Maria!
Say it loud and there’s music playing—
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying—
I’ll never stop saying Maria!

Sung by Tony

The most famous love story

By Roger Childs

“Romeo and Juliet” is Shakespeare’s classic tale of young love set in Verona. It was first performed in 1596. Over three and a half centuries later the modern setting was New York. With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim the film West Side Story directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, became a smash hit winning 10 Oscars in 1962, including best film. Fast forward 60 years to 2021 and Steven Spielberg has directed another impressive version.

This compares very favourably with the 1961 movie with realistic sets, impressive acting, and superb singing and dancing. Spielberg’s film is highly entertaining and packs a punch in dealing with feuding gangs, underlying racism, slum clearance, urban policing, gender issues and young love across the ethnic divide: 4.5 stars.

Star-crossed lovers

Shakespeare’s original drama is about two powerful families – the Montagues and the Capulets – whose rivalry and antagonism occasionally erupts into violence.  To complicate the tense situation between the two houses, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet fall in love, but Romeo is attempting to stop a street fight accidently kills Juliet’s cousin and is banished. Tragically in the end the two lovers each commit suicide in bizarre circumstances. The only positive outcome is that the deaths of the lovers finally brings the family feud to an end.

In 1957 New York the rivalry is between two gangs – the Jets (white boys) lead by Riff and Sharks (Puerto Ricans) headed by Bernardo – who battle to control the streets of a Manhattan tenement area undergoing urban renewal. At a local hop where both gangs and their girl-friends dress up and dance with passion and enthusiasm, Riff’s friend Tony is captivated by Bernardo’s sister Maria and he follows her home. 

The Jets and the Sharks agree to having a gang fight (rumble) to decide who will control the area and the ensuing violence results in the deaths of Riff, and Bernardo at the hands of Tony. Subsequent events lead to a climax similar to the original Romeo and Juliet story.

 A polished entertaining film

Spielberg does an excellent job in creating the realism of New York’s late 1950s slums with ugly tenements, half demolished buildings and piles of debris. He also keeps the story moving with tight editing and creative cinematography. 

The acting is very impressive throughout and in the lead roles Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria give convincing performances. However perhaps the star of the show is Ariana DeBose as Anita, Bernardo’s partner. Back in the 1961 film Rita Moreno played Anita and won an Oscar, and now in the Spielberg’s version, as well as being an executive producer, she appears as the drug store proprietor Valentina.

The singing and dancing are performed with plenty of passion, feeling and energy which match the dynamism of the first film. The songs will be familiar to many and are performed in appropriate settings, for example America on the streets; Gee Officer Krupke in the police station; I Feel Pretty in a department store where the Puerto Rican young women work.

Entertainment is guaranteed in Spielberg’s West Side Story and there is plenty of action, colour, drama and romance as well as grim reality as the story unfolds towards its inevitable tragic conclusion.