How Steven Spielberg Whitewashed West Side Story by Misunderstanding Musicals
A lack of understanding of how musicals work results in a West Side Story which centers the white characters more than the original does.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for both the 1961 and 2021 versions of West Side Story. Read at your own risk.
Note: Though I know that "Latinx" is more common, it's my understanding that "Latine" is more inclusive both to people of all genders and to Spanish speakers, so that's the term I'll be using out of respect.
Also Note: In the 2021 movie the character of Anybodys is transmasc and, per the screenplay, uses the pronouns he/him so I will be using those as well. Though this is with the understanding, also per the screenplay, that Anybodys’ pronoun options are limited in 1957 and he probably would pick something else if he lived in the current day.
Y’all. Y’ALL. We’ve got to talk.
Look, I hope that with the history I’ve built with you so far it’s clear that I am not in it to hate TV shows or movies. If something does its job well I will happily rave about it. I’ll rave about the good work done even if most people don’t agree with me! I’m not here to get clicks by siding with the court of popular opinion nor by being contrary for the sake of it.
So when I sit here and tell you that the 2021 version of West Side Story, a movie made by none other than Steven Spielberg himself, doesn’t do its job well I hope you understand I’m not saying this shit for no reason.
I don’t want to say this! I wanted to love this movie so bad! Do you understand how much I was looking forward to spending hours doing nothing but talking to you about what a great job Paul Tazewell did with the costumes? (Which, for the record, he did.) Or how it’s perfect that we’ve got a wide released version of West Side Story in which the Latine characters are played by Latine actors and the character of Anybodys is transmasc and played by Iris Menas, a non-binary actor? (Which it also is.)
I wanted to rave about the singing, which is mostly good! Except for one actor! Who you can probably guess! And gush about that shot of the characters going into the gym where the camera swirls around and shows the dancing just like Guillermo del Toro did! I really really really wanted to do all that!
And look, if all you want is a pretty version of West Side Story that you don’t pay close attention to except when they’re singing one of your favorite songs go nuts! If we’re doing the short review then it’s a “you’ll like it if you like this sort of thing” where “this sort of thing” is “shows based on stories you’re somewhat familiar with but don’t care about that much.”
Here’s the thing: this movie does not understand musicals. It painfully does not understand musicals. And it does not understand musicals to the point where it warps the narrative of West Side Story so much it not only misses the point of West Side Story, but it centers and endorses the white narrative even more than the 1961 version did.
And bear in mind the 1961 version had an actor playing Bernardo who played Riff in the London stage version because, since he was Greek, the studio figured what the hell his skin’s dark enough and I still stand by the statement that the 2021 version centers the white people more.
I’m not saying it lightly. Which is why, kids, we’re going deep on this one. To understand just how much Spielberg - yes, that Spielberg - fucked up this movie we’ve got to talk about how musicals work, how you make them work for movies, and how the 2021 version of West Side Story screwed it up so bad that I needed a support group of at least five different friends who were willing to put up with my all caps ranting about it in DMs so I could get through all the research and note taking I went through to write this article.
So take a deep breath. Get a cup of tea or favorite beverage of your choice. Settle yourself down in a comfy chair. Because for this bad boy we’re going back to basics.
The History of Musicals And How They Work
First up let me apologize to actual theater history people out there because this is admittedly going to be a huge oversimplification of the creation of musical theater to the point where it may make them cry. I mean if we’re going to talk about the full history of theater we need to set the wayback machine for ancient Greece and that’s already limiting ourselves by talking about the history of Western theater and not theater as it developed all over the world. This is an article, not a master’s degree program, we’ve got to trim things down.
Likewise for you readers who aren’t familiar with the history of theater, don’t try citing this as expert testimony. This is a simplified version meant to get the big picture points across. The Schoolhouse Rock version of how politics works except for musicals, okay?
So! To understand musical theater we have to move our minds back in time. Not as far as ancient Greece, but far enough that if we’re mentally picturing people wearing uncomfortable clothes and maybe even powdered wigs we’re in a good general area.
During this time there are no movies or TV shows, so if you wanted to see a story you went to the theater.
Of your theater options, there were three kinds: plays, opera, and ballet. So for example Shakespeare, Verdi, Tchaikovsky.
These three options represent the purest forms of each way a performer can tell you a story. If you are watching a play and a performer needs you to know something they will say it. If you are watching an opera and the performer needs you to know something they will sing it. If you’re watching a ballet and the performer needs to tell you something they will dance it.
And the key thing to understand here is they won’t do anything else.
Again, gross oversimplification which we’ll get to in a minute. But the point is by the nature of the genre these are the only tools in the tool chest. If you want to write something and call it a haiku you’ve got to write it in a pattern of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and then 5 syllables. If you want to create something and call it a play your performers can only use acting. If it’s opera only singing. If ballet only dancing.
Because of this, the skills that performers need in order to tell the stories properly are vastly different. Over time the people who do each become like thoroughbreds, their bodies literally trained and shaped into the exacting, grueling, specific demands of what they do. This is why you don’t ask Misty Copeland to sing Nessun Dorma and why you wouldn’t ask José Carreras to perform Swan Lake.
But! Some people looked at the three forms and said hey: why not get mix and matchy? Operas have music, ballet needs music. Why not put some ballet in an opera for the heck of it? And hey actors have to talk and emote with their faces and bodies, opera singers have to, yanno, also make sounds with their voices and emote with their faces and bodies. Maybe we could do opera with some talking just to try it out?
(Again: gross oversimplification. Take this as a given so I don’t have to keep repeating it.)
So now we’re starting to get forms of theater in which it’s a version of “Hey! You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” How do you handle it? If you’ve got dancing and singing, which one do you pick and when? Ditto for if you have acting and singing. The point of live performances is that the people on stage are doing stuff to convey information to you. How do you know which method works best?
Well part of it is that there was no overlap. We’re back on Misty Copeland and José Carreras again. You have the ballet dancers do the dancing and the opera singers do the singing. And which one you pick depends on the story, for example “In this part of the story the main characters watch people dance, so there’s gonna be dancing.” You might even factor in practical concerns like when costumes and sets need to change, when performers need to rest, and so on.
(There’s even old jokes about how it was so routine for when you’d have the ballet portion of an opera that rich men knew the exact time to show up at the theater to reassure their ballerina mistresses that they saw them dance before nipping back to their gentlemen’s clubs to drink and not have to endure all the singing.)
But some people wondered hey, do we need to hire this many people? After all opera singers emote and ballet dancers emote and acting is talking with emoting so maybe we don’t necessarily need one person for each one of those things? Which yes, you can do. But as we know thanks to Misty and José it’s not easy. Which is why even in modern day performers tend not to sing and dance at the same time. You need entirely different breath control and body movement for each, so often they’ll sing then dance, or dance then sing, but not both at once even if you’re Beyoncé (warning for flashing lights at the start, I couldn’t find a version without them.)
This is also why, for the record, when people try to suggest that Lizzo is unhealthy others can correctly respond that she’s got the physical ability and the breath control to sing, dance, and play the flute in a single performance so, yanno, go fuck yourself. (Flashing light warning on that link too, sorry!)
The main thing we’re getting at here though is that with the right casting and setup you can have one performer who can do multiple things. (Some of you are already thinking of a two word phrase that starts with the letter T. We’re getting there, I promise!) But, as we’ve established, it is very hard for even the most talented of these performers to do all or even two of these things at the same time. So how do you pick what they do and when?
Well actually it comes naturally.
Take a moment and think of any video you’ve seen of someone getting a present they really wanted. What’s it like? Typically it’s going to be something like they open the present, say “Is that a Playstation??” scream with joy, then bounce up and down in excitement.
Think of somebody accepting a proposal. They’ll say something like “Marry you?” then shout “YES! OH MY GOD YES!” and lunge at the person for a hug and a kiss.
How about if a dog sees a racoon walking by just outside the back yard? They’ll say a “Woof?” as they notice, then “BARK BARK BARK BARK!” and then they race towards the fence to defend their property.
What’s the order? They speak, then they shout, then they move. Speak, shout, move, speak, shout, move.
What’s the catalyst? Intensity of emotion.
The more strongly we feel things the more our volume changes and the more we don’t stay still. And like I pointed out, this is as true for humans as it is for dogs as it is for anything that interacts with the world around it.
(”But wait, TBQ!” you might be saying. “It’s not always speak, then shout, then move! If somebody pulls a gun on me I’m not going to stand there and say ‘Oh, a gun!’ I’m going to skip right to running away as fast as my legs carry me!” To which I reply: Yes! You’re absolutely right! Hang on to this thought because it’s very important and will come in handy later!)
As you might guess, speak, shout, move ties directly to our theater types: Act, Sing, Dance. (Which is no shade on opera. I just mean in the sense that when people hear the words “opera singer” what they picture is something like this.)
The choice of what a performer does at any given moment in musical theater is directly tied to the intensity of emotion their character is feeling. The base level is acting. As they feel stronger about something they start to sing. When they feel strongest about something they start to dance.
The important thing to remember is that this is not an arbitrary concept. It’s not something handed down by some sort of musical theater Council of Nicaea for the sake of having rules. It’s something that works on gut instinct so that you don’t have to know anything about musical theater to understand what the performers are showing you. When it’s done right you just get it.
Which, amazingly and after all these paragraphs, brings us back to West Side Story. Because if you want a perfect example of “I feel strongly about something so I have to sing,” you need look no further than this:
At its core West Side Story isn’t a complex musical. There’s a reason why, when he was alive, the fastest way to make Stephen Sondheim appear and start an argument with you was to say “Actually I think I Feel Pretty contains the greatest lyrics of this or any other generation.” West Side Story is not his proudest work. In general he either found the lyrics to be too simplistic or, ironically, too complicated for the context they were in (such as a teenage girl with limited English fluency being able to rhyme “alarming” and “charming.”)
(Yes, I have thoughts about how much that opinion needs unpacking but that’s a whole other article.)
But for our purposes it works great because here you are! Our character in the video, Tony, has just met a girl he’s fallen in love with and he’s found out her name is María. He’s riding the high of having met her and how much his newfound love for her has changed his life so he starts out speaking and, as his emotions about how awesome this is amp up, he transitions to singing.
And what’s he singing? About how he just met a girl named María and that’s the most amazing thing that ever happened to him.
Let’s be honest you can kinda see Sondheim’s point about some of the lyrics not exactly being mind blowing. “María” isn’t asking for a deep dive on obscure symbolism. It’s exactly what it says on the tin. But for our purposes that’s great because we’re not doing lyric analysis, we’re talking about the workings of musical theater. This is what Tony’s feeling so that’s exactly what he’s singing. Beautiful. Perfect. Impossible to fuck up how to understand it.
Unless you’re Steven Spielberg.
To get into that we need to talk more about West Side Story’s creation specifically.
I hope you’re still comfy.
The Creation of West Side Story
We actually have more to talk about the concept of musicals in general, especially when it comes to translating them for film. But we can put a pause on that for a second because we’ve hit the perfect point to bring West Side Story into the discussion because West Side Story started out as a Broadway show.
The person who came up with the idea for West Side Story is Jerome Robbins, a choreographer and dancer (among other things) who came from the world of ballet. As you now know, ballet means dance. Since Jerome comes from the ballet world, his core start position for the way to tell a story is how can it be told through dancing.
Jerome wanted to expand his repertoire a bit, though. The first part was telling a story with dance, singing, and acting. All three being used to communicate the story and therefore required of all the performers. (As a reminder, this in contrast to things like operas where the opera singers would sing and then move to the side while ballet dancers danced, and the ballet in question might only have related to the opera’s story in the sense that the characters were watching a dance being performed.)
For those of you who had a two word phrase beginning with the letter T on the tip of your tongue earlier, yep this is when it comes in: Triple threat. West Side Story is often credited as the first show which required performers who were triple threats, in other words those who were equally good at acting, singing, and dancing. (And yes, feel free to pause and consider the deep irony, then, of how the 1961 movie of West Side Story was notorious for how almost none of the actors did their own singing. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno were the rare exceptions in the main cast and even Rita was dubbed by Betty Wand in A Boy Like That.)
Anyway, focusing back on the stage version, Jerome wanted to retell the story of Romeo and Juliet in a way that used dancing, acting, and singing (which I say in that order because Jerome was very opinionated about how important the dancing was to the way to tell the story. Remember that because it matters when we talk about the 2021 version.)
The original story idea was for East Side Story, in which the two factions were an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family. The character of María was originally conceived as a Holocaust survivor and the conflict of the story was the anti-Semitism María’s family had to endure. (Remember that part as well.)
Jerome approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents to do the music and lyrics respectively. This version of the show ultimately panned out, however, because they realized the concept was too close to a play which had come out recently called Abie’s Irish Rose which had more or less the same concept except with an Irish Catholic girl and a Jewish boy.
It’s important to know the East Side Story origins, though, because they tell us about key components and themes of the story which were there right from the beginning and which carried through to its final version, so to speak (more on this in a sec). But the ideas were: telling a story through acting, singing, and dance; adapting Romeo and Juliet; and the girl’s family deals with discrimination.
It also makes a fun point of trivia when you know that when the Jets talk about how they defeated the Emeralds gang that was a reference to a gang from the East Side Story version (the Jewish gang, in fact, which... I mean the Irish gang is right there, guys. Really?) Also it gives a hint as to why the three whistled notes which start West Side Story sound a bit like a shofar call.
(The three notes have a lot of symbolism and meaning, btw. I’ll share a link to a video which touches on it in the Lagniappe section.)
