The remake of West Side Story tells the full story

Sitting down in the movie theater to watch the newest rendition of West Side Story awakened excitement for my inner theater-kid who has seen the original film as well as multiple theatrical productions a number of times. I was eager to see a modern adaptation of the classic musical, especially following the recent death of the renowned Stephen Sondheim who served as original lyricist for the production. 

Rhianwen Watkins

TW: sexual assault/physical violence/discrimination 

Sitting down in the movie theater to watch the newest rendition of West Side Story awakened excitement for my inner theater-kid who has seen the original film as well as multiple theatrical productions a number of times. I was eager to see a modern adaptation of the classic musical, especially following the recent death of the renowned Stephen Sondheim who served as original lyricist for the production. 

The familiar whistle at the beginning of the film sets the scene for a sunny day in Upper West Side Manhattan, where we are introduced to two gangs: The Jets, of Western European descent, and the Sharks, of Puerto Rican descent. The two gangs rival each other for dominance over their neighborhood, highlighting the conflict between the two ethnic groups. Maria (Rachel Zegler), is the antagonist alongside former Jets member, Tony (Ansel Elgort).  Maria and Tony strike an unusual and somewhat forbidden relationship as Tony is white, and Maria is Puerto Rican. The movie follows their love story amidst the tumultuous conflict between the Jets and Sharks who have agreed to a rumble. This drives Tony and Maria to try and stop it from happening in order to protect their loved ones on each side. 

The plot was inspired by another familiar story, a little classic written by Shakespeare, called Romeo and Juliet. The innocence of Maria’s and Tony’s love affair, and how quickly they fell for each other reflects the almost ignorant nature of young relationships. The way Maria disregards the grave mistakes that Tony makes, blinded by his charm; the way they plot to run away together after knowing each other for an absurdly short amount of time. This is the same sequence that Romeo’s and Juliet’s relationship follows. 

One controversial thing that came from this movie remake, was the director’s choice in casting Elgort as a lead character, despite past sexual assault allegations against him. Several women have come forth about their experiences, and one woman in particular took to twitter, claiming that he assaulted her when she was only 17 and he was 20. Many people have taken note of the fact that Elgort took a hiatus from the acting scene following the allegations and are unhappy with his return in this role. When I first saw the remake, I was unaware of these allegations, so my only judgment was on his acting. Performance wise, I thought he was outstanding, and there is no doubt he is very talented. But, it is a bit unnerving finding this out about him, and had I watched the movie with this knowledge, my initial reactions to him in this role likely would have been different, especially since Tony is a character that many talented white male actors do type for. 

I have seen this show in both movie and musical format multiple times, and every single time I see Maria blindly forgiving Tony, shortly after learning he has killed her brother, it makes me want to scream at her to run away from him, rather than with him. And the way she tells Anita, her brother’s someday wife, that she loves him anyway, after Anita has had to endure the horrific news that this man has killed her own love, one that was sure to last. The fact that this movie was able to elicit these strong emotions from me and make me angry with Maria for letting her ignorance outshine her moral compass, tells me that the acting was impactful. 

Not only is the acting impeccable, but the singing is astounding. Zegler’s voice is angel-like and possesses a bell-like quality. The dancing is equally as mesmerizing, and DeBose is without a doubt a standout. She commands the screen with so much power and presence. The Latin moves she performs in the scene at the dance are electric and draw you right to her. Even one of the most famous faces of the dance world, Maddie Ziegler, who makes an appearance as Velma, is upstaged by DeBose’s fiery moves. New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Justin Peck, did an outstanding job at adapting Jerome Robbins’s original choreography while still grasping the roots of it. 

Another aspect of the movie that really made an impact on me was the way in which it differed from the original in its representation of Puerto Rican actors. In the original movie, white actors played the roles of Latino characters in “brown face.” Having Caucasian actors portray roles of other races and ethnicities is something that is heavily disputed in today’s theatre culture, because not only does it take away opportunities from marginalized groups who are already underrepresented in theatre, but white actors have also never lived the very real experiences of these minorities.  This version highlighted Latino actors playing all of the Puerto Rican characters. Many times, the movie would show them speaking Spanish to one another. In certain scenes, white characters would criticize the Puerto Rican characters for not speaking in English which highlighted the pressure they endured to move away from their culture in a new country. It was incredible to see the inclusivity in the casting and the realistic depictions of ethnic relations. 

The role of gender also plays a big part throughout the movie. One of the most misunderstood characters, and personally one of my favorites, is “Nobody’s” played by Iris Menas, a non-binary actor. “Nobody’s” character never formally reveals their gender identity, but it is clear that they prefer either a nonbinary or male identity. “Nobody’s” is constantly trying to prove to the Jets that they have what it takes to be a member, but the Jets make discriminatory remarks and physically beat “Nobody’s” when they try to fit in with the gang. I think this is a really interesting plot point, because back in 1961 when the original film was made, having a character that defied the gender binary was rarely done. Seeing “Nobody’s” in the remake made me realize even more how important and refreshing it is to have representation of trans and non-binary characters in film and actors who identify this way portraying them. 

Finally, the movie touches on treatment of women. It was the female characters, especially towards the end of the movie that made the biggest impact on me and one scene in particular really struck me. Anita is at the drug store owned by Valentina (Rita Moreno.) She is surrounded by the Jets, including Jet’s leader Riff’s girlfriend, Graziella (Paloma Garcia-Lee), and Velma; the only other women there besides Anita. The Jets shout derogatory words at Anita, throw Graziella and Velma out of the store and proceed in attempting to gang rape Anita. It is unclear whether or not they are successful. Valentina comes in and is the one to disperse the men. What really moved me in this scene was the way that Graziella, who at first contributed to the verbal taunting, immediately stopped when she realized the men’s further intentions. In a second, she was able to stand with her because it didn’t matter their difference in ethnicity; they both, as women, had experienced the same treatment from men and she felt an obligation to protect her. Graziella was the only person in that moment who was able to overcome a cultural barrier for the good of another human being. And it was Valentina, the wise grandmother-figure, who saved Anita. 

I recommend this movie to everyone, as long as you are comfortable with seeing physical violence, implied sexual violence and discrimination. It is not an easy movie to watch. It is gut wrenching and shows the very real, lived experiences that the Puerto Rican population endures living amidst a white society. But I think it’s unique in that it is one of the first pieces of theatre and cinema of its time that doesn’t put a rose-colored filter over a love story. It doesn’t provide a happy ending just for the comfortability of the audience. It leaves you thinking. And feeling. And especially right now with where society is at culturally, I think there couldn’t have been better timing for the remake of this film. I applaud all the actors for their authentically poignant performances and encourage you to go experience it for yourselves.  

Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone.