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What is it about being part of a group
That makes one more likely to hate those outside it,
To play in one’s mind their offenses on loop,
And bask in contempt with no effort to hide it?
The more they feel threatened by some other troop,
The more they seek violence, and thus justified it.

It’s easy to fall into “us versus them,”
To see every slight as a reason for hate,
But history’s splattered with vengeful mayhem
From tomfools preferring force over debate.
Perhaps we can’t grow too far from such a stem,
But “love wins,” they say. I suppose I will wait.

MPA rating for 1961 film: Approved/PG
MPA rating for 2021 film: PG-13

I didn’t expect the strain of NaPoWriMo to result in nearly a month off from blogging, but I’ve had my inspiration focused elsewhere. I’m back on the horse, though, and resurrecting a long-dormant feature: my Version Variations, where I review and compare two different cinematic versions of the same story. Whether it’s the original 1961 film adaptation from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins or Steven Spielberg’s recent remake, West Side Story is a beloved and socially relevant musical that certainly supports multiple tellings.

As much as I pride myself on loving musicals, it may seem odd that I never reviewed the original West Side Story, which is nowhere to be found on my Top 365 list. The simple truth is that I’ve never considered it one of my favorites. Before a recent rewatch for this comparison, I saw it many years ago and mainly remembered that “America” was the best number and the ending was depressing. Of course, it’s based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, so of course it would have a sad ending, but that really is the main drawback for me. Intentionally tragic or not, I just don’t enjoy watching a tale that leaves me unsatisfied the way West Side Story does, though that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what comes before said ending.

The original West Side Story won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Picture, back when musicals were prime award material. It was a rather innovative move reimagining the family feud of Romeo and Juliet as a gang war between whites and Puerto Ricans in NYC’s Upper West Side, not to mention Jerome Robbins’ balletic choreography performed by these street punks. Despite not actually being Hispanic, Natalie Wood is a radiant Maria, who falls quickly in love with former Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer), much to the consternation of her brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris, who is also not Hispanic and actually played Riff on the London stage).

I was surprised that I enjoyed the 1961 film a lot more than I remembered. Right from the opening number where the Jets and Sharks trade intimidations, the dance numbers are iconic with their jazzy, avant-garde sensibility. As I recalled, Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning turn as Anita and her iconic song “America” is the highlight of the whole show. As someone who aspires to be a lyricist myself, I have immense respect for Stephen Sondheim and his words, whether it be “America”’s spirited debate on the nation’s virtues and vices or the fun but insightful social commentary of “Gee, Officer Krupke.” There’s so much to appreciate about the film’s romance, story, and musical production, yet it sadly feels fruitless by the tragic end, settling as a commentary for hatred matching hatred, which is worthwhile but far from a satisfying watch. Clearly, a sad ending hasn’t dampened West Side Story’s popularity or legacy, but it does keep it from ranking among my personal favorites.

Unfortunately, that goes for Spielberg’s 2021 remake, which is a shame since I consider it even better than the original in most respects. As good as the 1961 film is, it can’t help but feel dated, while last year’s version boasts a shiny makeover replete with graceful cinematography, colorful costumes, and greater cultural authenticity. Rachel Zegler makes an exceptional debut as Maria, while Ansel Elgort, despite some hate and reviews calling him wooden, is quite likable as Tony, and both flex their acting chops at the right moments. Ariana DeBose followed in Moreno’s footsteps, winning a deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Anita, though I don’t know why her castmates were passed over for similar awards nominations, such as Mike Faist as Riff. Among the many small plot changes made by screenwriter Tony Kushner, I especially liked the addition of Rita Moreno as the widow of Doc (the soda shop owner in the original); she not only brings gravitas and a trace of the original film, but her marriage also serves as a sort of example for Tony of what he and Maria could have if they can overcome the conflict around them.

My VC was skeptical of the few plot changes and rearrangements and still prefers the original, but I think Kushner’s additions make the story even better. The discussion of Tony’s jailtime and his guilt over letting his temper go too far adds to his character and makes his eventual dip into violence less out of character, although his subsequent reunion with Maria is marred by the absence of an actual explanation before she forgives him. Likewise, I appreciated that Tony and Maria are actually able to go on a date to a nearby museum, giving their romance a little more room to grow instead of fifteen minutes in a dress shop in the 1961 film. Likewise, the number “Cool” is after the Rumble in the original and feels rather extraneous, but the 2021 version uses it as a confrontation between Tony and Riff as Tony attempts to prevent the Rumble, which seems like he tried harder than just showing up in the middle of it.

My main beef with the creative choices made was Spielberg’s explicit decision to not subtitle the Spanish dialogue, despite including far more Spanish than its predecessor. He stated this was to avoid “giving English the power over the Spanish.” He may have wanted “to respect the language enough not to subtitle it,” but he should have recognized that much of his audience may not know Spanish, which was frustrating for my VC. Some scenes coast on context and didn’t need subtitles, but others have entire conversations in Spanish that withhold full understanding from English-only viewers. Luckily, I know enough Spanish to keep up, and I don’t mind more of it for authenticity, so long as it doesn’t become a language barrier; I just think it was a poor and politically correct choice on Spielberg’s part.

Still, my criticisms of the newer film are minor objections when I look at how well it renewed a sixty-year-old classic. Last year was honestly a dream for lovers of movie musicals (like me), and it breaks my heart that In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story were all regarded as flops, since their performance might discourage future musical adaptations. Hopefully, Hollywood will just blame COVID and keep up this musical resurgence. There are still upcoming musical adaptations of The Color Purple, Mean Girls, and a two-part Wicked, so there’s hope.

While West Side Story feels like it deserves a place on my List, the ending is strangely a deal breaker for me. I don’t know why this tragic end is worse than sad endings like Grave of the Fireflies or Doctor Zhivago, but I’m just left unsatisfied with the lesson of “hatred breeds more hatred.” I can still appreciate both versions of this classic story and admire them for their obvious strengths. In deciding which is better, most will likely opt for the original, but I’d personally give the remake the edge. From Shakespeare’s time to 1961 to 2021, this story is clearly timeless and a well-deserved musical touchstone.

Best line from 1961 film: (Doc, to the Jets) “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!”   (Action) “We didn’t make it, Doc.”
Best line from 2021 film: (Riff, in a perfect summation of radicalization) “You know, I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like, and they don’t like me, and you know what’s left out of all of that? The Jets.”

Rank for 1961 film: List Runner-Up
Rank for 2021 film: List Runner-Up (darn close to List-Worthy, though)

© 2022 S.G. Liput
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