Anyway, so East Side Story wasn’t original enough and it got shelved until about ten years later when Jerome and Leonard decided to give it a whirl again, switching out the Jewish family for a Puerto Rican one to reflect the Great Migration of Puerto Ricans to New York City during the 1950s. They also wanted to tip the balance in favor of the gangs representing the warring factions instead of families, also due to current events at the time.
Arthur Laurents wasn’t available to do the lyrics so, for various reasons, they decided to give this kid Stephen Sondheim, who was fresh off his own Superbia style “That’s great but what else can you do?” moment with Saturday Night, a try. Thus West Side Story was born.
One of the things Jerome particularly loved about changing the girl’s family to Puerto Rican as well as shifting the emphasis to the gangs was that it opened up more options for the dancing. He knew Jazz dance would better represent the rougher aspect of the gangs than ballet would, and he especially was excited about learning Latin dance to represent the Puerto Rican characters.
If you’re noticing the word “dance” appear a lot here, that’s no accident. Jerome, understandably, was very opinionated about the importance of dance to the show. He demanded extra rehearsal time to make sure the dance was done right (8 weeks instead of the typical 4). He was also punishingly hard on the dancers, and, when the movie came along, started so many fights about the dancing that he was eventually fired (though his influence on it was so strong they still gave him director credit).
This is as good a time as any to pause and talk about the concept of interpreting West Side Story. For instance, some people felt it was blasphemous to do another movie version of West Side Story since the 1961 version exists and thus any attempt to try it again is insulting.
But here’s the thing: West Side Story is not a sacred text. It’s perfectly fine to - pardon the pun - riff on it and make your own versions. For starters because it’s an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet itself and Shakespeare’s plays have been fodder for new iterations from the very beginning. That’s why you get things like Hamlet but a few centuries later, Hamlet but Gen X, and even Hamlet but singing cartoon lions.
On top of that West Side Story in and of itself wasn’t treated as chiseled in marble, never to be touched. Long before the 2021 movie came around, the structure of West Side Story was constantly played with, particularly in terms of when songs were sung and even which characters sang them. Even between the Broadway version and the 1961 movie there were significant changes.
So it’s important to understand that when we talk about interpreting West Side Story it’s not that you have to replicate the original Broadway show word for word, note for note, step for step. Jerome, Leonard, and Stephen didn’t even do that themselves. The important thing is you have to understand the story and thus know what you are interpreting. Put another way, this discussion is not “Um, ACTUALLY Tony Stark’s eyes in the comics are blue so casting brown eyed Robert Downey Jr to play the part is a fail.” but rather “A core concept of Tony Stark’s character is that he is a technological genius so why would you create a movie about him where he doesn’t know how to set the clock on his microwave and also his only power is that he shoots chocolate milk out of his left thumb?”
This becomes particularly important when it comes to understanding how West Side Story tells its story. Which brings us back to act, sing, dance. Regardless of when María sings I Feel Pretty, it matters that she sings I Feel Pretty, because that conveys both her thoughts and how strongly she feels them. Likewise it doesn’t matter who sings Cool, when they sing it, or who they sing it to, it matters that they sing it and also if they both sing and dance because again that conveys the importance of the information being conveyed and how it’s being perceived by the people hearing it.
To which I’ll actually give the 2021 version a compliment: I liked how they translated Cool into a battle between Riff and Tony over control of the gun and control of the Jets. Having the two of them singing and dancing and the fact that it starts with Tony singing but ends with Riff singing was a great take on the song and a well done interpretation of how to convey the shifting power dynamics. 2021’s Cool was one of the moments where I was shaking my fists at the screen in frustration about how they were so close to getting it right, except for how the fundamental misunderstanding of how to convey musicals on the screen kept ruining it. And, for Cool and the entire freaking movie one of the things they got wrong was how you show dance.
Let me reiterate: I am not saying you have to have dance in West Side Story. Shakespeare himself did a great take on the concept without a single dance move to be found, and I’m not saying that facetiously. But if you do have dance in West Side Story then you need to understand everything we just talked about, which is that Jerome Robbins was the first to come up with the idea for this show, Jerome was a dancer, and dance was utterly crucial as a component for telling this story. It wasn’t there by accident. It wasn’t having dance for the sake of having dance. It was the language of the show. It provides key information about the story and the characters.
Act, sing, dance. Act, sing, dance. It exists for a reason.
But since we’re talking about musicals and film let’s talk about what you need to do to translate from stage to screen and how to bring the audience with you.
Musicals and Audience Buy In
Now those of you reading this who are familiar with Broadway shows might be thinking wait a sec, there’s tons of Broadway musicals that don’t do act, sing, dance. Either they don’t have dancing at all, or the dancing has nothing to do with the characters.
To which I say you are correct. But that is because those shows are not the same type of musical as West Side Story.
If you want two examples where act, sing, dance doesn’t happen look no further than Les Misérables and Hamilton. Les Misérables may or may not have some dancing depending on the staging, but if so typically only in comedic numbers like Master of the House. Hamilton, on the other hand, does have dancing but usually not by the main characters. Most of the dancing is performed by the background ensemble to set the scene, pantomime action, or create an atmosphere. Notable exceptions are during the ball, when the characters are dancing in the story, or in Room Where It Happens where the act, sing, dance rule is absolutely in effect because Aaron Burr dancing symbolizes how he’s finally reached the point where he is no longer willing to Wait For It.
If we stick to the gross oversimplification, the explanation is that a musical like Les Misérables is closer to opera in style. This is one of the reasons why there’s very little talking in Les Misérables as well: if the audience needs to know something, the characters will sing it.
Hamilton, on the other hand, is in an entirely other area where it is also like an opera in that if the audience needs to know something characters will sing it and also that the dance, while on the stage, is often providing a separate function or set of information.
(The other thing with Hamilton is that it uses a different musical vernacular, for lack of a better word, to convey information to the audience. Rather than purely act, sing, dance, Hamilton also uses things such as choice of music genre and speed of lyrics to convey tone and story. This could be thousands of articles in and of itself but the short version is that, for example, Lafayette doesn’t rap Guns and Ships at 19 words in three seconds because Daveed Diggs can but because that conveys information about how smart and clever Lafayette is.)
Now if you’re somebody who doesn’t know spit about musicals, musical language, or for some weird reason never thought about the history of opera as it relates to the creation of Starlight Express, how are you supposed to know what kind of show you’re getting yourself into?
The answer is the opening number.
The opening number of any musical, provided the musical is done by people who know what they’re doing, is the thing that introduces the musical in both story and structure. It tells the audience what the musical is going to be about and how it will be about it.
In Les Misérables this is Look Down. It immediately tells the audience this is a show where information is conveyed via singing, there’s physical interpretations of things but not much dancing, and also bee tee dubs the title of the show isn’t a misnomer because holy crap are these people not living the high life. In Hamilton we have Alexander Hamilton which right out of the gate lets the audience know this is a modern musical with hip hop stylings, no use of talking to convey information,* the dancing does convey information but in terms of context and background, and that the characters in the show, especially Aaron Burr, will be dipping in and out of being themselves and providing fourth wall breaking narration.
(* The one moment of talking in Hamilton is kept as a surprise and is a deliberate reversal of act, sing, dance, where the fact that the singing stops is what makes the moment impactful.)
This is what is done in stage shows no matter what because, even though the audience members tend to know that they bought tickets for a musical and not a play, they still need to be told what kind of musical it is. It gets them immediately on board with how the show will communicate with them so that the rest of the show is smooth sailing. In video game terms, the opening number of a musical is the tutorial level.
When you transition from stage to movies, however, the opening number is even more important. Reason being that when an audience member goes to see a live theater performance, they’re already on board for the fact that a story is going to be told in a way that doesn’t happen in real life. They’re fine with things like how a single plain wall and a bench are supposed to represent the outside of a funeral home. Concepts like people wanting to sing and dance aren’t too weird in that kind of setting. The only thing the audience needs to know is why singing and dancing happens in the particular show they’re watching and they’re good to go.
On the other hand live action movies are expected to be more realistic. A piece of furniture and some plywood won’t do it. If your characters are on an outdoor bench, an office, a hospital, or whatever it’d damn well better look like those things.
This level of expected realism now gets in the way of audience buy in on musicals because we know people don’t randomly burst into song and dance to express themselves in real life. The late, great Howard Ashman himself said this was why he preferred working with cartoons when he did movies. Cartoons require that same type of audience buy in as a bench and some plywood. In other words, if the audience is already on board with the idea that a talking cartoon crab exists, it’s not too much to get the audience to also be on board with the idea that the crab will sing.
If you’re doing a live action musical, however, you need to work harder to get the audience buy in. This is where your opening number has to do all the heavy lifting.
Which is, I promise you, getting us even closer to talking about 2021’s West Side Story but there’s one more thing we need to talk about and that’s dancing and editing.
Filming Dance and the Importance of Editing
You’ve been a good audience so far and deserve a break, so let’s all take a few minutes and enjoy this video. (Be sure to put the captions on if you want to see the titles.)
I shared that because it’s fun but also because it’s a perfect example of two key components of putting dance on film. The first of which is you have to show the dance.
I’m willing to bet it didn’t take too long for you to pick up on how, with few exceptions, every shot in that video was full body. You saw the performers from their head down to their feet. The few exceptions were three quarters shots where you saw down to the legs, and in those shots the performers weren’t dancing so much as singing with some movement thrown in for fun.
Now part of this is that this video restricts itself to an era of Hollywood where movies were filmed like stage shows. In the early days of movies it took a while for people to figure out you didn’t just have to make it seem like the movie audience was seeing the exact same thing they’d see if they were watching a live performance.
The other part of this, though, is that regardless of when a movie is made if you don’t show the audience something it doesn’t exist. Movies are a visual medium. In other words, if you have dancing in your movie you have to show the dancing. In order to show dancing, you have to show the dancers.
In order to show dancers, you need to do two things: the first is to capture them on film. That means record absolutely everything they are doing from their head down to their feet. Remember that dance language in musicals is descended from ballet and if you think you can show what is being communicated with ballet without including the movement of the feet I welcome you to say that to any ballet dancer you come across and let me know how that works out for you.
The second thing you need to do, and this applies equally to dancing as it does to singing and acting, is edit the footage in a way that properly conveys the visuals to the audience.
Now again this is all gross oversimplification. Recording something for a film also requires lighting and sound and set design and so on. Likewise editing itself is a whole language with many layers to how it conveys information. But, staying in our world of gross oversimplification, if we have to narrow editing down to the “You had ONE job, Phil!” of it all, it’s that an editor takes all the footage shot by the cameras and figures out what to show and what order to show it in.
Which brings us back to our Uptown Funk video. Because the second thing you may have noticed is that every clip of that video was on the beat. You have movies that were made 30-50 years before Bruno Mars was even born hitting the beats of the song he sang. The reason why? You guessed it: editing.
Singers and dancers work with rhythm and pacing as part of their jobs, but the audience’s ability to see that relies on the editor.
Now the easiest way to do this is for the editor to simply get out of the way: the camera records everything in one take and the editor puts that footage in from start to finish. This was typically the way that early movie musicals handled it, usually with edits only coming into play in order to shift camera angles or make other minor adjustments. A great example of this is The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather where yes, there are edits but to get a better view of the moves that they’re doing.
The idea of getting out of the performer’s way isn’t limited to dancing. If, for example, you’ve got an actor doing one of the most famous soliloquies of all time you want to stand back and let him act. The power of the moment is in the words being said and how the actor is saying them. If the actor is good at their job you don’t need anything else. That’s why you hired the actor.
(BTW, if you love movies which get out of the way and let amazing actors act I recommend The Harder They Fall which is an absolute feast of that sort of thing. I did a review of that one for Ko-Fi members, for what it’s worth.)
So you set the camera down and get out of the way... unless there’s information necessary to be given to the audience and the only way you can give that information is via the editing. In the Nicholas Brothers footage the necessary information is things like “They’re about to do this totally fucking awesome thing on the stairs and you won’t be able to see that unless we cut to a different camera angle.” In the clip of Hamlet the information is that Claudius and Polonius are listening in on his speech, so we get brief edits to let the audience know they’re there but otherwise we stay on the steady, uncut shot of Hamlet as he’s talking.
The thing that you don’t do, whether the performer is acting, singing, or dancing, is cut the footage every second you feel like it. If you cut it has to be for a reason and, in musicals especially, at the right time. When we’re talking about dancing, the right time is on the beat and not in the middle of a movement.
Got it? Good. Now that you understand all of this, let’s dig into what the fuck went wrong with 2021’s version of West Side Story.
How 2021’s West Side Story Completely Misunderstood the Concept of Musicals
I wish there was a legal clip of the opening of 2021’s West Side Story because I could teach a master class on what went wrong with the entire movie using that alone. Sadly we don’t have that. What we do have, though, is the 1961 version. So I’m going to talk about what 2021’s West Side Story did wrong by explaining what 1961’s version did right.
What’s in that clip is the opening number minus the introduction of the three note whistle. I wish the clip included that because it’s the first thing the 2021 movie got wrong. Yes, that means literally the first moment of the new movie was a fuck up. There is a reason I have been all capsing about this in DMs for over a week now. My friends have immense patience with me, let me tell you.
Anyway, in the 1961 movie the whistle sounds over a view of Manhattan. It then keeps sounding over various views all over New York City as music gets added in on the soundtrack. This then leads into the start of the clip above, which is the Jets in a park. The music builds to a crescendo and then stops, taken over by Riff snapping his fingers.
And honestly if I had to I could stop right there and give you the full story on what 2021 West Side Story got wrong about musicals without any other examples.
