On the night of 26 September 1957, the cast and production team of West Side Story gathered at the legendary restaurant, Sardi’s, to celebrate the musical’s Broadway premiere – and to await the reviews in the first editions of the press.
Not all the critics were sold on this modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet: the feud between Montague and Capulet in Renaissance Verona reimagined as gang conflict in the Upper West Side of New York City, between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.
No matter: the all-important New York Times, which could make or break a show with a single review, was ecstatic about Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and the choreography of Jerome Robbins. “The radioactive fallout from ‘West Side Story’ must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Brooks Atkinson. “The show rides with a catastrophic roar over the spider-web fire-escapes, the shadowed trestles, and the plain dirt battlegrounds of a big city feud.”
When the show opened in the West End the following year, Kenneth Tynan was no less thrilled. “The Bernstein score is as smooth and savage as a cobra; it sounds as if Puccini and Stravinsky had gone on a roller-coaster ride into the precincts of modern jazz,” he wrote in the Manchester Guardian. “Jerome Robbins… projects the show as a rampaging ballet, with bodies flying through the air as if shot from guns, leaping, shrieking and somersaulting.”
This matters, because Steven Spielberg’s dazzling new cinematic take on the musical (general release, 10 December) is more authentically understood as a homage to the original stage production than to Robert Wise’s 1961 movie version. It is to the source material, rather than the most familiar rendering of it, that Spielberg and screenplay writer, Tony Kushner, have reverted.
Which is not to diminish the significance of the first film, which scooped ten Oscars, including Best Picture, and cemented the place of West Side Story in modern culture: in 2010, it was calculated that at least 40,000 productions of the musical had been staged around the world, amounting to at least 300,000 performances. Its obsessive devotees have not always been predictable, either: Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, loved the musical deeply. (For all you will ever need to know about the West Side Story phenomenon, check out Misha Berson’s Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.)
Most people still think of the star-crossed lovers from the two warring tribes as Natalie Wood (Maria) and Richard Beymer (Tony). And Spielberg’s version certainly tips its hat to the 1961 movie, not least in the casting of Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for her performance as Anita, girlfriend of the hot-headed leader of the Sharks, Bernardo.
In the 2021 version – Moreno turns 90 on Saturday – she takes on the role of Valentina, Tony’s landlady; audaciously, but ingeniously, it is she, rather than Tony and Maria, who sings one of the show’s greatest numbers, ‘Somewhere’: adding a new layer of meaning – the Latinx community’s weariness with a life of second-class status – to a classic song about thwarted love.
But this is emphatically a new version of the 1957 musical, rather than a remake of Wise’s movie. It draws deep on the original well of late 1950s energy: the crackling of juvenile delinquency, bigotry and death alongside the softer themes of love, friendship and the in-jokes that bind gangs together.
Shot by Spielberg’s long-time collaborator Janusz Kamiński, the movie is visually stunning, too, and – like Dune – will remind you why the full bore experience of cinema can never be matched by home streaming. Rachel Zegler is terrific as Maria – a YouTube star chosen by Spielberg, who has already been cast as Snow White in Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake of its animated classic.
In truth, Zegler outshines Ansel Elgort’s Tony (familiar from Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver), though the outstanding support cast – especially David Alvarez as Bernardo, Ariana DeBose as Anita, and Mike Faist as Tony’s best friend, Riff – more than compensates for this. Especially successful is the extent to which Spielberg and Kushner update the musical: which is to say, identifiably but not perfomatively.
Of course, the core theme of tribal division and its price is more resonant than ever in the age of social media and digital hatred. But the new movie is still set in 1958 and does not seek to turn West Side Story into a leaden commentary on the age of Trump, political division and nativism.
Instead, Spielberg extends a respect to the Latinx cast that was conspicuously lacking in the 1961 version (in which many of the performers, including Wood, wore makeup to darken their skin). As the director told IGN, he also decided not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue “out of respect for the inclusivity of our intentions to hire a totally Latinx cast to play the Sharks’ boys and girls.”
In similar spirit, Maria’s ‘I Feel Pretty’ is transplanted to Gimbels department store, where the number acquires a new edge, sung by a Puerto Rican girl in a citadel of retail whiteness (where she works as a cleaner).
Likewise, the character of Anybodys, played by Susan Oakes in the 1961 movie as a tomboy who wants to join the Jets, is clearly transgender in Spielberg’s film, as performed by Iris Menas. This, please note, has already led to the movie being effectively banned in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.
Of the original movie, the late Roger Ebert wrote: “West Side Story was the kind of musical people thought was good for them, a pious expression of admirable but unrealistic liberal sentiments”. The 2021 version has more bite and a clearer sense of the life-and-death stakes of the turf war in the slums: in Spielberg’s telling of the tale, Tony has just served a year in prison for beating a member of a rival gang close to death – a bleak foreshadowing of tragic violence to come. But these are deft complementary touches to the story: at no point does the new West Side Story become a polemical tract.
