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West Side Story

A memorable musical directed by a gifted American auteur.

West Side Story

If you consider tick, tick . . . Boom and Annette to be leading musicals of this Oscar season, then you haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, as perfect a remake or could-be stand-alone musical as possible. His film is a model of cinematic excellence incorporating the iconic music from Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim with choreography that respects the sheer brilliance of Jerome Robbins’ original.

Not only does Spielberg honor the great original from 1961, but he also honors a diversified 2021 take with more Latino actors in the Sharks gang than the original. In addition, he includes more Spanish without subtitles than most directors would dare. Such changes lend realism and charm with a fearlessness that dares the audience to immerse itself in the upper-West side of 1958 Manhattan being demolished to make way for Lincoln Center and put behind it the crumbling structures of post-war decay.

In fact, the digitized rubble-strewn streets are an apt metaphor for the war-ravaged European WWII stage—no one escaped the spirit of Nazi-induced genocide that itself reflected the tribal hatred of the Jets and the Sharks. Lincoln Center was the White call to reconstruction still blind to the racism people of color suffered then and to a lesser degree now.

The heart of this lyrical tragedy based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not the masterful digitization of NYC undergoing a tumultuous physical change but rather a decay of relationships between Whites and Puerto Ricans and with the former, mostly protestants and the latter embittered by the encroaching growth of Catholics. All of which prefaces our contemporary march toward diversity.

The timeless elements, which Spielberg and Shakespeare honor throughout, are anchored by the impetuousness of youth whose passion and abandon spell bliss and doom in each kiss. As the original Maria, Natalie Wood was lovely and petite, but Rachel Zegler carries an authenticity and innocence that original directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise would have envied. Richard Beymer as Tony was less talented than the current Ansel Elgort, but that’s not saying much for the bland Elgort. Having Rita Moreno in a new role as the sage pharmacy owner Valentina is not only shrewd casting and innovation but also lifts the story from overbearing youthful stupidity to wisdom.

Spielberg’s West Side Story may well win the Oscar for best picture of the year, but, no matter, it is now the litmus test for great musicals that rise above cultural neglect to showcase directorial genius and dynamic changing times. Go to your theater and immerse yourself in the best American cinema can do.  

West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg (Jaws)

Screenplay: Tony Kushner (Lincoln)

based on stage play, book by Arthur Laurents

Cast: Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver), Rachel Zegler

Run Time: 2h 36m

Rating: PG-13

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at

John DeSando holds a BA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English from The University of Arizona. He served several universities as a professor, dean, and academic vice president. He has been producing and broadcasting as a film critic on It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics for more than two decades. DeSando received the Los Angeles Press Club's first-place honors for national entertainment journalism.