Lets contrast it with how the 2021 version opens so you can understand why, and again I wish I had a clip to show you because me describing it won’t do it justice.
In the 2021 version we get the whistle but, instead of a visual montage of New York City, we get a slow pan over buildings being torn down to make way for Lincoln Center. Because yes, San Juan Hill, the area in which West Side Story took place, was destroyed as one of Robert Moses’s pet urban renewal/racist projects. (Please remember that because it’s important for later. Robert Moses is infamous for how his decisions on what got done and where were specifically based on fucking over people of color. AKA not white people.) If you want an extra piece of trivia, it was being torn down while the 1961 movie was being filmed, so some of the scenes which took place by demolished properties were exactly that.
The key difference between the whistle in 1961 and 2021 is the information it conveys.
In 1961 the whistle symbolizes the Jets. It’s an auditory calling card. Again I’ll link to a video down in Lagniappe which gets into this more but the point is the whistle means Jets. When you hear the whistle all over shots of New York City it is, from second one of the start of the movie, telling you that the impact of the Jets is felt throughout the entire city.
And we know that the whistle specifically represents the Jets in the movie (as opposed to as an abstract concept) because when we see the Jets the music stops.
Got it? Whistle is a signal that Jets are around. If you can see the Jets, you don’t need the signal that they’re on their way anymore do you?
In the 2021 version the whistle doesn’t mean the Jets. The whistle... is a whistle.
Now granted we’re talking about Steven Spielberg so it’s possible that, since Tony Kushner made sure to refer to it as a shofar call in the screenplay, he was aware of the meanings in that and was still including them as part of the background leitmotifs of the film. But what matters here is that Spielberg is pulling the whistle back and away from its meaning in the story. First of all because it’s not in the story, it’s merely a soundtrack sound.
But second because he’s ignoring what the buildup of the whistle meant. This gets worse as the scenes go on.
In the 1961 version the Jets snap in unison as the music picks up again. Let’s pause for a second to recognize what this is doing for us as our tutorial explanation of what this version of the musical will be like. We have been told, in under a minute, that when we hear musical notes (the whistle) it is an in world piece of information. When we hear music, now, we know that the movie is telling us something connected directly to the characters, their thoughts, their feelings. The music and characters are linked, there is no separation.
When the music stops and is taken over by snapping - in other words, an action done to a rhythm - we are now being told that this musical is also using the language of dance to convey information directly about and from the characters. In this case the information is that it’s very important to know the Jets are a unit who work together. How do we know that? Because it is dance (aka the highest level in act, sing, dance) and it’s in unison.
The next thing that happens is that a ball accidentally comes by, a kid comes over to retrieve it, and everything stops. The last time everything stopped was just seconds ago when the whistle and the music stopped to show us the Jets. The whistle warned us the Jets were coming, therefore the silence meant the arrival of the thing we’re being warned about, in other words the thing we’re meant to be afraid of. The music stopping again is now a callback to the danger. The kid is scared shitless of the Jets. We stay frozen in this moment of fear until Riff signals for the ball to be given back, the tension diffuses, and the music and snapping start again.
Again we’re going to hit pause because we’re still under a minute into the movie and we’ve been told, using act, sing, dance, that the Jets are a gang the entire fucking city of New York is scared of. Which, since my Irish and Italian parents who grew up in this time and place of New York City can attest to, is 100% accurate. My dad still remembers stories of being at school and battening down the hatches because rumor had it one of the local gangs was coming to town. (My dad was definitely the María out of my parents’ relationship.)
Contrast this with the 2021 opening, which uses the whistle to create atmosphere over the tearing down of the slums. Which is fine. You can do it. Like I said, interpret away! West Side Story isn’t a sacred text. But when the first introduction we get to the Jets is Ice popping up out of a cellar, it starts giving us our next hints that Spielberg and company missed all points entirely. Not only that, but they moved the narrative to start favoring the white characters right out of the gate.
Here’s why: by removing the whistle as a warning the Jets are coming Spielberg also removed any warning about the Jets coming. The first thing the 1961 movie tells us is the Jets are dangerous. The first thing the 2021 movie tells us is that the area the movie takes place in was torn down to make way for Lincoln Center. Remember that opening numbers tell us not only how the musical works but what it is about. Making the creation of Lincoln Center be the first thing we see tells us that the removal of the homes is a more key piece of information than anything we will learn about the Jets.
Which, for those of you who either knew this already or bothered to click the links, might make you say great! The 2021 movie is expanding the audience’s knowledge of how much the local Puerto Rican population was affected by gentrification! That’s wonderful!
Ha. Yeah. We’re gonna get to that, and you won’t have to wait long either.
Back to our buddy Ice. He opens the cellar door and tosses a paint can to A-Rab. A-Rab tosses it to Diesel. All of these things happen on beat which I hope you enjoyed because it’s the last fucking time beat and the Jets come across each other. By toss #4 we’ve completely lost any connection between the Jets and the music and if you thought to yourself “Huh, I wonder if this is when TBQ tweeted about researching an editor?” you’re unfortunately not right because actually it was when I saw the advance video of 2021’s America and immediately realized this movie had no idea what it was doing.
A Brief Interlude to Once Again Talk About Filming and Editing
The editor for 2021’s West Side Story is Michael Kahn. He’s had a long career and won many awards and absolutely fuck all of them have to do with musicals. Please try to contain your shock and surprise.
Both Spielberg and Michael Kahn do not care for dance in West Side Story. Spielberg doesn’t get how dance relates to telling the story and Michael apparently goes into anaphylactic shock if the camera lingers on a dancer for more than five seconds. Seriously, once you pick up on how much they hate to show dance it it’s impossible to unsee how quickly and repeatedly the edits come in. Yes, now and again we get some long shots of things like Ariana DeBose flaring her skirt out but the vast vast majority of the time as soon as you see people dance you can start a very short mental countdown until Michael Kahn starts shoving the edits in.
(There’s another thing you won’t be able to unnotice once you pick up on it but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
To give you an idea of how bad the editing for dance is try this part of America where I can only assume Michael spilled coffee on his computer and used a ballpeen hammer instead of a paper towel to clean it up because what the shit? It’s made even worse by how earlier in the song we actually do get some long shots of the dancing so we know it’s possible for it to happen! (Sadly these were parts that showed a lack of understanding of the lyrics and choreography but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Since we’re focusing on editing though, let me forestall the argument of “But TBQ! It’s a fast paced song with a lot going on! The editing has to reflect that!”
To which my reply is 96,000 from the movie version of In the Heights which was edited by Myron Kerstein who actually knows how to edit musicals and dancing.
96,000 is conveying the same information: a Latine neighborhood singing and dancing about something they feel passionately about and the passion intensifies as the song goes on (in fact, feel free to watch the whole 96,000 video if you want to see act, sing, dance in motion.) Moreover, even more information is being conveyed here than in America because what Christopher Scott and his team did with the choreography was use different dance styles to represent the diversity and history of the neighborhood. In other words, if you see someone doing Columbian dancing their character is from Columbia, and the various street dance styles represent types of dancing that were invented in the Washington Heights.
It’s therefore important that the dancing be seen and seen clearly so that the audience gets information and not chaos. Which starts with Jon M Chu, who knows how to direct musicals and dancing, then Alice Brooks, who knows how to film musicals and dancing, and then Myron Kerstein who brings it home with the editing.
Which is why, in all of 96,000, you are always able to see the dancing (down to their feet!) and when edits do happen, which is necessary for things like different camera angles and character focus, they still show the dancing in complete vignettes of movement. Nobody’s being cut off mid butt wiggle, for example.
(Also with a much larger group, smaller budget, and less time to film it in they still manage minimal shots of dancers missing their cues and out of step with the other dancers around them, something which 2021’s West Side Story also fails repeatedly, including in the opening number which we’re getting back to in a second. But if you need an example try the America footage again and maybe make a mental note to yourself that if some of your dancers aren’t as strong as others maybe don’t make them stand out by being the only ones wearing red capri pants.)
Since we’re on the topic I also want to mention the people behind the cameras in 2021’s West Side Story who also - again contain your shock here - have never worked on musicals or with dancers before! No? Really? I couldn’t tell!
Look, I’m not trying to make fun of these guys. Like Michael Kahn they have long careers and a history with Spielberg and are good at what they do. But what they don’t know how to do is film dancers. They say it themselves in the interview when they talk about how they had no idea where the dancers even where once they started moving.
And as much as it would be easy to snark that people who are choreographed to not only do the same exact movement over and over again but to do it to a beat should be the easiest thing in the world to film, first let’s not ignore how in the interview they also said that Spielberg’s attitude towards filming was figuring out what he wanted to shoot the day that it happened. Which just... I mean he’s Spielberg, if anybody’s allowed to show up to the job unprepared and do whatever the fuck he wants he’s earned it. But you cannot do that with dancers who by nature of their job have to do the same thing over and over to a specific count. Singing actually does give you a tiny bit of leeway to experiment if that’s a route you want to go. But choreographed dancing does not. You’ve got to hit beats, you’ve got to - if the choreography demands it - be in unison with your fellow dancers. If one of your fellow dancers is about to leap into your arms you’d better be there to catch them. The list goes on and on.
Which brings me to the next thing which is that instead of snark I hope it helps people appreciate that if someone with decades of experience at all, let alone experience with Steven freaking Spielberg, can’t simply pick up a camera and start filming dance like it’s no big deal that means that yeah, knowing how to film dance is a big fucking deal. Knowing how to edit dance is a big deal. Hell, even knowing how to edit musicals in general and if you don’t believe me you can take it from Jared Bush who directed and wrote Encanto.
And if you’re still inclined to say that the 2021 camera operators must be right and dance, even choreographed dance, is just way too hard to film, I’m gonna point out that a properly trained camera operator can follow a dancer doing freestyle - aka making up each move as he goes - and keep him perfectly in frame and adjust the angles atmospherically without a single cut. It can be done but you have to know how. To film and edit a musical you need people who know how to film and edit musicals. Spielberg instead went with people he’s worked with before and sadly it shows.
Anyway, back to the movie.
How 2021’s West Side Story Misunderstood Musicals and the Source Material
The other two key components of the opening number in West Side Story that I want to stress are first up, how the lack of musical understanding is throughout the piece. I mean we’re taking basic things such as how the Jets or things around them slow down while the music speeds up and my god my kingdom for a legal clip so I could dissect it all for you. But we’ve got bigger and worse examples of Spielberg fucking up the musical so we’ll move on. (Though you should’ve heard my scream when the Jets don’t even knock on Doc’s window on beat because sweet Jesus knocking on beat is one of the easiest ways to link music to your characters but we’re moving on! Really! Ahem.)
The other thing that matters here is how the failure to understand musicals in the 2021 opening is also the start of the 2021 version pushing the white narrative. Because you’ll recall that the 1961 musical came out of the gate telling us that the Jets were terrifying. A kid came near them and all but pooped his pants.
The 2021 Jets, in the other hand, are little scamps! They splash paint on walls! They take down signs that weren’t actually secured very well! Kid stuff! Nothing serious! Mere annoyances!
Do you get that? We’ve gone from the Jets being something that terrified an entire city to a group of Dennis the Menaces. And I’m going to get into how this affects the 2021 movie’s overall centering and endorsing of the white narrative, believe me, but for right now let’s stay focused on how part of the problem is that Spielberg didn’t get the original musical. And not to put too fine a line on it but you’d think Spielberg of all people would understand the concept of music notes being a key way to signify an unseen danger is coming right for you.
Now we could talk about how maybe Spielberg and Kushner, either consciously or unconsciously, centered the white narrative due to the daily background radiation of racism that we’re all dealing with. And I do think that’s an element. But I also think another element is that they didn’t understand the story in the first place. And the best example of this is how they fuck up Tony and María.
Back when you were in high school if you had an English teacher worth their salt one of the first things they would’ve told you when starting the lessons on Romeo and Juliet is that you, the audience member, have to buy in to the concept of love at first sight. Whether or not you think it’s actually possible for two people to be soul mates destined by the gods themselves to love one another and be together forever and to know that as soon as they lay eyes on each other doesn’t matter. You have to believe it’s true in the story. And frankly even within the story you’ve got some leeway: either it is true and Romeo and Juliet have love at first sight or it’s not true - which is to say even in the story it doesn’t exist anymore than unicorns do - but you believe that Romeo and Juliet believe it.
Bringing this back to superheroes: You have to believe a man can fly or else a movie about Superman really isn’t going to work for you.
So with Romeo and Juliet, and by extension West Side Story, you have to believe these characters either are true love at first sight or that they believe that they’re true love at first sight so strongly that, in the words of Westworld, if you can’t tell the difference does it really matter?
Now the good news is that the onus on getting you, the audience, to believe that is actually on the show. Which Jerome Robbins knew, which is why he understood that Tony and Maria seeing one another at the dance was the crux of the entire thing. If they couldn’t nail that scene they might as well throw the whole show out.
So, what happens when Tony and Maria meet in the original version? What, specifically, do they do?
Watch that. What’s happening in this scene that unquestionably tells the audience that these two have suddenly felt the strongest emotion of their lives? And that the emotion is that they care about the other person? And they are connected in a way to one another that they aren’t connected to anyone else in the world?
You got it, right? They dance.
They dance together. They dance in unison. And, in a key component, the first thing they do is dance.
Remember earlier when you wisely pointed out that it’s not always speak, shout, move because if the situation is important and intense enough you’re skipping right to movement? You were 100% right. Tony and María skip right to movement.
