West Side Story: A new take on Romeo and Juliet, 60 years later

West Side Story cast
Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), with the Jets (left) and the Sharks (right). West Side Story, 2021. ©Disney

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story isn’t a mere remake of the 1961 film or a filmic version of the 1957 stage musical in which a love affair between two teenagers divided by rival New York gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, ends in tragedy. Instead, it is a layering of theatrical devices, a Hollywood riff on both a famous musical and a Shakespearean story for twenty-first century audiences. The much-anticipated re-imagining of West Side Story garnered responses from critics and moviegoers even before its release, just as the original film did in 1961. Critiques ranged from issues of casting, language and accents, cultural mores, and for some, the question if the movie should even be remade, and if so by whom. But as an ethnicized movie musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it complicates and enhances an already familiar story. [Editor’s Note: Spoilers Ahead]

The fully bilingual Puerto Rican Sharks

In a departure from the original, the Puerto Rican national anthem, “La Borinqueña”, joins Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s soundtrack and becomes the first song after the opening instrumental Prologue. The Sharks sing, acapella and in Spanish, before we hear the Jets sing their famous “Jet Song.” As their leader, Bernardo, begins to sing “La Borinqueña” and the other Sharks join in, the Jets laugh and mock them, but they quickly become awed by the sincerity and solidarity. The power of the anthem makes clear the power of the Puerto Rican community, as the people watching the scene applaud the song.

The Sharks often speak Spanish to each other, and atypical of big-budget U.S. films, the film does not provide subtitles. Emphasizing the linguistic barrier between the lovers, Tony (the Romeo figure and a former member of the Jets) asks his employer, Valentina, to teach him enough Spanish to communicate with Maria (his Juliet), even though he has previously mocked Val’s accent. Likewise, Anita yells at the band leader, “Ponle fuego, vamos,” and it is at her command that they play the mambo. But it is the unlikely characters, such as the police officers, who communicate across languages and generations that reveal a different kind of linguistic dexterity. Lieutenant Shrenk joins the Jets in mocking the Sharks as they sing the Puerto Rican anthem. However, he can understand enough Spanish to know the word for “migraine” when Maria says it. When trying to appeal to the Jets’ leader, Riff, he says, “Hand to heart”, echoing Riff’s way of speaking to the Jets (“tomb to womb” and “friend or foe”). This type of cultural and linguistic code-switching demonstrates that people can find ways to communicate, if they have the desire.

dancers in West Side Story
Anita (Ariana DeBose) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) dancing in West Side Story, 2021. ©Disney

The female perspective

The female gaze shapes Spielberg’s version and the audience experience of the film. Tony’s mentor, the shopkeeper Doc, is replaced by Valentina (Rita Moreno), a new character who is Doc’s widow and now the owner of the store. Val gazes at Tony as he sings, “Who Knows,” and his soliloquy becomes a monologue showing that he trusts her, that she has hope for him. Later, when the Jets sing “We are sick, we are sick” inside the police station, a woman (who has locked herself into a holding cage to protect herself, having been left alone with the gang) stares at them with her mouth agape. Both she and Val model for the audience how to view these male characters. Furthermore, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner give women the last words by reordering the songs; after the rumble, all of the songs are those sung by women.

The tragedy that overwhelms the love story

In the film, Bernardo clearly states the threat of white American men toward his sister and warns Maria before the dance with, “The first gringo boy who smiles at you.” But she kisses Tony and dances with him anyway, even though she has confirmed that he is not Puerto Rican. The lovers know the stakes. Tony confesses to Maria that he spent a year in jail for nearly beating another boy to death, and it is immediately following this that they exchange vows. Tony and Maria know that the Sharks and Jets will “rumble” (fight) because of them.

After Bernardo orders the gate to be shut for the rumble, Tony arrives, but he cannot lift the gate to enter. The camera moves behind him to show who has arrived and can help, and it is the Puerto Rican Chino, Bernardo’s intended partner for Maria. Together, they lift the gate and together they close it. Like Romeo and Paris at the Capulet tomb, the location where they both die, this moment of raising the gate and closing it down together is the metaphorical sealing of fate for both Tony and Chino; Tony will die at Chino’s hand, and Chino will suffer the metaphorical death of incarceration as a consequence. Because Chino believed in the possibility and virtue of assimilation, it is his subsequent loss of all hope for a better life that distinguishes his tragedy in this film.

Shakespeare in West Side Story

Spielberg shows us that there’s still a place for Shakespeare in West Side Story. After the Jets perform “Office Krupke” inside the police station, Krupke returns, breathless from chasing Anybodys (who is trans and an aspiring member of the Jets) in the streets. In that same moment, the camera provides close-ups of the Jets who are breathless from singing. Krupke is out of breath as a character who has just been running whereas the Jets are breathless as actors from performing a musical number. Much like Shakespeare’s characters who directly address the audience, or comic relief performed “in character” but at the audience, in moments like these, the audience views the action as simultaneously inside the story and outside of it.

For the 1957 musical, Arthur Laurents wrote original dialogue to cohere with Jerome Robbins’ choreography as a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s poetry. In the layers of adaptation that Spielberg’s film includes, some of Shakespeare’s lines made it into the dialogue. When Tony reacts to Maria’s kiss, he says, “You just caught me by surprise is all. I’m a by the book type, so,” to which Maria responds, “By the book?” (Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.122) And when they part on the fire escape, she calls him back. Maria says, “I forgot why I call you,” and Tony replies, “I’ll wait till you remember.” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.184-5) These slightly-adjusted famous lines are included in the film’s soundtrack as well. Shakespeare’s poetry and Sondheim’s lyrics are united at last.

⇒ Related: Carla Della Gatta writes about the original West Side Story movie—and how it became the de facto representation of US Latinx in musicals for decades.