Not even a month prior to this writing, Stephen Sondheim passed away at the age of 91. This prompted an international outpouring of grief, as fans and artists of every medium paid homage to the grandmaster who almost singlehandedly redefined what musical storytelling could do. At a time when musical theatre was still caught up in the airy affairs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim burst onto the scene with his debut show in 1957, daring to reimagine “Romeo and Juliet” from the ground up as a tragic fable about race and immigration in New York City. Case in point: Sondheim gave us the “America” musical number, a darkly comical debate about the American dream and systemic racism set to an instantly catchy upbeat tune.
Nobody believed in “West Side Story” while the play was still in development, but the show took off like Tony-winning wildfire when it finally debuted. And I’m sure it helped that the Robert Wise film adaptation came out and won ten freaking Oscars (eleven, counting the honorary award for co-director Jerome Robbins) out of eleven nominations only four years after the Broadway play first bowed.
Even so, part of what made “West Side Story” (the film and the play) such a world-conquering smash is that it came out right around the start of the 1960s, just before a little thing called the Civil Rights Movement. While the themes of the play are certainly as relevant as they ever were (and the plot pulled from “Romeo and Juliet” has more than stood the test of time), the presentation has grown sadly dated. We’re much less tolerant of casting white actors to play non-white characters, certainly when race is such an integral part of the story and the messaging. Ticket-paying audiences of the late ’50s would have balked at deeply authentic portrayals of the Puerto Rican community in NYC, but audiences of today are hungry for it.
Hence West Side Story (2021), another attempt at bringing the classic play to the big screen and sweeping the Oscars a second time. Even before this movie came out, the hype was off the hook. Critics were raving about it up and down the internet. True story: Some PR firm reached out to several friends of mine in the local theatre community with an offer for an advance screening, and those who went couldn’t stop raving about it.
Then the film came out and immediately tanked at the box office. What happened?
Well, let’s start with the cast and crew. On the one hand, the film was directed by Steven Spielberg with a script from Tony Kushner, both of whom were venerable grandmasters of their craft even before they made the outstanding Lincoln biopic together. On the other hand, the fact remains that these are both Jewish old white men. While this is very distinctly a biracial story about white people and Puerto Ricans alike, it’s definitely a problem that the film was made with zero Puerto Rican representation among the directors, writers, or producers. (The one minor exception is Rita Moreno, an alumna of the 1961 film adaptation, here obligingly given a supporting role and an executive producer credit.)
(Side note: You may be wondering what’s with the elephant in the room. We’ll get to it later.)
But even if that wasn’t an issue with this particular film adaptation, they’d still be adapting a stage play that was written and conceived entirely by more Jewish white men. This is apparently getting to be a thorny issue among the Puerto Rican community, with growing calls to just move past “West Side Story” already and tell some new stories more representative of the current state of race and immigration, preferably with some non-white people in key creative roles.
And then of we have the issue of Ansel Elgort, here playing the lead male role of Tony. To be entirely fair, hiring him could only have been a disastrous choice in hindsight. When Elgort was cast in September of 2018, he was still red-hot after the successes of Baby Driver and The Fault in Our Stars. And the film was shot over the summer of 2019 — it wasn’t until a full year later when certain allegations came out that exposed Ansel Elgort as a piece of shit.
Of course all of these allegations only resurfaced recently, after the film had already bombed and we were all somewhat removed from the traumatic hellscape that was Summer 2020. Armchair theorists all over the internet began to speculate that Disney had dropped the ball in promoting their film, now that its male lead had turned toxic. Or maybe Disney is inherently biased against films they picked up from the Fox acquisition, which would fit the pattern with the box office failure of The Last Duel. Personally, I don’t think any of that tracks.
First of all, The Last Duel had an extensive runtime, extremely difficult subject matter, and it just happened to come out during a global pandemic. Ben Affleck himself recently offered my personal favorite excuse: The kind of people who want to see a heady, adult, non-IP historical drama are exactly the kind of people who would rather watch and dissect it from the comfort of their own armchairs via home streaming. And incidentally, pretty much all of the above reasons also apply to West Side Story (2021). For both movies, it’s hard to pin these box office failures on some kind of internecine vendetta against 20th Century Pictures when there are so many other plausible explanations that have nothing to do with the prior involvement of another studio.
