West Side Story is a film from 2021 … No, wait: it’s from 1961 and it … Hold on: it’s originally a Broadway musical, for the theatre or, no, stop: it’s really just based on Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Gosh. As a Shakespeare groupie, I am amazed at how enduring and versatile the story is. (Dig deeper: Romeo and Juliet wasn’t really thought up exclusively by the Bard, either.) Why won’t we let this story go? What makes it so enduring?
The Story (West Side or otherwise)
There is a boy, there’s a party, there’s a girl, and then they kiss. But then they find out that they are from feuding families and their fathers would never, ever let them be together. So they hatch a plan to run away and be happy ever after. But somehow, things don’t play out that way and romance turns to tragedy. That’s the basic story, around which Shakespeare wrote his play about ultimate teenage romance and bad decisions around 1595. Since then we’ve come a long way, so this story has so little to tell us today.
Een connection between the 1961 en 2021 versie van West Side Story is Rita Moreno
Except it is still relevant. Even though teenagers did not exist in the same way we recognise now, the story always speaks to a new generation. You just tweak the background story a little and it becomes topical again. Because apparently we have not changed as much. So in 1961 a film came out, based on a Broadway musical, about two groups in New York constantly warring with each other. And a boy from one side, and a girl from the other find love, with barely any hope. And it touched on many social problems at the time.
Story told through song and dance
But let’s not forget that the film is mostly entertaining. The use of song and dance adds to the story. There are memorable songs that just touch your feelings. The dances are joyful, and powerful, and romantic. I swear that every time I see West Side Story (the original) I am convinced things will turn out better this time. You just get lifted up by the hope and love between the two main characters, Tony and Maria. Never mind that you see scenes that already show you things are more problematic than they think. This time it will be different.
Maybe that is why this film, based on a musical, was repeated in 2021 by Steven Spielberg. The idea that the story itself is timeless because each generation hopes the same thing: it will be different this time. (Wow. That can apply to so many things … ) And maybe one day it will. The 2021 version is different, though. Spielberg cut some songs, changed some scenes and based it both on the original musical play and his version of the film. He also did one other very very important thing. He cast actors that matched the background of their characters much better.
Hope and love in West Side Story
In the 1961 version one group was ‘proper white American’ and the other group were newcomers from Puerto Rico (or ‘not white’). The flaw was that Maria, a Puertorican girl, was played by a white actress (who could not sing?). Her brother was portrayed by a son of Greek immigrants. And one of the few actors involved who were from Puerto Rico was Rita Moreno. For a story that also tried to highlight immigration and racism, it wasn’t living up to its own message.
In the 2021 version Maria was at least played by an actress with Latin roots. So is her brother. And Spielberg brought back Rita Moreno in a stunning role in his version. (I admit: I thought it was the best bit in the entire film.) There was more emphasise on the hardships immigrants go through and how people easily discriminate. I don’t know if it showed enough how stupid that is. Just think: if people would just accept one another, then this film would have ended differently. With two happy people. One can but hope.