Much has been written about the recently released Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner version of West Side Story. While the reviews have been rapturous, its box office can be described as lukewarm at best, and the term “flop” has been bandied around by some.
Its failure to find an audience (at least so far) has been attributed to things like COVID, the datedness of its source material, its lack of “stars”, issues with its male lead, the age of its most-likely audience, and the effect of the streaming revolution on movie theater attendance in general.
All are likely factors, but the field of film adaptations of Broadway musicals has been littered with flops over the years and that includes pre-pandemic times. Yes, the recent unsuccessful releases of Dear Evan Hansen and In the Heights could be attributed to COVID-related issues (there were other issues as well), but what about Jersey Boys (2014), or Annie (2014) , or The Producers (2005)? Don’t even get me started with Cats (2019).
People like to bring up the the success of The Greatest Showman (2017) as proof-positive that movie musicals can still be sucessful, but they often forget the most salient point. It was a movie musical.
It was not an adaptation of a Broadway musical. It was not made years after a Broadway debut, a lengthy touring production, a regional theatre run, and umpteen community theatre productions. It was not a remake of a previously-produced film version that had been available for years on VHS, DVD, or on a streaming service. It was an original and if people wanted to see it, they had to go out and see it.
So is that what has befallen West Side Story?
I think West Side Story is a good film. I don’t think it’s a great film. I’m glad I saw it in a (mostly empty) theatre. It was great to see a more representative cast playing the characters (though questions remain about their stereotypical nature) and dancers could actually be seen dancing (though the Jerome Robbins-“inspired” choreography by Justin Peck is far less revolutionary/interesting). To hear the genius of Leonard Bernstein’s score digitally blaring from a top-shelf sound system was truly glorious.
But despite Kushner’s attempt to “fix” the book’s more problematic points, the story really shows its age. What was daring and even shocking 60+ years ago (interracial romance) has become commonplace, and I’m not sure the redemptive power of prison is an easy sell these days.
And then there’s Valentina.
Valentina is the character played by Rita Moreno. Moreno is a national treasure and, of course, won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 original. She is also listed as an executive producer of the Spielberg film. The character replaces “Doc” as Tony’s mentor (Valentina is Doc’s widow) and Moreno gives it her all. She’s great in the role.
Whose idea was it to have Valentina sing “Somewhere” and not Tony and Maria? What in the original film was a duet of love, hope, and forgiveness with the glimmer of possibility (and naivety) that comes with youth has been turned in to a solo of despair and futility delivered by an aged woman with more resignation than resiliance. The song is about Tony and Maria, not Valentina and Doc.
And then to rob Maria of the moment to comfort Tony with those words as he passes?
A strange choice that somehow managed to make a tragic ending less tragic.
I left the theatre thinking more about the question “Why the hell did they do that?” than reflecting on the fine work done by Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ariana DeBose as Anita, and Mike Faist as Riff. Ansel Elgort brings as much to Tony in this remake as Richard Beymer did in the original.
I don’t think the Spielberg version of West Side Story will replace the original film in the hearts of its fans and I don’t think it will generate many new fans. It sits somewhere in the middle of the pantheon of film adaptations of Broadway musicals.
It’s nowhere near the original but it is also not Mamma Mia!
West Side Story is playing exclusively in theaters.