Secondly, Disney absolutely promoted the hell out of this movie. I distinctly remember seeing posters and trailers and big fucking standees for this movie through all of 2021. They had been seriously positioning this movie as a huge Oscar contender for months. And more than anything else, I think that’s what doomed it. Because the film got a prime Decepber slot, and only a week after West Side Story (2021) crashed and burned in theaters, Spider-Man: No Way Home broke $500 million globally in record time.
It’s a well-documented fact that box office dollars will ebb in the week just before a massive influx. Is it possible that Disney sabotaged West Side Story (2021) by placing it immediately before a massive surefire blockbuster? Maybe, but there are other factors at play here. After all, it’s certainly possible that Marvel absolutely had to release No Way Home before the end of 2021 or it would’ve messed with some overarching schedule of the MCU. There’s also the fact that No Way Home is technically a Columbia Pictures co-production, so the release date placement may not have been entirely Disney’s choice.
Far more importantly, the fact remains that West Side Story was originally scheduled for release in December of 2020. If COVID hadn’t happened and the film release had gone ahead as scheduled, it might’ve stood a chance at box office glory and Oscar accolades. But this is 2021. Fucking everyone has been in a great goddamn hurry to release the films they’ve been sitting on for close to two years. It’s bad enough that the likes of West Side Story (2021) has to compete with two years’ worth of Oscar contenders that absolutely must be released before year-end in order to qualify. But now those same awards darlings have to compete for box office dollars with the high-flying blockbusters that got pushed into the holidays because the summer was too damn crowded.
West Side Story (2021) absolutely had to be released in December 2021, just like all the other films crammed into this impossibly hectic month. The fact that even ONE movie managed to claw itself above all of this to an opening weekend over $100 million is frankly miraculous.
(Side note: I’m calling it now that The King’s Man will bomb at the box office because it’ll get swept up in the exact same tidal wave of content, and everyone will blame Disney for mishandling that 20th Century Studio picture as well.)
(And again with the elephant. We’ll get there, I promise.)
So with all of that aside, how is the movie itself? Well, in fact, it’s quite good.
Of course this particular adaptation took a lot of liberties, and they all work out beautifully. They put the “Cool” musical number earlier and gave it to Tony, repurposing it as a plea to stand down and cancel the rumble. Fucking brilliant. Anybodys (Iris Menas) was always a tomboy, but this movie goes further and makes the character all but explicitly trans male. Neat touch. The character of Doc was reinvented as a Puerto Rican woman (Valentina, played by Rita Moreno) who married a white man, so she can function more effectively as an impartial arbiter between the two sides, and she gets to be the one who sings “Somewhere”. All fantastic choices.
But easily the biggest creative liberty here was to add significantly more Spanish-language dialogue to the script, and present it without subtitles. Gotta say, it was a little distracting, but in a way that highlighted the culture clash and the two sides’ inability to communicate with each other. I don’t know that English-language subtitles would’ve taken away from that, necessarily, but the point is effectively made nonetheless.
Then we have the choreography. It was a bold choice not to use the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography typically used in productions of the show, but Justin Peck turns in some next-level shit with this picture. Every single movement advances the story and tells us something about the characters. Every movement is a statement of identity, a statement of intent, an act of aggression, an act of passion, an act of defiance. This isn’t just musical theatre, folks, this is freaking ballet. This is storytelling through dance, utterly spellbinding in a way that has to be seen to be believed.
Even better, the choreography helps play into the differences between the Jets and the Sharks. When the Puerto Ricans have a massive dance number, it’s like an explosion, radiating energy in all directions and consuming everything in color and music. When the Jets have a huge musical number, they’re like a tornado. They’re a force of nature, constantly moving in a single coordinated swarm, effortlessly clearing a path through all those too afraid to get in the way.
The production design plays into that division in a huge way as well. The Puerto Ricans are all surrounded in warm and vibrant colors while the Jets are drenched in shades of blue. Moreover, the film places a heavy, heavy emphasis on the fact that the Jets’ territory in the West Side is being torn down to make way for the Lincoln Center. Thus the Jets and their home turf are all desaturated to the point where the West Side looks like a goddamn war zone. It helps convey the message that the Jets and the Puerto Ricans are both getting screwed over by the wealthy and powerful, but they’re too busy taking it out on each other to try and fight the real enemy.