For a director as besotted by genre and film history, it is perhaps most surprising that Spielberg has waited until he is 74 to release a musical – though anyone who has seen the Mandarin version of ‘Anything Goes’ sung by Kate Capshaw, complete with lavish Busby Berkeley-style choreography, that opens Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), will sense that he has been itching to do so for decades.
Which is what makes the film so fascinating, as well as enjoyable. If the narrative of the new West Side Story is still provided by the conflict between Sharks and Jets, the form is full of a creative tension generated by the relationship between past and present.
Just as the Indiana Jones movies have revived and updated the great matinee serials of Spielberg’s youth and Jaws and Jurassic Park reinvented, in their different ways, the monster movie, so West Side Story breathes fresh life into the classic Hollywood musical without descending into mere nostalgia. The modernisation strategy is much less radical than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s in Hamilton and In the Heights (see Creative Sensemaker, 17 June). But it is deft, beautifully executed and hugely enjoyable.
And what greater tribute than the blessing of Stephen Sondheim? The giant of American musicals was never quite sure about West Side Story and whether it represented his best work. But – before his death on 26 November – he said of Spielberg’s movie: “It’s really terrific. Everybody go. You’ll really have a good time. And for those of you who know the show, there’s going to be some real surprises.”
He was right. If a film can, in the words of the song, persuade you that “what was just a world is a star”, this one will.
Vinyl for Tortoises
We’ve teamed up with VinylBox to offer a free vinyl set for Creative Sensemaker readers. I’ve selected eight of my favourite records and you’ll get a box with two of them – it’s lucky dip – when you take out any subscription with VinylBox. Lady Gaga, Scissor Sisters and Mary J Blige are three of the picks. Go to their website and use the code TORTOISEFREE to redeem the offer.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
David Baddiel: Social Media, Anger and Us (BBC Two, 13 December)
Having written one of the most important non-fiction books of the year – Jews Don’t Count – David Baddiel rounds off 2021 with one of its best documentaries. As a self-confessed Twitter addict (with more than 785k followers), the author and comedian knows all about the highs and lows of social media, and seeks here to understand why and with what consequences the world has been colonised by this enveloping digital force. As Caitlin Moran says to him, the technology is so new that it is like a kid throwing a tantrum. And, as a species, we have yet to discover quite what to do with all that it has unleashed – and how to stop bad faith actors exploiting its often terrible potential. In the course of his investigation, Baddiel has his brain scanned to observe the neural impact of different messages; tries social media cold turkey with the help of a therapist; and (most movingly) discusses with his courageously eloquent daughter, Dolly, the role that these platforms played in her anorexia. As always, Baddiel’s conclusions are nuanced, reflective and enlightening. A must-see.
And Just Like That (Sky Comedy; Now TV)
“We can’t just stay who we were”: so says Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) at the very first lunch of this revival of Sex and the City. Which is, of course, the question at the heart of the whole enterprise. In 2010, the truly dreadful second spin-off movie seemed to kill off the franchise – but the era of streaming abhors a dead franchise, and back SATC has come, with due alterations. Where once there were four – Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Charlotte York (Kristin Davis), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) and Miranda – there are now three, Samantha being, as Charlotte says, “no longer with us”. Not dead, it turns out, but in London (actually out of the picture because of Cattrall’s well-publicised feud with Parker). Within the first ten minutes, we have established that the remaining trio are in their fifties – though still interested in “passing younger” – arguing about whether Miranda should “stay grey”, the challenges of raising children and the wisdom of Carrie’s podcasts (“it’s like doing jury service”). A new friend – Nicole Ari Parker as Lisa Todd Wexley – is also introduced. Full marks for speed exposition. It is easy to forget how innovative Darren Star’s original HBO series seemed when it first appeared in 1998, translating Candace Bushnell’s book of the same name to the small screen with a rolling saga of sexual emancipation, glamour, and female independence. Now, the SATC girls are confronted by a new world – of pronouns, gender fluidity, racial politics, and Instagram – and a middle chapter in life which they are still determined to enjoy. Too early to say how they will fare over ten episodes – but this is a promising start. Welcome back.
The Hand of God (selected cinemas, Netflix 15 December)
A film of two halves – aptly – that combines the traditional tropes of the teen coming of age movie with subtler explorations of family, isolation and vocational fixation. Set in 1980s Naples, Paolo Sorrentino’s most autobiographical film to date is also his best, tracing the circuitous path into early adulthood followed by 17-year-old Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti). The film’s first half is launched amid a blaze of rumour that Diego Maradona is joining SSC Napoli – the title referring to the Argentine superstar’s notorious goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals – and the rough-and-tumble of Fabietto’s family life (Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo excel as his parents). The second half of the film is much more introspective, for reasons I shall not spoil. What binds it all together is Fabietto’s obsession with movies – “Reality, I don’t like it anymore. That’s why I want to do cinema” – and the role in his life of Maradona as a symbol of passion, nostalgia and much else. A film of great depth and emotional power.