Now there are other parts here which are great. If you pay close attention you can see how the mambo battle is still going on in the background (and for those who wondered how the modern version made a mambo battle boring, the answer is have camera operators who don’t know how to film dance and an editor who doesn’t know how to edit it). But María and Tony don’t dance this little intimate number because that’s what the band was playing. This is a dance removed from the world around them and meant only for couples who are having this moment of connection. (Frankly you can make arguments for and against the other couples doing the same thing in the background while this is going on but we don’t have time for that right now.)
María and Tony’s dance being separate is stressed again when the rest of the gym fades back in and we see everyone else doing that circle thing that Glad Hand suggested as a way to meet new people to dance with. Not to put too fine a line on what’s going on but later on in the show María and Tony sing “I saw you and the world went away.” The lyrics of this musical are not that complicated.
Now again, you don’t have to have the dance. You can have Tony and María meet and share a slice of pizza. They can meet and do a hopscotch competition. You could go for surrealism and have the two live characters turn into a circle and a triangle and have the shapes pulse in a pattern of some kind. It doesn’t matter! The method isn’t important. What matters is you convey the same information.
And if - if - your method is a musical and your musical has dance numbers then the dance is the thing that does that. You now get three guesses as to what 2021 María and Tony don’t do when they first meet and you are smart enough now to know that the first two don’t count.
Did you guess that they don’t dance? Very good! You’re paying attention!
Here again my kingdom for a clip so that you can see what happens. But the moment starts when Tony spots María dancing with Chino. Not only that but dancing happily with Chino. So much so that Spielberg had to ask Rachel Zelger to tone it down because it wouldn’t make sense for Tony to approach her if she looked like she was having that much of a good time with someone else. So the fact that the end result is a scene where she still looks like she’s having a good time is either due to Rachel’s inability to properly act the moment (which, given how good she is at acting in general in the movie, I don’t believe is the case), our buddy Michael not editing in the best clip of Rachel to convey the proper emotion, or - and here’s my guess - the fault lies with Spielberg himself for not getting the moment in the first place. Because mistake number one is María shouldn’t be dancing with anybody, let alone Chino. The first time we see 1961 María dance is with Tony. That’s not a coincidence.
María then moves away from Chino because suddenly she doesn’t like him anymore. And when the only thing we’ve seen about Chino that isn’t in his favor is that he’s kind of awkward this honestly makes María come off like a jerk. It worked much better in the 1961 version when María said she’d already met Chino prior to the events of the movie and they didn’t really connect. That way the audience can assume there was legitimate reason for them not hitting it off and not because María dismisses someone the second she determines them to be too much of a nerd for her to hang around with.
But anyway, María and Tony then happen to notice each other across the dance floor and if you wondered why I didn’t link to a citation of Spielberg telling Rachel to try not to be so happy when dancing with Chino it’s because I was saving it for this moment when I tell you that Ansel and Rachel both confirm that Tony and Maria just happen to notice each other and by random chance are also going in the same direction and that is the exact moment I texted this gif to a friend of mine because holy fucking shit how do you get it so wrong?
This is the one fucking moment the entire story rests on and you treat it like María could’ve just as easily bumped into some other dude on the way back from the bathroom! And I just - they get it so constantly wrong. Tony spots María first! She’s oblivious to him staring at her! Then she finally notices Tony after she snubs Chino and she immediately looks away.
Lemme run that one by you again: she looks away.
Love! At! First! Fucking! Sight! Sight! The thing you do with your eyeballs! The sight part isn’t a metaphor! If you have a problem with that take it up with Shakespeare because it was his god damn idea!
I just - look, I know it sounds like I’m being pedantic but I swear this shit matters. Because, again, the fucking up of the musical aspects of this musical is also what ties in to this version being so much worse on the racism issues. But I need to show you how they fuck up the most obvious god damn parts of the show so you understand me when I tell you they fucked up the stuff that’s not quite so obvious. Okay? Just keep going with me, there’s a method to my ever increasing madness.
So, per Ansel and Rachel, Tony and María just happen to wander in the same direction for no reason and bump into each other under the bleachers, and, per the screenplay, “Neither knows what to say or do” so the cha-cha starts in the gym, which is to say as a real event that everyone is aware of, and María starts dancing first. Not only that she has to show Tony how to do the steps and only then does he join in.
And look, you could have some great symbolism with the idea of a story where two people slowly come to care about one another and one has to teach the other what it’s like to pair up with somebody and by extension know how to love but that’s not the point of Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story. Again, if you don’t want to write about a guy who’s really good with technology pick a character who isn’t Tony Stark!
The entire point of the story, again going back to fucking Shakespeare, is that these two kids meet, they fall (or believe they fall) deeply and passionately in love the second they see each other, and tragedy is that the intensity of that love doesn’t matter in the face of the conflict that surrounds them.
It doesn’t work if Tony and María are like “Eh, that one’s not ugly I guess” as a first impression of one another! It doesn’t work if they aren’t instantly working as a pair the second they start interacting! If you don’t like dance you don’t have to use dance! Use anything else! Have them finish each other’s sentences or solve a puzzle together or whatever the hell else you want that isn’t dancing which you apparently hate for some reason even though you’re the one who insisted that you do West Side Story, Spielberg!
Sorry. I just - how? HOW??
Right. I’m taking a breath, I promise.
Okay. So they fucked up what should’ve been the most easily understood part of the film. Not easy to execute, even Jerome Robbins knew it was a high bar, but easy to understand as to why it was important and why the 1961 version handled it the way that it did. And part of the reason how they fucked it up is that Spielberg doesn’t actually like having dance in this movie. And, when he does have it, he doesn’t understand the act, sing, dance concept where the dance is an expression of the characters. 2021 Tony and María don’t dance because immediately dancing in unison the moment they see each other is the musical translation of love at first sight, they dance because that’s what happened in the first movie.
So what about the sing of act, sing, dance? Well he fucks that one up too.
Remember that sing is the first level after act. A character feels something more strongly than their base level so they have to express it through song. And in some moments they get this right. 2021 Tony sings Maria same as 1961 Tony does. Granted it’s Ansel Elgort and it’s a little obvious there’s some note changes to get the song into his range but whatever. It’s fine. Stopped clock is right twice a day. They’re good.
The problem comes in with the other songs where, much like how Spielberg seems to have no idea why Jerome Robbins included dancing, he doesn’t get why the songs happen either. Specifically he doesn’t get that songs don’t happen because Sondheim wrote down “Here’s a song, have them sing it” in the script. They happen because they are the thoughts of the characters.
And for an example of this we luckily have that clip of America again.
Now a thing to understand about America is that it’s one of the songs that has traditionally been played fast and loose with in every version of West Side Story, both in placement in the musical, in the choice of lyrics, and in who sings which part (remember that bit, it’s important later).
In the 1961 version the lyrics they went with included Anita singing about how much she hated the hurricanes and she wished Puerto Rico would sink back into the ocean. For obvious reasons that’s not a sentiment that’s not going to play well with a modern audience.
So the issue with 2021 America isn’t that it changed the starting lyrics to be more positive. The issue is Anita shouldn’t be singing those lyrics.
Here’s the thing: before the song starts Anita is arguing with Bernardo about the benefits of America vs Puerto Rico. Anita is very much against the idea of ever moving back to Puerto Rico because she believes America is better. You might notice that is the entire point of the song named, yanno, America.
Given that, it makes no sense that when Anita’s emotions get so strong she has to sing the first thing she sings about is... how much she has happy nostalgic memories about the “lovely island” of Puerto Rico and its pineapples and coffee blossoms.
She’s not nostalgic! She’s pissed! The song is even set up that when she gets to “Smoke on your pipe and put that in!” it’s because she’s continuing her argument with Bernardo! There is no reason for her to sing the first verse.
Moreover there is especially no reason when there are other women there who join in on the song while Anita is gathering her laundry. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world for the song to start with one of the other women singing about how they miss the pineapples and coffee blossoms and for Anita to be the one to interject with reminders about how difficult life was for them there.
I suspect the problem was that in Spielberg’s mind, just as Tony and María dance because that’s when the script said they do, America is primarily sung by Anita because it’s primarily sung by Anita. As in not because it’s meant to be Anita’s thoughts. It’s just the number Rita Moreno won an Oscar for.
This “America happens because it happens” continues through the rest of the 2021 version of the song. And I will pause here for a second to say that one thing I did like about the setup of 2021 America is that they make it clear there is a gender divide on the two opinions. Moreover, the dancing - particularly the swirling skirts - help reinforce the idea that what the women appreciate about America is that they feel they have greater freedom. This is actually an interpretation that the 2021 movie gets to claim credit for because the original stage version of America was entirely sung by the women debating amongst themselves. So I tip my hat to the 2021 version for handling the feeling of the men’s opinions vs the women’s well because it did and I’m not here to say things fucked up if they didn’t.
Where America does fuck up is in Anita’s verse, which we covered, and the filming and editing, which we mentioned earlier, and the choreography.
In one of the rare moments of a long shot of the dancing (bless!) we see Bernardo and the other men dance with punching. A few moments later this becomes actual boxing practice. Because... why?
No, really, why? Remember that dance is the ultimate expression of what a character is thinking and feeling. Anita and the women are dancing happily and swirling their skirts around not just because these are Latin dance moves (though that is also a part because naturally their dance language would be Latin dancing) but because the dancing communicates the freedom they feel. So if Anita and the other women are dancing their emotions what does it mean for Bernardo and the men to mime hitting the women they are singing with?
“But Bernardo is a boxer!” yeah, and we’ll get to that. My point here isn’t that Bernardo might not use boxing moves in his dancing, my point is that if he does it would have meaning. And I genuinely don’t think that the message Spielberg, or the choreographer Justin Peck, meant to communicate here is that the emotion Bernardo and the men are feeling in this moment is that they want to punch the women they love in the face. They’re punching because he’s a boxer. He randomly does boxing practice because he’s a boxer. Problem is this is a dance sequence so all of it is irrelevant and shouldn’t be there.
The reason why I think it’s there, and why I suspect 2021 Bernardo was made a boxer in the first place, is that in the 1961 version Bernardo and the men mimed punching each other.
But this didn’t come out of nowhere! If you watch the entirety of 1961’s America you’ll see that the dancing is as much a part of the point/counterpoint argument as the singing is. Other than the fact that they’re using Latin dance moves this is actually some straight up ballet shit in terms of conveying information entirely through dancing. Anita and the women dance, then the men respond by mimicking their dance and adding their own flair to it. The women then respond in kind. You could take the singing out entirely and still know what was going on in this scene.
So when Bernardo and the men get to the punching it’s a counterargument to the women. They’re first mocking the most recent dance moves Anita and the others did, then they mime punching each other to make their point: doesn’t matter how nice you think America is, America will always beat you down if you’re from Puerto Rico.
I’ll get more into Bernardo’s boxing career in a bit but again: 2021 West Side Story is randomly throwing in visuals with no comprehension of what they mean other than “whelp they did it the first time.” Bernardo and the others should be dancing what they think and feel. They aren’t.
The lack of connection between character and performance goes on and on. We could hit every point of the movie but let’s round the corner on this by focusing on María and Tony again.
How 2021’s West Side Story Misrepresents Tony and María’s Relationship
In the dialogue 2021’s María frequently brings up her reservations about her relationship with Tony. She talks about her concerns that the two of them being together is making things worse in the conflict between the two gangs. It therefore doesn’t make sense when she then starts singing songs about how much she loves Tony and wants to be with him because that’s not what she’s thinking right then.
Which again seems nitpicky but the problem is that María and Tony consistently, from the moment they meet, do not do anything in their acting which matches their singing and dancing. Which means that if you only pay attention to their spoken dialogue you would think these are two people where the man speaks condescendingly and rather manipulatively to the woman (more on this in a bit) and the woman has some pretty justifiable concerns about them dating. If you only listen to the songs, however, it’s two people who are totally in love and want to spend their lives together forever and ever. There is absolutely nothing which bridges these conflicting emotions.
This culminates in possibly the worst change in the interpretation of Tony and María’s relationship, which is after Riff and Bernardo die.
In the 1961 version, María hears that Tony killed her brother while on the roof of her apartment. She immediately runs down to her room, gets on her knees, and prays for the news to not be true, including saying “Make me die” (i.e. instead of her brother). When Tony comes into her room it’s because not only is he going to the cops to turn himself in but because he was hoping for her forgiveness before he went. He explains that the death was an accident (which - arguably not so much but we’re talking about what María knows) and also drops the bombshell that Bernardo killed Riff. Then Tony, the one living person most in position to be angry about Riff’s death, forgives Bernardo because he knows Bernardo got caught up in things the same way he did.
This puts María in a position where, in the space of about five minutes, she’s found out that both her brother and her true love have killed somebody. It therefore makes sense that she’s trying to process the idea of if she can love someone who is a killer, and that, since her world has been shattered, she clings to Tony as the one thing she has, begging him to stay and hold her as she cries.
It also makes sense when she and Tony then transition to talking about how they wish they could go somewhere that the outside pressures of the world around them - i.e. the violence which forced both Tony and Bernardo into positions where they killed someone - couldn’t reach them. Which is why they then sing Somewhere before they end up making love.
Now the important thing about Somewhere is that it is Tony and María’s “I Want” song. An “I Want” song is a song which expresses the deepest desires of the main character and what they’re hoping to get out of the story. “My life is X and I want it to be Y.” There are many well known examples. Ariel wants to be where the people are. Belle wants more than this provincial life. Alexander Hamilton wants to not throw away his shot and Aaron Burr wants to be in the room where it happens.
The last two are particularly good examples because they demonstrate that it’s possible to have two “I Want” songs - which you can do if you have co-leads, which Alexander and Aaron are - and they also demonstrate that it’s not a requirement for the “I Want” song to happen at the start of the show.
