becomes two gunshots in WSS-2. Inflation, I guess.

I admit I hated Puerto Ricans, because they were subhuman, couldn’t speak English, and I had nothing in common with them. They lived a few blocks away, but would occasionally intrude into my neighborhood, armed with knives, chains, clubs, and the occasional zip gun.

If they caught you alone, you’d get roughed up, and shaken down.

I f’n hated spics.

The idea of seeing a Broadway show — assuming my family could afford that, which we could not — that featured interracial love was absurd. 

Maybe rich Jews like Sondheim and Bernstein could picture ballet between white and PR street gangs, but I could not. It was a Triborough Bridge too far.

I stopped hating all PRs when Jose Baez and I became friends.

I was bussed to a “special progress” middle school that was two bus rides away. It took kids like me, and Jose, from “bad zip codes,” as they say today, to a gleaming school on the other side of The Bronx.

We started talking on the bus each day and I soon found out that, yes, Jose was just like me. He was smart, ambitious, and spoke English. Yes, with a slight accent, which I kind of liked.

Eventually, I realized that he wasn’t an outlier. There were a lot of Puerto Ricans like him, and likable.

OK, so now we’re at the “we are all alike” stage.

That’s the message of WSS as written. And it was the message of “Romeo and Juliet,” on which the show was based.

As sketched in the mid-20th Century, the male lead was a Christian, called Tony, short for Anton, which is Polish.

But the female lead was to be Jewish, definitely not a Maria, a Holocaust survivor from Israel, and the show was to be called “East Side Story.”

Instead of, “Maria, I just met a girl named Maria,” it might have been “Rebecca, I just met a girl named Rebecca.”

The creators, almost all Jewish, decided that approach was too trite, according to accounts I have read. Or maybe “too Jewish?”

60 years later, Spielberg could have reclaimed that idea and had a remake that was more original, and less a carbon copy.

Sadly, he did not.

3 thoughts on “Did Spielberg blow it with ‘West Side Story’?”

  1. There was no way a bunch of teenage Army recruits could relate intelligently to WSS. That’s when I first saw it. 1962.  We were marched one day to the on-base theater(no first Amendment). As I recall (thanks Stu), it began pretty good until one of the characters burst into singing. There was loud laughter and mockery from the astute audience. And it continued,
    on and on throughout those two hours or so. WSS that day was a gift for us. It lifted us. It distracted us. Maybe, that was it’s purpose. Thanks again for releasing a forgotten memory.

  2. The greatest musical ever written (In my opinion) remains My Fair Lady, a play in which virtually every song was a hit as a stand-alone. If Spielberg (or anyone, for that matter) tried to remake MFL, it would be like putting a toothy grin on Mona Lisa or a jockstrap on Michaelangelo’s David. West Side Story (the original) was Leonard Bernstein’s triumph. Why gild the lily?

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