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‘West Side Story’ review: In love and war, 1957 might be tonight

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”

By A.O. Scott

“West Side Story” sits near the pinnacle of post-World War II American middlebrow culture. First performed on Broadway in 1957 and brought to the screen four years later, it survives as both a time capsule and a reservoir of imperishable songs. What its creators attempted — a swirling fusion of literary sophistication and contemporary social concern, of playfulness and solemnity, of realism and fantasy, of street fighting and ballet — hadn’t quite been attempted before and hasn’t been matched since.

The idea of harnessing the durable tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet” to the newsy issues of juvenile delinquency and ethnic intolerance must have seemed, to Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, both audacious and obvious. In the years since, “West Side Story” has proved irresistible — to countless high school musical theater programs and now to Steven Spielberg, whose film version reaffirms its indelible appeal while making it feel bold, surprising and new.

This isn’t to say that the show has ever been perfect. Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics (and who died just after Thanksgiving at 91), frequently disdained his own contributions, including the charming “I Feel Pretty.” The depiction of Puerto Rican and Anglo (or “gringo”) youth gangs has been faulted for sociological imprecision and cultural insensitivity. Shakespeare’s Verona might not translate so easily into the slums of mid-20th-century Manhattan.

But perfection has never been a relevant standard for musicals. The genre has always been a glorious, messy mashup of aesthetic transcendence and commercial ambition, a grab bag of styles and sources held together by the energy, ingenuity and sheer chutzpah of scrappy and resourceful artists. This may be especially true at the movies, where the technology of cinema can enhance and also complicate the artistry.

Spielberg’s version, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner that substantially revises Laurents’ book and new choreography by Justin Peck that pays shrewd tribute to Robbins’ genius, can’t be called flawless. The performances are uneven. The swooning romanticism of the central love story doesn’t always align with the roughness of the setting. The images occasionally swerve too bumpily from street-level naturalism to theatrical spectacle. The seams — joining past to present, comedy to tragedy, America to dreamland — sometimes show.

But those seams are part of what makes the movie so exciting. It’s a dazzling display of filmmaking craft that also feels raw, unsettled and alive. Rather than embalming a classic with homage or aggressively reinventing it, Spielberg, Kushner, Peck and their collaborators (including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Adam Stockhausen, editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn, and composers Jeanine Tesori and David Newman) have rediscovered its breathing, thrilling essence.

The 1961 movie, directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, was partly filmed on location in a neighborhood that was already vanishing. In Spielberg’s 1957, the destruction is well underway. Wrecking balls and cranes tower over piles of smashed masonry that were once tenement buildings. A sign posted at one of the demolition sites shows a rendering of the shiny Lincoln Center arts complex that will rise where the slums once stood.

This “West Side Story” is explicitly historical, grounded in a specific moment in New York City’s past. Kushner (whom I profiled in a recent issue of T, The New York Times Style Magazine) has brought a level of scholarly care to the screenplay far beyond what Laurents and the others were able or willing to muster.

Shakespeare’s play supposes “two households, both alike in dignity”; in Act III, Mercutio famously calls down “a plague” on both of them. But such symmetry, while structurally necessary to the source material — who were the Montagues and Capulets anyway, and who really cares? — doesn’t map easily onto the West Side as Kushner and Spielberg understand it.

The Jets and the Sharks, a white teenage gang and their Puerto Rican antagonists, aren’t mirror images of each other. Ostensibly contending for control over a few battered blocks in the West 60s, they collide like taxis speeding toward each other on a one-way street.

The Sharks are children of an upwardly striving migrant working class, a generation (or less) removed from mostly rural poverty in the Caribbean and determined to find a foothold in the imperial metropolis, where they are greeted with prejudice and suspicion. Bernardo (David Alvarez), their leader, is a boxer. His girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose), works as a seamstress, while his younger sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), toils on the night shift as a cleaner at Gimbels department store. Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), who Bernardo and Anita believe would be a good match for Maria, is a bespectacled future accountant. (But of course Maria falls for Tony, a reluctant Jet played by heartthrobby Ansel Elgort.) All of them have plans, aspirations, dreams. The violence of the streets is, for Bernardo, a necessary and temporary evil, something to be overcome through hard work and communal cohesion on the way to something better.

The Jets, by contrast, are the bitter remnant of an immigrant cohort that has, for the most part, moved on — to the Long Island suburbs and the bungalows of Queens, to a share of postwar prosperity. As police Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James) and Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) are on hand to explain — and as the Jets themselves testify — these kids are the product of family dysfunction and societal neglect. Without aspirations for the future, they are held together by clannish loyalty and racist resentment — an empty sense of white entitlement and a perpetually expanding catalog of grievances. Their nihilism is embodied by Riff (the rangy Mike Faist), the kind of brawler who would rather fight than win.

As the song says, “Life can be bright in America / If you can fight in America.” But what lingers after this “West Side Story” is a darkness that seems to belong more to our own angry, tribal moment than to the (relatively) optimistic ’50s or early ’60s. The heartbreak lands so heavily because the eruptions of joy are so heady. The big comic and romantic numbers — “Tonight,” “America” and, yes, “I Feel Pretty” — burst with color and feeling, and the silliness of “Officer Krupke” cuts like an internal satire of some of the show’s avowed liberal pieties.

It helps that Alvarez, Faist and — supremely — DeBose are such magnetic performers. When DeBose is on screen, nothing else matters but what Anita is feeling. But the characters also have a deeper, more complicated stake in the story. They aren’t just foils or catalysts for the action, as their counterparts are in Shakespeare. They are the ones for whom the question of what it is to be in America becomes a matter of life and death.

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