The purpose of the “I Want” song is to get the audience on the main character’s side. It usually comes close to the start of the show because more often than not the time you want to get the audience to root for your main character is when the audience first meets them. However, there are exceptions. Aaron Burr’s “I Want” comes in the second half of the show in part because it’s his story arc that he refuses to act and it’s only until the second half he finally feels his desire strongly enough to do anything about it. The other reason is that Aaron’s now only a few songs away from killing his co-lead. The show needs to shore up audience sympathy for him so that by the final bows he’s still a person and not a two dimensional cartoon villain.
Coming back to West Side Story, Tony and María both get an “I Want” song because they, like Alexander and Aaron, are co-leads. (And let me pause here for those who might say Tony gets an “I Want” song earlier with Something’s Coming. That doesn’t count because it’s not about how Tony wants something to happen, he’s singing about how he thinks something will happen. Fine line of difference but it matters.)
Not only do Tony and María both get an “I Want” song but they share the same song. They sing it together. Like the two of them dancing together to indicate love at first sight, them singing together also symbolizes how they are a unit who feel and work as one. (All the other songs the two of them duet on serve this same purpose).
As for why the song comes so late in the show, consider when they sing it. The audience is being asked to root for these two crazy kids to somehow find a happy ending even though Tony just murdered María’s brother. This is the second most important moment for audience buy in and it’s also the second hardest, if not the hardest, after getting the audience to believe in love at first sight. Of course this is when you bust out the “I Want” song.
And what do Tony and María both want? They want a “place for us” with, among other things, “a new way of living” and “a new way of forgiving.” It’s a specific response to and appeal for the violence all around them to go away. Remember that Bernardo and Riff’s deaths were presented to María (and I do think Tony genuinely believes) as being caused by Tony and Bernardo being caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Get rid of the circumstances and everyone gets to know “peace and quiet and open air.”
The tragedy of Tony and María’s relationship, going all the way back to when they were called Romeo and Juliet, is that you have these two teenagers who just want to love each other and the hate of everyone around them won’t let that happen. Tony and María want a world without that hate. As desires go that’s not too shabby. Especially since the wish they’re making also addresses the horror that just occurred. They both want Bernardo and Riff to still be alive. They want all the bad stuff not to have happened, not just the part where if Tony goes to jail María will never see him again.
It’s also worth noting that in the original Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet actually were secretly married. Therefore the Elizabethan audience would’ve already been on board for why Juliet not only wouldn’t but couldn’t kick Romeo to the curb after he killed her brother Tybalt. West Side Story, on the other hand, has Tony and María only pretend to marry each other. Which is very meaningful for them - which we know because it happens in song - but it also means that even in the 1950s the audience needed more convincing for why they’d want to root for María and Tony to stay together and have a happy ending.
Somewhere does that. Tony and María pour their hearts out in their “I Want” song and consummate their relationship. It makes sense and is even something we feel sympathy for.
Contrast this with María in the 2021 version. Here she finds out that Bernardo killed Riff and then Tony killed Bernardo while she’s still at work. We then don’t see her until much later when she’s back in her room. And not for nothing but Gimbles, where María worked, was in Herald Square, and San Juan Hill, where María lives, starts on 59th. So depending on if she took the subway or walked we’re looking at 20-30 minutes minimum before she got home. Compared to 1961 María who ran right down to her bedroom, 2021 María had some time to think.
Like his 1961 counterpart, 2021 Tony shows up the moment María gets to her room. This Tony offers no apologies, just tells María he wanted to see her before going to the cops. María does get upset and calls him a killer but then she skips immediately to begging him not to go anywhere because the worst thing that could happen - again I’ll remind you to a woman who just found out her brother died is that her boyfriend, the guy who killed him, would have to leave her and go to jail. At which point the two of them have sex.
Did you notice some key differences there? Slightly different vibe to the scene? Things like different timing, pacing, and oh yeah Tony and María don’t sing one of the most important songs in the whole god damn musical?
In the 2021 musical Somewhere is given to Valentina, an original character created for this version of West Side Story for the purpose of giving Rita Moreno a part. Valentina is the Puerto Rican widow of Doc, the character who owned the drug store in the original versions of West Side Story. I’ll get more into Valentina when we get to the race issues in this version of the show but the key thing about Valentina is she’s not María and Tony.
To all reports in the movie, Valentina had a happy marriage to Doc, who was white. She experiences no racism from the white characters because, according to her, by marrying a white man she’s considered an honorary white woman by people like Riff ("I married a gringo, he thinks that makes me a gringa.") Sure Riff steals a candy bar while he’s at her store but that’s another Dennis the Menace style action and Tony immediately pays for it. To all appearances Valentina has nothing to complain about.
Therefore it makes absolutely no sense for her to be singing Somewhere at all, let alone to be inspired to do it while looking at a picture of her dead husband.
Yes, granted, she just found out about what happened at the rumble. You can argue that her awareness of the escalation of the violence makes her long for a world where the violence doesn’t happen. But not the way the movie presents it. She’s looking at her husband, she’s being generally philosophical. As a character in an act, sing, dance musical she’s supposed to be singing her own thoughts and emotions. These aren’t them.
Now, sometimes in act, sing, dance musicals we do get characters who step out of the story and act as a narrator for other people. For instance Mrs Potts does it for Beauty and the Beast. Angelica does it for Alexander and Eliza in It’s Quiet Uptown. Examples can go on and on, including the original West Side Story stage version. But when these things happen it’s clear that it’s one character speaking (or rather, singing) on behalf of the others. And the way that’s done is the visuals. For example in the stage version the person who sang Somewhere was offstage while Tony and Maria danced a dream ballet together in front of the audience. The important thing is that it was still Tony and María’s song.
Which brings us back to how 2021’s West Side Story screws it up because the visuals don’t work and neither does the setup. The setup for 2021 María and Tony is that María, who again I remind you just found out her boyfriend killed her brother, is upset about losing her boyfriend. Neither she nor this version of Tony have said jack shit about the violence of their world, how they long for a better place - hell, Tony hasn’t even said he’s sorry. They went from acknowledging that Tony murdered Bernardo directly to having sex. Did not pass Go, did not collect $200.
Then we get the visuals which are Valentina sitting by herself, Tony and María having sex, and Anita completely by herself as she cries and deals with the paperwork at the police station. And this is the part where they lose all argument that Valentina is pulling a Mrs Potts because if she’s singing on behalf of Tony and María then she’s singing on Anita’s behalf too. And I can assure you that Anita, who Ariana DeBose is acting the shit out of being a woman in shock and mourning, sure as hell ain’t thinking about how there’s a place for her and Bernardo because, again I remind you, Bernardo is dead.
And not for nothing but even the most basic fanvidder knows that when you put a song over visuals the visuals have to connect with the lyrics somehow. You could do a version of Somewhere that implies Anita’s emotions. But - and again this is our pal editing’s fault - that does not happen here. For example over the shot of Anita crying as she walks home alone the lyric is the word “somewhere” repeated twice. When the lyric right before that is “We’ll find a way of forgiving” which actually sorta kinda could have worked for Anita in this scenario: she’s upset but in a (sadly probably mythical) hopeful future she’ll find a place where she’s beyond her anger and forgive what happened.
But nope! We just get random shots of Anita crying, random shots of Valentina, and random shots of Tony and María fucking because what is music that connects to our characters? This musical sure doesn’t know!
So I daresay we’ve proven that the 2021 version of West Side Story completely screwed up the idea of musicals, what they mean, and how to present information with them. Which now brings us to how all of that powered their even worse crime which was centering the white narrative at the expense of the Puerto Rican characters. And that even includes how the 2021 version loves to brag about its use of Spanish.
Why 2021’s West Side Story’s Use of Spanish Doesn’t Offset its Racist Narrative
As we get into the following sections about 2021’s West Side Story’s centering of the white characters let me say that in this part of the discussion I’m going to use “the audience” to mean “the audience that Hollywood assumes to be the default audience for all movies which is white people who only speak English.” The latter is obviously a bit longer than the former and this article is already breaking records for length on this site so I’m cutting down words when I can. I’m not saying I think this is the default audience (or that “English speaking = white” for that matter) but that Hollywood does.
And in terms of proving Hollywood does that, well there’s already ample evidence including a movie which came out while I was writing this article which had its own frustrations based on the concept of who a default audience is so we don’t need to get into that either.
Instead what we’re going to focus on is how 2021’s West Side Story manages to center the white narrative and favor the (assumed white and solely English speaking) audience even more than the 1961 version did. Because no matter what the 2021 version of West Side Story claims it did in order to advance the overall narrative, let alone the story of the Puerto Rican characters, it 100% is aimed at the (assumed white, assumed solely English speaking) audience and tips the story in favor of the white characters. And it does that in spite of the casting and with - not in spite of - its use of Spanish, so let’s start there.
The 2021 version of West Side Story cast actual Latine people to play Latine characters which is great. Yes, you have things like how Rachel Zegler is of Columbian and Polish descent instead of Puerto Rican but we’re comparing it to a movie where, again it can’t be stressed enough, the guy who played Bernardo originated the role of Riff over in London. This is a no contest competition. 2021 West Side Story wins in this area, point in its favor that is indisputable, we can move on.
The next thing that comes up as the movie’s supposed diversity win, however, is that it has the Puerto Rican characters speaking in Spanish. Moreover, Spielberg was especially proud of the fact that at no point is the Spanish subtitled because, according to him, “That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help.”
And look, I’m not discounting the impact of hearing your own language in a movie. I know people who cried grateful tears to hear Miles and his mother speaking even a little bit of Spanish to each other in Into the Spider-Verse. We’re also talking about a story where, back when the 1961 version of West Side Story came out, simply hearing the words “Puerto Rico” said in a film was deeply meaningful for some people. But if we’re talking about the way this movie centers the white narrative and the (assumed white, assumed solely English speaking) audience, then the first flag I’m throwing on this play is the Spanish.
First up it’s incorrect to say the 1961 movie didn’t have Spanish. It did. Granted in the background - sometimes literally - but the Puerto Rican characters greeted each other in Spanish, asked questions of each other in Spanish, and so on. Also without subtitles I might add.
So if the 1961 movie had Spanish in it surely the difference in the 2021 version must be in the volume and the content of the Spanish, right? After all Spielberg himself said “equal proportions,” right?
Yeah, not so much.
Here’s the thing: other than simply having Spanish - which again I’m not discounting as meaningful for people - the Spanish only counts as equal to the English if it conveys the same level of information. 2021’s West Side Story doesn’t do that any more than 1961’s version does.
It doesn’t matter if you are a fluent Spanish speaker or if you never got past learning open vs closed, you miss nothing in 2021’s West Side Story if you never hear the Spanish dialogue. Nothing important is conveyed in Spanish. And here I’m going to link again to the screenplay for anyone who wants to play along at home but let me assure you the second - the second a character gets anywhere near information that’s important for the audience to know they immediately switch over to English. And if you thought you can’t unsee Michael Kahn’s inability to let a dance visual go on for more than about five seconds before putting in an unnecessary edit you will absolutely not be able to miss how often the Puerto Rican characters immediately switch to English the second they’re about to speak a word the audience needs to know.
The way the movie first tries to get you to buy in to the use of English is by having other characters enforce it in the scene. Racist white authority figures such as the police and Glad Hand the social worker demand that the Puerto Rican characters speak English, which tracks for the characters in question. But in scenes of only Puerto Rican characters it’s either Anita who is given the “Speak English!” job or the characters switch over to English themselves without any reason other than the audience needs to know what they’re saying. Regardless which of the latter two options they go with, neither of them make sense.
For example, making Anita the “Speak English!” hall monitor doesn’t jive with her character. For instance she feels called to remind Bernardo to speak English because “We gotta practice!” when he’s... saying her name. Yes, right before that he’s also speaking Spanish but it’s to tell her he loves her and wants to do nice things for her (”Poquito a poco te voy a hacer todo eso, esas cositas que te encantan, Anita María Teresa Josefina Etcetera....”) What part of him saying he loves her and then saying her name makes the first thought in her mind be that he needs to say it in English?
Now one could argue that Anita, who sings an entire song about how she loves living in America, is the perhaps the character who most wants to assimilate and thus speak English. But nothing else Anita does ever indicates that. Even when she’s in public, such as at the dance, she happily switches to Spanish loudly and proudly, such as in the first clip from one of the trailers.
If anything, it would make more sense to have María be the one reminding everyone to speak English because she has to practice. She’s the recent arrival from Puerto Rico and very much wants to learn how to be an American. Heck, in the example we just used it would even make more sense for her to interject with a reminder to speak English because it’s a genuinely cute gag in that scene that María has to remind the two lovebirds that she’s in the room. But, no, we go with Anita instead.
(Note: I’m using “American” in this discussion the same way the movie uses it, which is as part of a dichotomy where one is American or Puerto Rican with no in between. This is separate from whether Puerto Ricans are American citizens, which they have been since 1917.)
After a while the movie then stops artificially reminding the characters to speak English and simply has them do it, again with the only reason being they’re about to say something the audience needs to know. Consider when Chino arrives at Gimbles to tell María about the rumble. He’s out of breath, he’s upset, he’s in shock, and yet this is the first thing he says to María who has just asked him to tell her what’s going on. See if you need to have taken a semester of Spanish in high school to figure out what he’s saying:
“There was a fight, con los Jets, y me fui con ellos, y ... Y hubo un accidente, María, like it was over before, before anyone could stop him, fue tan rápido que nadie... and Riff, he got stabbed, and - “
Are you catching that? Are you noticing that in this moment when he’s most upset and out of sorts, speaking to someone whose primary language is also Spanish, and - perhaps most importantly - in a place where the movie itself establishes is dangerous if the English speaking security guard overhears them, Chino still uses English for all the important details. And it’s not the only scene where this happens. Even if the characters are upset, tired, alone, and only talking to fellow native Spanish speakers they still switch over to English so the audience doesn’t get left behind.
