The story behind the re-imagining of several key West Side Story musical numbers
West Side Story and its iconic musical numbers are a cultural institution.
Indeed, director Steven Spielberg says that's what attracted him to put his own spin on the material in the first place. "The score by Leonard Bernstein is one of the greatest scores ever written for an American musical," he says. "West Side Story is the greatest American musical."
But just because something's great doesn't mean it's not ripe for a little re-invention. When it came to making a modern version of West Side Story, Spielberg wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the 1961 Best Picture-winning film. A large part of that came in a new script from Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner.
"I really thought that if I approached Tony with West Side Story, he would find a contemporary way into creating a language," says Spielberg. "He plunged into the research of that era to try to find a way in for contemporary audiences. Tony wanted to find a way to speak to them about the issues that were very valid in '57 [when it premiered on Broadway] but are even more relevant today."
While this version of West Side Story features new dialogue and significantly more backstory and historical context, where it truly differentiates itself is in its take on the show's most beloved musical numbers. Here, Spielberg and the cast take us behind three of the biggest shifts.
When you think of the 1961 film, you probably conjure an image of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris executing flawless dance moves in a raucous number on a rooftop. Spielberg was very aware of that. "The best number in the '61 film was 'America,'" he notes. "The choreography and the camerawork between Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins is unrepeatable. I could never direct that sequence as well; I could not even hold a candle to how great that scene is."
That left Spielberg with one option: completely re-imagine the number to avoid that comparison. He and Kushner devised the alternative we see on screen. "Why don't we take it out into the streets in broad daylight?" Spielberg explains of his thinking. "Let's cover four city blocks and let's make this a celebration of San Juan Hill and the whole Puerto Rican community."
This transposes "America" to a celebration and a back-and-forth between the entire neighborhood, not just the Shark guys and girls. "It was an incredible experience because we got to share that number with so many people," says David Alvarez, who plays Bernardo. "It was a giant community and everyone coming together to celebrate this. It felt like we were part of something so much bigger than just us."
That didn't come without its challenges, namely that it was shot during some of the hottest days of the year in New York City. "We shot it during a heatwave," explains Ariana DeBose, who portrays Anita. "And we shot it over the course of a month, these little bits and pieces in the streets of New York. It felt like a love letter to the city. But I burned holes in my shoes."
"They had to CGI my sweat out," adds Alvarez.
But heat aside, DeBose loves the number for what it puts onscreen — a celebration of Latin culture and joy. "Typically, we're talking about how Latinos are drug lords or drug mules. And we have all these problems, and we're not educated," she says. "So to see Latin joy and to see people who are dressed beautifully and who are having a wonderful time in community activities. You got to know these people and their light, not just their dark. It's a really beautiful duality. You get to know this community. I'm really proud of that."
"Cool" is a number that constantly seems to shift through the years, breezing and buzzing its way to different moments in the show. It started on stage as a feature for gang leader Riff, preparing his Jets for the rumble with the Sharks and advising them not to lose their heads (I guess it's easier to give advice than follow it).
In the 1961 film, it was moved to after the rumble, with the song evoking the Jets' terror and anguish in the wake of the violence and loss they'd just experienced. It also became a showcase for some of Jerome Robbins' most recognizable and oft-referenced choreography.
But here, it becomes a confrontation between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Riff (Mike Faist) and a few other Jets. It's more akin to Javert and Valjean's face-off in Les Miserables than the number as originally conceived. They fight over a gun Riff plans to bring to the rumble on a rickety pier.
"We wanted the gun to play an important part in the story and to be a character," Spielberg explains of the change. "In the play, of course, 'Cool' is what they do when they cool off. After the rumble, they're needing to bleed off that excess energy and rage, and 'Cool' is an expression of that."
"We very much wanted that to be our own," adds Spielberg. "It was important that 'Cool' for us come with Tony's attempt to stop Riff from bringing a gun to a fistfight. We thought it was important to repurpose 'Cool' not as a way of cooling off, but as a way of staying cool. 'Do not bring that gun to the fight.'"
Ansel Elgort admits he was the weakest dancer coming into the sequence but that the rehearsal process not only improved his skills but allowed him to bond with Faist and the other Jets. "Also, as we became more comfortable with the dance language, [choreographer] Justin Peck kept boosting it up and making it bigger and better," he notes.
Elgort describes the number as a game that suddenly gets out of hand.
"The most interesting part about that dance was the storytelling aspect of it," adds Mike Faist. "Here are these guys that are brothers, and it starts as this cat and mouse game. As the dance continues, you really start to see the hurt on both sides and the change that everyone's dealing with and trying to navigate."
Oh, and in case you were wondering, those holes in the pier are real...
Whether on stage or screen, West Side Story's "Somewhere" — and its plaintive yearning for a place without prejudice — is an indelible part of the musical theater canon.
Undergirded by Leonard Bernstein's haunting melody and Stephen Sondheim's urgent lyrics, the song has always evolved, beginning as a solo ballad sung by an ensemble member in the 1957 Broadway production, then a duet between Maria and Tony in the 1961 film. It also became a popular torch song recorded by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Phil Collins, the Supremes, Pet Shop Boys, and more.
Now, Rita Moreno gives the classic a new way of living, making her version world-wearier, as sung alone in a drugstore by Doc's widow Valentina (an original character written for Moreno, who won an Oscar in 1962 for her portrayal of Anita).
"We decided that 'Somewhere' needed to go from the first person to the third person," says Spielberg. "'Somewhere' had to be about [Valentina] mourning the loss of her husband. It also had to be about the last desperate connection between Maria and Tony. It had to be about the aftermath of Anita losing Bernardo. It is about: There's a place for all four of those characters. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't, but she's singing for everyone, including herself."
Moreno had a different take than the traditionally mournful approach: "I thought it should have a bit of anger under it. It's not just, 'There's a place for us,' but 'I know there's a place for us.' I've always felt she's saying, 'Somewhere, somehow, damn it, there is a place for us.'" Ultimately, the actor says, the Bernstein estate pushed back on her vision of a more piqued delivery.
But there's still a flavor of that fire and frustration in the performance — so much so that Spielberg's new Anita, The Prom's Ariana DeBose, says it seeped into her own performance. "Her vocal informed Anita's journey for me," says the Broadway alum. "I felt some of that anger, whether or not she was actively singing it."
"It wasn't so much anger as 'I'm determined that things are going to change,'" Moreno clarifies, "and the exhaustion of that."
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