“West Side Story”: 2021 adaptation vs 1961. classic


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Natalie Wood the original Maria in the 1961 “West Side Story” above the 2021 Maria, Rachel Zegler. Steven Spielberg released his adaptaion of “West Side Story” this past December, featuring the same dancing and singing charm as the original but with it’s own unique flare.

Racial tensions are as alive today as they were in the streets of New York City 60 years ago. The original 1961 motion picture “West Side Story” draws upon these social issues, which is why it’s considered a timeless film. Having earned 10 Academy Awards and a spot in the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movies of all time, the original film garnered critical acclaim, putting pressure on director Steven Spielberg and his December 2021 remake.

“West Side Story” began as a broadway musical, which was a reimagining of the Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet.” The musical follows two New York City street gangs, the White Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, battling for control over the turf on the upper west side. Complications arise when Tony, a former Jet gang member, falls in love with Maria, the rival leader’s sister. The story highlights themes of bigotry, xenophobia and cultural divide.

This 1961 adaptation has left a lasting impression since my first viewing experience at the age of five. I was mesmerized by the unique combination of dancing, colors, singing and of course, the forbidden love story. Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim, the musical geniuses behind the beautifully composed score, propelled this story into drama and action.

The nostalgia surrounding the first movie clouds the harsh realities of the Hollywood film industry in previous decades. The original film fails to cast true Latinx actors playing the roles of the shark gang. The mostly all-white cast shatters the authenticity of the story by imitating Puerto Rican accents and darkening their skin color, weirdly reminiscent of theatrical caricature.

As someone who also enjoyed this story in his youth, Steven Speilberg had dreamt of bringing back the allure of the original broadway musical and was prompted to change some aspects of the 1961 film. With this project, he fulfilled his long-held goal of directing a movie musical; however, it took a great amount of time.

The script writing process took him several years because like any adaptation, it cannot be a carbon copy of the original. The film features different locations in some scenes and reduces the dated special effects from the first movie. There were also modifications to the storyline.

Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the first motion picture, was cast in a role for the 2021 film as an added character, Valentina, the widow of the white drug store owner, Doc. Her character symbolizes the progress of interracial relationships in the 1960s, providing hope for the community around her.

The 2021 movie featured a diverse cast that encompassed Latinx actors to play the sharks. Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, moved from her high school stage to the silver screen at 17, after being selected among thousands of other actresses. Compared to the original Maria, Natalie Wood, whose singing was dubbed over, Zegler has a natural talent and stellar vocal range.

Spielberg brought a new dimension of complexity to all the characters in this adaptation. Adding depth to their storylines filled holes left in the previous film. Many subplots from the original were expanded, such as Tony’s backstory and the Jet gang members’ upbringing.

The Sharks and the Jets fight over territory but also fail to realize the gentrification of their NYC neighborhood is something they share in common. As urban progress invades their streets, the cultural divide remains most prominent in the gang’s relationship.

After watching Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” I was pleasantly surprised how Spielberg stayed true to the original storyline, while also making his version authentic.

The updated choreography illustrates the story through movement, which I thought was one of the most standout aspects. Numbers such as “Officer Krupkte,” “Mambo” and “America” were livelier than the 1961 version, and the costumes added visual impact.

After the movie’s release in December 2021, viewers and critics have lauded Spielberg’s work. The movie has received many award nominations, including the Golden Globes. I believe the movie earned its industry recognition and I hope that they will have success at the Academy Awards.

Both versions of “West Side Story” have underlying themes that are relevant today. I recommend this film to anyone who loves a blend of musical, fast-paced plots or tragic love stories. These movies will remain classics for generations to come.