And look at how the Spanish that is in there is chosen to make sure the audience doesn’t risk missing anything important. Going back to Chino, imagine if in his justifiable anger, he had said “There was a fight, con los hijos de putas.” It’s even an insult used in other parts of the movie. But why does he say “con los Jets” in this moment instead? Because if he didn’t the audience wouldn’t know who he was talking about. The audience has to know he’s telling María about the rumble so he has to say Jets, and everything else important is either in English (“he got stabbed”) or Spanish vocabulary that’s close enough to bridge the gap (“accidente”).
Which ties into the bigger problem which is that throughout the entire movie there is nothing said in Spanish which matters to the story. Again even if you don’t speak a lick of Spanish you’ll know this because you can watch the film and come out by the end credits without once saying to yourself “Huh, I feel like there were important plot points I missed because they were said in a language I don’t understand.” You’re going to lack that feeling of big gaping holes because there are none.
In fact, if you want to know the pieces of information which are conveyed in any of the Spanish dialogue in West Side Story, then here’s the chisme:
- I’m Puerto Rican
- I hate you and I will always hate you
- I have some level of love or affection for you and, depending on the scene we’re in, I may also be angry with you
Congratulations, you’re now fluent in 2021 West Side Story Spanish. Every other piece of information is either said only in English or, sometimes, in both Spanish and English. But English is always always always the language used to convey anything the audience needs to know.
There is one exception to this and that’s in a conversation between Bernardo, Anita, and María. The three of them are arguing about María being with Tony at the dance the night before. Anita tries to be on María’s side and Bernardo tells her “This is about family! Tú tienes que respe - “ to which Anita replies “Ah, ¿y ahora yo noy soy parte de la familia? ¿Y por qué? ¿¡Porque soy prieta!?” which is “Ah! And now I’m not part of the family? Why? Is it because I’m dark skinned?”
Which on paper is a great thing to bring up. Colorism is absolutely a thing that is dealt with in many BIPOC communities. Ariana DeBose herself even worried that she might be too dark to play Anita. However, there’s two problems here. The first is that this is only ever said in Spanish so nobody in our default audience is ever going to hear it. The only other time Anita’s skin color is brought up is when the Jets later insult her, which while yes isn’t great it is a different not great from the issue of the racism Anita might experience in her own community. It does the latter issue an injustice to relegate it to something only a certain segment of the audience is going to be aware of (and a segment that is lesser valued by the movie at that).
The second problem is Anita’s comment doesn’t even make sense in the scene.
Just moments prior Bernardo says - of course in English - that he’s been asking Anita to marry him for five years and she is the one who keeps turning him down. Also the two of them live together in the same apartment (I’m getting to THAT, believe me). Anita throwing in a line about Bernardo having a problem with her skin color therefore makes no sense since it’s been established that she’s the one with the commitment issues, if any.
All of which boils down to how Spanish in this movie is treated pretty much like songs in this movie: something thrown in to sound nice with zero thought given to whether it makes sense for the character to be saying the words coming out of their mouth in that way.
Which now brings us to what all of the characters are saying regardless of what language they’re saying it in, and woo boy is that a mess.
How Tony Kushner’s Script Centers the White Narrative in West Side Story
Before we get into the script I’m going to pause here for a second to address an issue with the screenplay, which is Bernardo and Anita’s ages. I need to bring it up because this does actually relate to the handling of Bernardo and Anita in comparison to their white counterparts in the story. The problem is that Bernardo is said to be 18 and Anita is said to be 21.
I have to believe that Bernardo’s age is a typo because based on everything said by the characters (in English, of course) is that this means that Bernardo and Anita have been in a relationship since Bernardo was 13 and Anita was 16. That’s obviously got a lot of problems with it and that’s before we get into things like how likely it is that Bernardo - again per the facts dropped in English in the movie - was sent to New York to find and rent an apartment for himself by himself when he was only 13 years old, or the surprising information that Bernardo and María are twins (since María says in the movie - again in English - that she’s 18 years old).
(Do I need to keep pointing out how all important information is spoken in English? Are you on board with that pattern now?)
Anyway, I suspect that this is either a typo or somebody not doing the math. For instance I suspect they also aged María up without realizing that you can’t do that without aging Bernardo up as well. (María’s age isn’t stated in the earlier versions of West Side Story but her white dress at the dance is supposed to be her Confirmation gown repurposed. Catholics are confirmed around age 13 or 14 if not younger.)
It would be easy to say that it was an accident and Bernardo is meant to be 21 the same as Anita is. But this then gets into our discussion about the treatment of the Sharks vs the Jets, because Riff is 18. Two 18 year olds battling it out with one another has a vastly different dynamic than a 21 year old having beef with someone three years his junior.
So regardless of what Bernardo’s age is supposed to be it’s a hot mess in either direction. But since we don’t know what hot mess the 2021 movie intended I’m going to give his age a pass and focus instead on the facts presented in the film without him being too old or too young as a factor.
All right. So let’s talk about our script and our good buddy Tony Kushner.
Tony Kushner is most famous for a not so little play called Angels in America. He’s worked with Steven Spielberg on movies before (Munich and Lincoln) so of course Spielberg pulled him in for this one as well. And as choices go this isn’t too bad because Tony Kushner at least has theater experience, albeit not musical theater experience.
But credit where due, Tony Kushner did do things like try to research Puerto Rican culture and even fight for the inclusion of I Feel Pretty which, as you know by now, is no mean feat given Sondheim’s opinions on the subject. But in the end the script he created - be it by his own hand or outside influence - does not make the story better for the Puerto Rican characters.
Throughout the entirety of 2021’s West Side Story the white characters of the Jets are given a much more sympathetic spin than the Puerto Rican characters are. Kushner has loved to talk about how he bulked out the backstory for Bernardo, Anita, María, and Chino, but the details given to them either don’t matter or make things worse in comparison to what we’re told about the Jets.
For example, while I’m normally the first in line to complain about female characters with no inner lives it actually wasn’t a problem that we didn’t know Bernardo, Chino, or even Anita’s career ambitions in the first movie because we didn’t know the career ambitions for anybody on the Jets’ side either. It was an even playing field. Likewise it didn’t matter too much that we didn’t know Bernardo and María’s last name because, unless it says “Riff” on his birth certificate, we didn’t know the first or last name of the leader of the Jets either. I mean yeah, sure, toss in the details if you want but nothing was missing by not having them.
And look, Tony Kushner very obviously had some West Side Story headcanons that he’s been sitting on for years, he saw his shot, and he took it. There’s no shame in it. I’d do the same if I was ever given control over the MCU. But what he put in makes the story so much worse. And we need look no further than those career ambitions for Bernardo to start seeing why.
In the original West Side Story the Jets and the Sharks were presented as equal threats. As we discussed earlier, the opening number tells us that the Jets are dangerous and people are scared of them. Therefore when we then get a sequence of the Jets and Sharks being evenly matched it teaches us the Sharks are no slouches either. Bernardo is first outnumbered by the Jets, then he gets enough Sharks to help him that they have the advantage, then the Jets do, and this goes back and forth in escalation until it’s an all out brawl which has to be stopped by the cops. (Huh, given that this is the opening number I wonder if this is introducing us into any themes that will carry out over the rest of the story?)
In the 2021 West Side Story it’s entirely different. As we discussed before, instead of being so terrifying that the Jets can even stop the soundtrack in its tracks, these Jets are playful little scamps who engage in some light vandalism. At best Puerto Rican shopkeepers are annoyed by them. When the Sharks, en masse, then run after the Jets to attack them this is an unfair and disproportionate response to what the Jets are doing.
Likewise, when the 1961 Sharks attack Baby John it’s both in the context of the two gangs equally going back and forth and in response to Baby John putting up anti-Shark graffiti (adding the word “Stink” to an already existing “Sharks” on a wall.) Which, granted, I’ve already mentioned graffiti is not that great a crime in the grand scheme of things but remember this is in the context of all the other things the Jets have done to literally terrorize the neighborhood and it’s Baby John taking direct action against the Sharks. Compare this to 2021 when the Sharks are given no reason to go after Baby John except to pick him off when he’s alone like the weakest gazelle out of the herd.
Which is especially made worse when you remember what Bernardo and the rest of the Sharks do for a living.
Remember that unnecessary boxing choreography in 2021’s America? In addition to not understanding that the boxing needed to connect to what Bernardo and the Sharks were thinking, this scene helpfully tells us that, not only is Bernardo a professional prize fighter, so are the other Sharks. They’re not heading into the gym to watch Bernardo practice, they’re there to work. You can see them carrying the bags for their equipment in that rare nice, long shot of the dancing. This is also where the fighting pads suddenly appear after our buddy Michael Kahn puts in not one but two poorly timed and badly handled edits to get to them (don’t cut off Anita’s movement. Let her finish then cut to the new camera angle. Also you only needed one edit! What the shit?)
Ahem. Anyway, you can perhaps see now why I also mentioned that Bernardo’s age is a huge problem if him being 18 was a typo. The 2021 Jets are a band of ruffians with none of them being over the age of 18. If Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, is 21 that’s a power imbalance. But even if Bernardo actually is 18 just like Riff and Tony, Bernardo is a professional boxer. That means he and the other Sharks have a hugely unfair advantage over the Jets whenever it comes to bare knuckle brawling.
This not only puts the Sharks at an advantage over the Jets that was never intended to be there in the original story, it completely throws off the setup of the rumble as well. 1961 Tony negotiates the rumble down to a “fair fight” of bare fists as a way to try to de-escalate the violence and even out the playing field. In contrast 2021 Bernardo comes out of the gate suggesting fists which is not a fair fight with a boxer. Which fine, understandable that Bernardo would want the method that he’s most comfortable with, but this again goes back to changing the power dynamics between the two groups. (It also makes less than no sense that Riff would agree to these terms but I suppose one could make the argument he only does so as part of a trick so the Sharks might not be prepared when the Jets bring weapons anyway.)
The 2021 version of the rumble war council also gives us the other way the Sharks are placed at advantage to the Jets: they are more mature and better situated in society. Regardless of whether Bernardo’s age is 18 or 21 he still tells Riff “We’re busy guys. We’ve got jobs. Why should we play on the playground with a buncha little - “
Did you catch that? The Sharks are grownups. They have jobs. The Jets are little kids. And you could argue that maybe Bernardo is making fun of the Jets with no basis in reality except for how the rest of the 2021 movie sets up the Jets to be disadvantaged children compared to the Sharks as well.
Remember how our opening shot of the 2021 movie was of the destruction of San Juan Hill to make way for Lincoln Center? And how there was hope this meant the movie might talk about the impact of gentrification on the Puerto Rican community that lived there? Yeah, not so much. Though we do get one scene of María’s co-workers discussing whether or not they cashed their checks to move into new homes, the group presented as being hurt the most by the slum’s destruction is the Jets.
The Importance of Understanding Musicals When It Comes to Backstory
This is where we’re going to pause for a sec to once again talk about the fleshing out of the characters. Yes, Kushner put in things like Bernardo’s last name and job. But otherwise he added nothing to anybody who was Puerto Rican beyond some answers somebody could remember for a future pub quiz. The Jets, on the other hand, are given much more backstory and motivation.
And we’ll get to the problems with the specific Jets backstories and motivations in a sec but first lets talk about this from the aspect of how, again, this shows that Spielberg and company did not understand the musical.
Let me put it this way. Take a second and think about your favorite song by the Sharks. Doesn’t matter which one, just hum it to yourself for a moment.
Got it? Do you need a sec? Are you perhaps discreetly opening up a new tab in your browser to type “Songs sung by the Sharks in West Side Story” into your favorite search engine because you’re starting to remember oh yeah, the Sharks don’t have any songs?
“But what about America?” you might say. Nope. America was written as Shark Women song. The Shark women, like the Jet women, are a separate group from their respective gangs. And the reason why you know this is because between the stage version of West Side Story and the 1961 movie version Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim went oh shit, we forgot to give the Sharks a song. So they quickly threw some lyrics from America in Bernardo’s direction and the song became one with a gender divide.
Other than that the Sharks have no songs. Yeah they join in on Tonight/Quintet but that’s an ensemble piece. Nothing there is uniquely their own.
The Jets, on the other hand, have Jet Song, Cool, and Gee, Officer Krupke. After Tony and María, the Jets are the ones you frankly cannot get to shut the fuck up. And given that the rule of musicals is that you either have songs by characters that you care about or about characters you care about, it takes someone completely unqualified to handle a movie musical to look at West Side Story as it was originally written and go “You know who we don’t hear enough about? The Jets!”
To give you an idea of how badly 2021’s West Side Story handled this they didn’t even write a new song for the Sharks even though that would’ve also given the movie another category where it could’ve earned an Oscar nomination. When the time came to add a song they went with having the Sharks sing La Borinqueña, the Puerto Rican national anthem. Which yes, isn’t without meaning but once again we’ve got a moment of Spanish being said in this movie where the information provided does not advance the story. Certainly not the way a song specifically written for Bernardo and the Sharks would have.