The Falling Thread – Adam O’Riordan (Bloomsbury Publishing)
In his debut novel, poet Adam O’Riordan explores the life of a family in Manchester in the decades before the First World War. Charles, Tabitha and Eloise Wright are the children of a cotton mill owner, beneficiaries of the commercial golden age of northern manufacturing but also trapped within a contrived social context that oscillates between convention and a yearning for emancipation. Charles’s studies at Cambridge are cut short when he fathers a child with his sisters’ governess, Hettie, and the course of his life is changed forever. The looming tensions within Europe and the rise of the suffragettes all play their part in the novel, but The Falling Thread is emphatically not a standard work of historical fiction. Rather, one is struck by the beauty of the language and the exquisite powers of observation that O’Riordan brings to his story – almost, on occasion, to the point of still life (“He felt his carousel of anecdote engage”; “…the vegetative smell of wet plaster”; “..a set of small nods like someone who had had something returned to him completely, with no parts missing.”) Undoubtedly a literary talent to watch.
Black British Lives Matter: A Clarion Call for Equality – Edited by Lenny Henry & Marcus Ryder (Faber & Faber)
At the KITE festival launch party at the Tabernacle in west London on 25 November, Marcus Ryder, one of the editors of this excellent volume, and Leroy Logan, who contributes a fine chapter on policing, explained why the book is more necessary than ever. As Marcus put it: it’s no good going to the gym if you then binge on donuts. In other words – mere expressions of good intentions and acts of protest don’t amount to much unless you see them translated into practical measures. The essays collected here – by writers ranging from Kit de Waal, Lenny Henry, David Olusoga, and Nadine White to Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Colin Grant and Kwame Kwei-Armah – are both a reproach and an inspiration. Essential reading.
Not a new book, but a wonderful memoir by the great man of the stage, who died aged 72 on 2 December. Sher’s Year of the King (1985) – his account of his performance as Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company – may be the finest book of its kind by any actor. But Beside Myself, first published in 2001 and then revised eight years later, has broader horizons, recounting the rise of a young gay South African, suppressing profound insecurities with cocaine until the drugs had to go, to the very top of his profession. It’s a profoundly honest book, as well as being witty and beautifully written, and one that will intrigue anyone who is interested in creativity in all its forms. RIP.
As Jonas Kaufmann has shown, collections of Christmas songs by great operatic soloists have much to recommend them as a festive alternative to pop compilations and recordings of carol services at King’s College, Cambridge. On this album, Christiane Karg, accompanied by pianist Gerold Huber and the Bavarian Radio Chorus, sings classics and rarities by 17 composers (Ravel, Massenet, Rossini) in five languages. As her collection of Lieder by Mahler demonstrated to triumphant effect last year, Karg’s soprano is at the height of its powers, and she strikes exactly the right balance in these performances between enchantment and rigour, never slipping into mere sentimentality. Recommended – especially if you have already had enough of Mariah Carey and Slade.
What a long way Pete Tong has travelled since he was hired as an advertising sales assistant for Blues & Soul magazine in 1979. This eight-track EP is the fourth instalment in his Classics series with his long standing collaborator, Jules Buckley, whose Heritage Orchestra has brought a whole new dimension to the great DJ’s range, repertoire and performances. What has kept Tong interesting for four decades is his restless desire to revisit great tracks – check out the fantastic new version of early house classic, ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, featuring Vula Malinga – and to work with absolutely everyone with talent (Kölsch, Franky Wah, Riton, Becky Hill, Eats Everything). I especially enjoyed his reworking of Hans Zimmer’s ‘Time’, featured in the Christopher Nolan movie, Inception (2010) and of Thomas Newman’s ‘Ghosts’. Tickets for the Ibiza Classics 2022 arena tour go on sale on Friday, 10 December.
Richer Than I’ve Ever Been – Rick Ross (10 December)
Rick Ross, who lives on a 235-acre estate in Georgia and sits atop a business empire that embraces more than 20 partnerships and franchises, is the first to admit that music is no longer his principal means of making money. But it remains his first love, as this, his 11th album, demonstrates to fine effect. As a rapper and producer, Ross has grown steadily since his debut Port of Miami (2006), unashamedly evolving into a true mogul who cultivates an image that, in his own words, feels “godly”. There is more irony and wit in all this than some of his critics recognise, and a sense of fun has always underpinned Ross’s work – matched, nonetheless, by undimmed ambition. “There’s no expiration date on incredible music,” as he has put it. “So, instead of just making a dope banger, let’s make a timeless piece of work.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Silver Screen Collection, John Springer Collection/Corbis & Donaldson Collection via Getty Images, Gianni Fiorito/Netflix, Saskia Rusher/BBC, HBO/Sky TV