Which brings us to Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke, respectively played by Corey Stoll and Brian d’Arcy James. Both men are burdened with the task of upholding the law and keeping the peace through an ongoing gang war. The Sharks don’t like Schrank because he seems rather flippant about Puerto Rican culture and insists that everyone speak English. The Jets don’t like Schrank because he’s actively working to drive them out of the slums so the wealthy can have their extravagant performing arts center. Yet Stoll is capable of striking such a fine balance, it’s clear that Schrank is only a hardass because it’s his job. There’s nothing personal about this, and he demands a certain kind of grudging respect. As for d’Arcy James, the man is a seasoned veteran with more than enough skills to provide comic relief without making Krupke an outright clownish disgrace.
Really, the cast is quite solid across the board. Rita Moreno’s turn is deeply moving. David Alvarez is a powerhouse as Bernardo. Josh Andres Rivera turns in a wonderfully dynamic performance as Chino. I really like the energy that Mike Faist brought to riff, and Ariana DeBose made for a marvelous Anita.
There’s only one significant weak link in the cast, but it’s a doozy: Ansel Elgort as Tony. Don’t get me wrong, Elgort looks the part superbly, he can brood and smolder all day long, and he can dance like nobody’s business. But then he opens his mouth. And every line of spoken dialogue falls flat on the floor. Sure, his singing voice is okay, but then “Gee, Officer Krupke” comes on and we get half a dozen supporting Jets who can sing ten times better than the leading man!
Seriously, Edgar Wright was somehow capable of coaxing a better performance out of Elgort than Steven freaking Spielberg. I don’t even know how that’s possible, but here we are.
That being said, it bears remembering that Tony (as with Romeo, his Shakespearean counterpart) is a terribly written part and finding someone who can play him well has been a recurring difficulty for any production of the play. Thus it falls to Maria (again, as with Juliet) to pull up the male lead and salvage the all-important central romance. Luckily, Rachel Zegler (here making her feature debut) proves to be more than capable. She’s charismatic, she’s gorgeous, she’s a naturally gifted actor, and her singing voice is marvelous. Between the two of them, Zegler superbly meets Elgort halfway and thus we have a central romance powerful enough to keep the film moving.
West Side Story (2021) is damn near flawless from a technical perspective. The camerawork, the editing, the production design, the color correcting, the sound design, that mind-blowing choreography… the list goes on and on. Yes, it’s a significant problem that our male lead is underwhelming, but he’s at least capable enough that the rest of the film around him is good enough to keep that from being a dealbreaker.
I really want to recommend this movie, there’s just one little problem: The elephant in the room named Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Given that Miranda — arguably the most famous Puerto Rican in the world right now — was one of Sondheim’s later disciples and he already did so much work in helping retool “West Side Story” for Broadway. So it’s baffling that Miranda wasn’t involved with this particular movie in any capacity. Then again, this has been an extremely busy year for Miranda, as he’s come out with no less than four other musicals in 2021. I might add that two of those musicals (namely Encanto and In the Heights) dealt specifically with the plight of Latinx immigrants, and even more specifically, In the Heights dealt with the plight of Puerto Rican immigrants in NYC! Granted, In the Heights was met with its own share of controversy, but it’s still a film that was written and produced by an actual Puerto Rican. That’s gotta be a step up.
West Side Story (2021) is a tragic victim of circumstance. Yes, the male lead is flat, but that’s a recurring problem traced back directly to the source material. It sucks that the male lead turned toxic, but that only became public well after production wrapped. But most of all, the film suffers because it got delayed a year, and now it has to compete with four other musicals from an actual Puerto Rican talent that have come out in the year since.
The film is impeccably made, but it was always going to be an uphill battle for a bunch of Jewish white guys to convince everyone — most especially the Hispanic/Latinx community — that this sixty-year-old story was still worth telling. There can be no doubt that everyone involved put in the best effort with the absolute best of intentions, but the film stops painfully short of making a convincing case as to why we needed it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I saw it and I’m glad to recommend it. I just don’t see myself revisiting the film anytime soon.