Conversely the Jets are given plenty of time and opportunities to talk about how they are so disadvantaged by life and everything happening around them. Which again I’ll talk about in a sec but the one last note to remember - no pun intended - is that even though the original versions of West Side Story gave the Jets more songs, they still pointed out the disadvantages the Sharks had to deal with. The cops always go after the Sharks first. The Sharks are treated as an unwelcome presence anywhere they go long before the Jets are. The music of the musical stresses that the Sharks are the fighting for their survival (again I’ll link to a video down in Lagniappe which discusses the use of the three note whistle to do that far better than I ever could). Even details like Doc’s being a neutral ground are subtle reminders that the Sharks are at a disadvantage because Doc is a white man, ergo the Jets are always going to be more at home and safer in his store than the Sharks ever could be. (Which gets back to the issues with Valentina but we’ll get to those).
Now again, the first versions of West Side Story were not great. I’m not bringing these examples up as a way to say the original show and movie are bastions of how to handle a fair and balanced story about race relations. Instead I’m saying here’s how low the bar was for trying to give the Puerto Rican characters some fair representation and the 2021 version still manages to fuck it up.
How Tony Kushner’s West Side Story Script Whitewashes History
Which brings us back to the fleshing out of the Jets. Time and time again we are told the greatest victims of the Lincoln Center construction are the Jets. Lieutenant Shrank is the first to bring it up. When he and Officer Krupke break up the brawl in the opening number, Balkan of the Jets tries to protest that it’s their territory, to which Shrank replies “not according to the New York City Committee for Slum Clearance, which has decided to pull this whole hellmouth down to the bedrock, and you’re in the way.” (Got that? Not all of them, The Jets specifically).
After the Sharks leave (being cheered on by everyone in the neighborhood, again emphasizing that the Sharks are better positioned than the Jets) Shrank continues with a speech about how the Jets are “outnumbered” by the incoming Puerto Rico population. He then mocks the Jets as being so pathetic that, unlike other groups like the “Irish, Italian, Jews” they can’t get out of the slums, they are “The last of the Can’t-Make-It Caucasians.”
Shrank then goes on to remind them they are about to lose their turf, they are “one step ahead of the wrecking ball” and that soon enough “this will be a shiny new neighborhood of rich people in beautiful apartments with Puerto Rican doormen to chase trash like you away.”
Now of course Shrank is a racist asshole and is presented as such. However, the idea that the Jets are these poor little disadvantaged white boys who are the real victims in this story is echoed by other people. Remember how one of the things Bernardo uses to mock the Jets in the war council is that, unlike the Jets, the Sharks have jobs. (A sentiment also brought up by Shrank when he presents the idea that Puerto Rican doormen will still be superior to the Jets by nature of being employed and thus welcome in the neighborhood.)
This sentiment is also brought up by Tony, who is supposed to be the moral compass out of all the Jets. When he and María are heading up to the Cloisters and María brings up her concerns about the upcoming fight between the two gangs and how Bernardo is angry, Tony retorts “The whole world has been against Riff since he was born.” When María then asks “You think it’s easier for us?” Tony comes back with “Ah well, I think you come from families, homes. You and Bernardo, you have hope. You think Riff has that?” (emphasis directly from the screenplay.)
First off, it cannot be stressed how much of a condescending shitbag Tony comes off in this scene. The dialogue alone doesn’t do it justice. He’s making a snarky comment about “having family” to a girl who, for all he and frankly we in the audience know, is an orphan (that’s one of those pesky background details Kushner never bothered to put in the script once he decided Bernardo and María’s parents weren’t going to appear even offscreen, as they did in the first movie. Are they dead? Are they living in Puerto Rico? On Mars? Who knows?)
But second notice how again we are being told about the poor little Jets (as represented here by Riff, their leader): they have no families, they have no jobs, they don’t even have hope. We’re supposed to feel sorry for them and, Tony makes sure to spell this out, feel more sorry for them than we do for the Sharks or other Puerto Ricans.
Tony then keeps up with the reminders that the Jets and those connected to them are much worse off than any of the Sharks could be. When he and María pretend to get married and hit “Rich or poor” María says “I’m poor” and Tony immediately replies “I’m poorer.” (Again, this version of Tony is such a dickwad and we haven’t even gotten to the backstory Kushner gave him yet.)
Tony also repeatedly denies that the Jets are racist and says the problem isn’t that the Sharks are Puerto Rican but that the Jets have no place to call their own. For example during the rumble Bernardo points out “They love locking up us brown guys.” and Tony replies “This (the Jets, the rumble) ain’t about skin, it’s about - “ and Riff interjects “It’s about territory!” (emphasis and direction per the screenplay.)
The concept that the Jets are the ones who are more sympathetic and disadvantaged even goes down to the costumes. Paul Tazewell, who knows a thing or two about making costumes with a color story, said that when it came to putting together the outfits to identify the two groups the Jets are dressed to convey that they are “coming from broken homes and really struggling” in contrast to the Sharks who are “reflective of men that were holding jobs.”
And look, Paul Tazewell knows how to design costumes. So if he’s making choices based on showing that one group is “down-and-out Caucasian community, where they have a lot of home troubles” and the other is “much more aspirational and holding jobs and have this desire to make their lives better” he’s not pulling this out of nowhere. This is what he was told to create because that’s the story this movie wants to tell. And if you’re noticing a repeated racist taking point in the positioning of the Sharks vs the Jets that’s not a coincidence.
Time and again the Sharks are positioned as these blessed, successful people with jobs and love and families while the poor little Jets have nothing and are being kicked out of their homes because of the slum clearance. Which is basically horseshit from top to bottom, starting with the idea that this part of New York was ever their neighborhood to begin with. I mean not for nothing but I’m pretty sure “San Juan Hill” isn’t Gaelic.
But even without the name San Juan Hill began as a predominantly Black neighborhood as far back as 1890. The Puerto Rican population increased there as more Puerto Ricans came to America after World War II in such large numbers it was actually called The Great Migration. Point being, this was not where lots of white people were calling home.
As for the reason why Puerto Ricans were coming to America, it was because Puerto Rico was suffering from crushing poverty thanks to - you guessed it - the racist handling of it by the United States which has lasted until this very day with things such as the debt crisis and the deplorable handling of anything remotely resembling recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria.
Bringing this back to the time of West Side Story, the concept that recent migrants like Bernardo, Anita, and María were in America for no reason besides presumably liking expensive cars and cheap airfare ignores and frankly erases that Puerto Ricans at this time were desperately fighting for their own survival. And if Kushner wants to trot out the “Today I Learned” style talking point that San Juan Hill was destroyed to make way for Lincoln Center than I’m absolutely going to counter with how the Puerto Rican characters in West Side Story, based on the timing, likely fled Puerto Rico because Operation Bootstrap destroyed the jobs and homes of those who worked in Puerto Rico’s agricultural industry while lowering the overall job prospects in Puerto Rico as a whole in the industrial manufacturing the island was being forced to pivot to.
In other words: I see your slum destruction and raise you a destruction of their entire way of life, being forced to move to the mainland in order to try to survive, and then finding out a couple of years later that home was being destroyed because of, oh yeah, the slum destruction.
And as we’ve said before the idea that Robert Moses was sitting there asking for census counts on where people who looked like the Jets lived when he made decisions about where to place so-called urban renewal projects is so far out there it’s beyond the realm of fantasy and not worthy of further discussion.
As for the other suggestions of the happy, carefree lives of the Puerto Ricans, this is again pure fantasy or ignorance or both. The idea that Puerto Rican Valentina would experience less racism for marrying a white man instead of more is ridiculous. Though New York didn’t have any laws against interracial marriage we’re still talking about a country where Loving v. Virginia didn’t happen until 1967.
Also not for nothing the entire plot of the story is that nobody wants a Puerto Rican girl dating a white boy. Tony and María? Maybe you’ve heard of them? The prejudice and discrimination that Valentina would have experienced is completely glossed over because, as an original character created to give Rita Moreno a part, Kushner and Spielberg spent no time actually thinking about Valentina as a person instead of as a Rita Moreno delivery device.
What they should have done is say that Valentina had been the owner of Doc’s the whole time (i.e. remove Doc from the story entirely), but that would’ve required understanding that a Puerto Rican person owning Doc’s would change the dynamic of Doc’s supposedly being “neutral ground” (remember it wasn’t actually, since Doc was white). But that would require looking at the text and making intelligent choices when changing things to it. Kushner and Spielberg didn’t do that.
We’ll get more into the problem with Valentina in a second but the other thing that 2021’s West Side Story does is completely ignore the role of religion in the lives of the characters, which again paints a false picture of how good their lives are. In 1961’s West Side Story María’s parents appear offscreen. For example in the fire escape scene with her and Tony, María mentions that her father is calling her back inside. In 2021’s West Side Story Kushner and Spielberg didn’t want to deal with the idea of María and Bernardo’s parents (remember, we in the audience don’t even know if their mother and father are even alive anymore) so instead when María moves to New York city she moves in with Bernardo and Anita.
Bernardo and Anita, who are living together.
Bernardo and Anita, who we are repeatedly told, are not married.
Bernardo and Anita, who are Catholic.
Look, I’m not saying that Catholics didn’t have sex and even move in together before marriage in the 1950s. Obviously the sexual revolution of the 1960s came from somewhere plus in the original versions of West Side Story it's clear that Bernardo and Anita don't keep their physical signs of affection to light hand holding. But that's different from the two of them living together while unmarried. There’s a reason why this is called living in sin. This is a huge no no in the Catholic church even today, and in West Side Story we’re talking pre-Vatican II when the Church was even less fluffy when it came to forgiveness and punishments.
To give you an idea, when I triple checked this particular detail with my Italian Catholic father, who I’ll remind you would’ve been Tony and María’s peer, he replied to the idea of how the Church would’ve treated an unmarried couple living together with “Do you understand how much trouble we were in if we just ate meat on a Friday during Lent???”
So yeah, the issue isn’t would Bernardo and Anita do it it’s whether they could get away with it. And in terms of get away it’s whether they would be considered pillars of their community (very much no) or welcome in Church if they were unapologetic about it (also no).
And, tip of the hat to my dad for reminding me about this detail as well, but Anita, as the woman, would especially have been treated as a pariah for moving in with a man while unmarried. To say nothing of how when she is blasphemously singing in Church about how she’s going to fuck her boyfriend the other parishioners would’ve had a lot more to complain about than her volume.
So 2021’s West Side Story presenting this concept of Puerto Ricans who have nothing but successful jobs and modern, progressive lives in comparison to the poor little Jets who are so unloved and disadvantaged and, oh yeah, such young kids they even treat a gun like a toy, is absolutely ridiculous, false, insulting, and - oh yeah - straight up racist.
And we still have to cover 2021’s concept of redemption.
We’re in the home stretch, I promise.
(By the way, for those wondering, my mom noped out of being one of my expert consultants as soon as she found out the 2021 version gave Somewhere to a brand new character instead of María and Tony. “They did WHAT?” was basically her reaction and she refused to talk about it anymore. I come by this honestly, people.)
How 2021’s West Side Story Tells Us Who Is Worthy of Redemption
The final pieces of the utter mess that is the puzzle of 2021’s West Side Story are with Tony and Valentina and the idea of who in the story is deemed worthy of redemption. At this point I figure you can guess the movie’s answer to this question is the wrong one but let’s round things out by talking about why.
In addition to coming up with the unnecessary and - again we can’t stress this enough - false and racist backstory for the Jets as poor little babies with no homes and no hope, Kushner decided to add in a completely unnecessary backstory for Tony as well.
Now granted, 1961 Tony is sort of... there. In some ways it’s kind of the point that Tony is a normal guy who happens to be white and connected to a gang in the same way María is a normal girl who happens to be Puerto Rican and related to a gang member.
But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to flesh Tony out more if you’ve got the time to do it. So fine, one of the things Kushner comes up with is that at the start of the movie Tony’s been out for five months after doing a year of time up at Ossining Correctional Facility. When Riff tries to convince Tony to come to the dance that night, one of the protests Tony has against the idea is that it would violate his parole. Okay, cool. No problem. We’re adding in motivation for why Tony would turn Riff down about the dance other than “because.” That’s fine.
Here’s where the problem comes in. Later on Tony explains why he went to prison and we find out it’s because he nearly killed a guy with his bare hands.
I’m going to remind you that Tony is 18. He’s been out on parole for five months and in prison a year before that. So give or take how long his arrest and court case were he was around 15 or 16 years old when he nearly beat a kid to death.
And lest we think this might have been an accident, here’s Tony as he’s explaining it to María: “There was a rumble. And I busted up this kid, he was in the Egyptian Kings. He only didn’t die because of luck, like, one more punch and he probably woulda died. And I woulda done it, I woulda murdered this messed-up kid who wasn’t no different from me.”
You got that? Not an accident. In fact the kid’s only alive because of luck, meaning whatever stopped this from being straight up murder wasn’t Tony. We’re never told what it was, only that it’s clear something other than Tony prevented him from landing that last punch.
So María finds out the guy she vaguely made dance movements in front of the night before (yep, I’m still bitter about that) nearly killed someone with his bare hands and her response is... to act out getting married to him because, I don’t know. She’s got a fetish for tall guys? I have no idea.
(And, by the way, this is as good a time as any to point out how hugely problematic it is to give this backstory to Tony when he’s played by an actor with well known sexual assault allegations against him. I mean dudes, Ansel isn’t even that good in the part. They had to adjust the songs into his range and he reads every line like he just took a Valium. Hock a brick down Broadway and hire the first triple threat who says “Ouch” for fuck’s sake.)
But fine. María’s a teenager, teenagers make stupid decisions. Also we’ve already discussed how this version of María is also kind of an asshole since she hates Chino simply because he’s awkward and in this scene she’s mere hours away from responding to her brother’s death by immediately having sex with the guy who killed him. As I’ve said elsewhere, if Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar for this it’ll be because she made me believe there could be a woman with the inner strength of character to keep herself from strangling María with her own hair.
Point being we’re talking about Tony. Who, spoiler alert, stabs Bernardo to death later that evening. As in about 24 hours after he meets María. And the only reason why he stabs Bernardo to death is because in this fight he actually does pause when he realizes he’s about to beat Bernardo to death with his bare hands but then knives get involved so whoopsie.
You following that? Our boy has anger issues. Literally homicidal anger issues. And that’s not even getting into how he’s straight up condescending and manipulative around María, which we covered earlier with the way he insults the idea she and her family have dealt with hardship, but also with things like how he tells her not to see anybody else.
1961’s Tony says “See only me” in response to María saying that, compared to her father’s anger and fear, she sees Tony. Tony’s reply of “See only me” is him, in that context encouraging her to focus on their love and the hope it represents. 2021’s Tony is replying to María confirming their date the next day by saying “I’ll see you tomorrow” with a very firm “You gotta see me tomorrow. Nobody else. Only me.” As in literally he doesn’t want her interacting with other people.
And look I’m not saying Kushner deliberately wrote this version of Tony to be the definition of a 10 Signs Your Partner Is Abusive And You Need To Leave Right The Fuck Now pamphlet but I am saying that if he did want us to be interpreting Tony that way he wouldn’t have to change a single line of the script. Tony even goes heavy handed on María when talking about his feelings about the beating, saying that the memory of nearly killing the kid is like Tony “about to fall off the edge of the tallest building” but he tells María he “stopped falling the second I saw you.”
You got that? He’s even making María responsible for his violence and anger now.
But whatever. Let’s call this one another Bernardo’s age moment where somehow all this dialogue accidentally made its way into the script from an afterschool special or something and we’re not meant to count it against Tony. That still leaves us with Tony who nearly killed a a guy a year and a half ago, met a girl, then killed her brother in the space of 24 hours. And we are told and see that he did both of these things because of himself. He nearly killed the kid because he’s got homicidal anger issues. He stabbed Bernardo for the same reason. Yeah the tension between the Jets and the Sharks provided the moment it happened but a whole bunch of Sharks and Jets came out of that rumble without somebody’s death on their shoulders. It was possible to leave there not a murderer. Tony didn’t manage it.
And then, let us not forget, even though he makes noise about going to the cops at no point when he sees María does he apologize for his crime. And, as we’ve covered, the only goal he and María have for leaving town is so they can be together. Not a noble goal of a world without violence and fighting. They just don’t want to lose each other.
Which brings us back to Valentina. Valentina, though she is Puerto Rican, has always been on the side of the white characters. Yes, she protests about Riff stealing candy from her but at no time does she kick the Jets out of her store, even after they almost rape Anita (Valentina saves Anita in a moment I’m sure was cathartic for Rita Moreno to act, but other than yelling at the Jets about how she saw them grow up and they are “rapists” now, she goes back down into her basement and does nothing about it. She doesn’t even tell them to get the fuck out of her store.)
Tony is connected to Valentina because, we’re told, she was the one who gave him a job and a place to stay when he got out on parole. Which fine: she saw a kid who did something horrible enough he got sent to a maximum security prison for a year and still said to herself what he needs is somebody to be kind to him. I actually don’t have a problem with that.
Where the problem is here is that when Valentina finds out that this kid who nearly killed someone less than two years ago actually killed someone about two hours ago and she’s immediately on board with helping him leave town and giving him bus fare so he and his girlfriend can go together.
Which even that I wouldn’t mind so much if not for Chino.
You see, Chino in all versions of West Side Story gets his hands on a gun and decides he’s going to kill Tony for killing Bernardo. Because the Jets try to rape Anita, in all versions Anita, instead of delivering a message to Tony saying María’s on her way, lies and says Chino shot María to death. Tony, upset at the news that María is dead, runs out into the street begging Chino to shoot him too. Chino finds Tony and obliges. María arrives in time to see Tony die, she chastises everyone because now she’s got hate in her heart too so she hopes they’re all happy, and there we go it’s the end of the show. Typically the last thing we see is the Jets and the Sharks working together to carry Tony’s body away as a hint that maybe they’ll find a way to make peace now that they’ve seen the consequences of their actions.
But. And of course with 2021’s version of West Side Story there’s a but: in this version we add in that Valentina turns Chino over to the cops immediately.
And this is where again I throw a flag on the play.
Chino, we are told, goes to night school to learn about accounting and adding machine repair. He has nothing to do with the gangs because Bernardo refuses to let him join the Sharks (and the only reason Chino wants to join the Sharks is because he thinks it’s part of his responsibility to protect the neighborhood like Bernardo does). So to all reports Chino is a stand up guy who, again, only suffers from the crime of being too much of a nerd for María to be interested in him.
(And like not for nothing but the actor who plays him looks like he could be Mark Ruffalo’s kid. I have no idea why María wasn’t immediately warm for his form, lack of dance skills notwithstanding.) (Especially since it’s not like Tony was bringing dance skills to the table and yes, I’m still bitter.)
So we have two guys. Tony, 18, Chino, early 20s. One has nearly killed someone with his bare hands, gone to prison, come out, violated his parole, actually killed a person, and now wants to skip town. The other had an exemplary life and only killed someone in the heat of revenge and emotion. And the one Valentina, who is presented as the moral compass of the neighborhood since she is the one who sang Somewhere, thinks is worthy of being given a second chance at redemption.... is the guy with a track record of trying to murder people.
Who just happens to be the white guy.
Seriously, fuck this movie.
So yeah. I mean I could go on. Believe me I could go on. And frankly I probably will over on Ko-Fi for my Krewe of Best Tea Members because the “Short Essay” benefit is where I put a lot of my “And ANOTHER thing....” thoughts for my writeups.
I have to say the one thing I don’t have is a classification for this movie. Like with The Eternals I could shrug and simply say it was boring and also the plot made no sense. For Loki it was easy to figure out that zero thought had been put into any aspect of it because nobody who worked behind the scenes on the show cared enough to put thought in.
But for 2021’s West Side Story? I just... I mean it’s pretty? The costumes are wonderful, even if the message behind them is shitty. And it seems so weird to think that this big budget, big name movie came out of the gate with such a painful lack of understanding and respect for musicals, race, and history yet when I read interview after interview that is exactly what gets confirmed by Kushner, Spielberg, and all the behind the scenes folks down to those poor camera operators (who I do genuinely feel bad for because it’s not their fault they were asked to the camera operator equivalent of asking a talented brain surgeon if they can replace the engine in a sports car).
And of course there’s people who like it - awards shows included - but it’s so awkward to be sitting here clearing my throat and pointing out that awards shows have a notorious history of loving movies which advance a white narrative particularly when it comes to the idea of how white people were affected more by problems of the time. (Just to point to a couple of films because that’s a whole article in and of itself.)
I think in the end I look at this version of West Side Story like a pile of broken, expensive things on the floor and want to say “What did you do?” Spielberg and company had a great show in terms of songs, dance, and music and all they needed to do was fix the casting to have made this a home run. And they did, but then they ... I mean shat all over it doesn’t even do it justice. They did this. They had all the elements of a great West Side Story except for the part where they clearly hate everything about West Side Story so they gave us this instead and I just...
I got nothing. A very wordy nothing that I’m probably going to go on and on about, but still. Buh? That’s my final comment.
Oh yeah, except for the Lagniappe.
As always, things that didn’t fit anywhere else
- On top of everything else the conclusion of the movie doesn’t even bring up the destruction of the slums again. It’s treated as the most important thing in the story until it’s just forgotten about. Because what’s consistent storytelling? This movie doesn’t know.
- Another thing I forgot to mention is that Spielberg was very proud of how he had Black people in this version. Only issue is that the 1961 version also had Black people in it in the exact same capacity, which is extras. The only place Spielberg goes one better is by giving a Black man a brief speaking part... as the guy who illegally sells a gun to Riff. I’d maybe sit down before trying to proclaim this a representation win, Steven.
- Regardless of how meaningless the spoken Spanish is, it still shouldn’t have been closed captioned as “Speaking in Spanish.” I checked on both HBO and Disney+ and both sites had the same captioning. Not being subtitled is different from being closed captioned. Do better, production company. Do much better.
- And don’t even get me started on how the video for 2021’s America closed captions it as “a foreign language” because Christ.
- Hopefully someone out there much more informed than I am has spoken on whether or not Anybodys is good representation. I liked how he was shown able to hold his own but at the same time I feel like how the vast majority of his scenes were about him experiencing transphobia is not great? Like this is maybe failing a transgender version of the Bechdel test? Obviously the transphobia is true to the time but for example the screenplay tells us that Anybodys and Tony are friends is because Tony always treated Anybodys with respect but there’s no screentime given to actually show us that. Tony does stuff like say hi to Anybodys in passing but that’s about it and meanwhile scenes go on and on of Anybodys being misgendered and even physically assaulted. If anybody knows of any articles or essays out there about this, particularly from people in the transgender community, please send them my way because I’d love to read them.
- That being said props to Iris Menas for doing a great job with the part. I particularly loved the entire face journey they showed for Anybodys when he was finally treated as a member of the Jets. You could tell it was this whole moment for him of being what he’d longed for all that time coupled with “Well great, now of all fucking times.” It was really well done, and I hope they get more and more work in the future.
- Mike Faist did a fine job with Riff and I’m not throwing shade on his acting. But let’s just say regular readers of this site will know what I mean when I say I suspect another reason why a certain segment of the population likes this version of West Side Story better is that Mike Faist was hired for the same reason you hire Sebastian Stan in a role. Ahem.
- I apologize for earlier saying that the only thing we see the Jets do is minor vandalism. In reviewing my notes I notice I also put down “A running theme is that the Jets are really bad about jaywalking.”
- I loved how there’s a whole big deal about María putting on lipstick and eyeliner for the dance when she was already wearing a full face of makeup.
- Because I’m me I also have questions in my notes such as “What was the layout of the apartment that María has a fire escape scene with Tony but somewhere different from where Anita was hanging the laundry?”
- Also on the topic of America, somebody tried to tell me Anita was wearing a house dress in that scene and I nearly started a GoFundMe for Paul Tazewell’s medical bills because if he was calling that yellow dress a proper 1950s house dress clearly he was suffering from a head injury. Luckily Anita was wearing a house dress before that moment and changed into her yellow dress.
- Anita changed into her yellow dress to do laundry because a musical number was coming, obviously.
- Another aspect of America which didn’t work for me was how the visuals kept undercutting Anita’s points. Like she’s talking about why she loves America while walking through the ruined slums as though she doesn’t even see them. It gave the impression that Bernardo and the men were more correct than she was, instead of allowing for the possibility that Anita is intelligent enough to see the good and bad of America and like it for herself anyway.
- Back on Paul Tazewell always knowing how to do his job, there were great color stories going on with things like how María started out in white and then wore blue or red depending on what was going on in the scene. Likewise when we saw Valentina in blues or reds. The only time it didn’t work for me was when Anita was in a dark blue dress at the police station instead of black. I’d love to know what his reasoning was for that moment because we know she owns black dresses and could’ve put one of those on for her mourning. Blue = Jets so it really threw me.
- I noticed a common theme to the least screwed up musical numbers was if the movie could get away with simply showing people singing and walking towards the camera. So María and the Quintet were fine, other numbers not so much. Really any time when Spielberg and company felt compelled to add something is when they made it worse.
- Another thing which didn’t work for this version of Tony is that he was constantly escalating the tension between the gangs by shoving himself into the middle of things, sometimes literally. Like the tension at the rumble was made much worse because Tony kept forcibly putting himself in the middle of the conversation and demanding everybody stop what they’re doing so he can have what he wants. This version of Tony is such a dickweed.
- Speaking of worse versions, at no point does 2021 María ask Anita how she’s doing after Bernardo dies. She immediately goes to demanding favors and for Anita to understand that María’s love for Tony is all that matters. Seriously I have no idea how Anita didn’t stab María herself.
- Removing Somewhere from María and Tony’s song also ruins Tony’s death scene. In this version they had to scramble to find a song for María to sing and went with her “Only you” lines from Tonight. As in once again this movie stresses that María and Tony’s greatest wish was a selfish desire for themselves. Like Christ their wedding song was right there if you needed to pick something!
- As promised, the video which analyses the three note whistle and its use in the movie. Absolutely worth a watch once you’re done here.
- I’d like to thank everybody who was there as my support group and/or expert consultant for the writing of this article. I could not have done it without you.
- I’d like to give a special shout out to SheBeButLittle who, as someone who is Irish, Puerto Rican and a stage manager, provided vital support in addition to answers to my questions as I double and triple checked some of the language and cultural issues. (Any errors made on those ends are mine, not hers.) But when I laid out some of the movie’s many problems with the handling of Puerto Rican history she replied that I could quote her saying “Tear this bitch to shreds.” I hope I managed to do her proud on that one.
And that’s it! Thank you so much for reading. If you enjoyed it and are new here and would like to get my articles straight to your inbox, please feel free to subscribe. A free subscription is all you need to get the articles. On the other hand if you want both the articles and extra things such as additional reviews, recommendations, and commentary that doesn’t make it here may I recommend that you sign up for a Ko-Fi membership, which has the added benefit of helping to keep this site running so it’ll be here for the next time that a movie makes me lose my entire mind. I’ll be posting my raw notes from when I watched the movie so members of the Krewe of Best Tea can see me go insane in real time. Join up so you won’t miss it!
Thanks again! Until next time!