“This is a social experiment!” the peppy school counselor cries, hoping the Jets and Sharks will put aside their war for one dance. The social, economic, and cultural stakes for these teenagers take centre stage in Spielberg’s vision of the classic. Opening on gentrifying demolition and capturing a changing neighbourhood in its dialogue-free opening dance number, West Side Story paints the dividing but all-too-similar challenges facing first- and second-generation immigrants. Unfortunately, Kushner’s script hammers the same angles relentlessly and soberly, removing the nuance and rapid crackle that made the musical and first screen adaptation timeless. The result is a West Side Story that does not know who it is for – the most timeless love story slavishly attached to the time and place of its creation. 

Spielberg pulls from both the stage musical (the song order, the uncensored-yet-still-50s lyrics) and the 1961 film that won ten Oscars (“America”) to create a film with a tremendous plot hole from one spectacular mis-staging. Bernstein famously disliked the 1961 film’s orchestration – more than twice the instruments than his intended Broadway pit. The even-larger New York Philharmonic removes both stage precision and Hollywood romance, flattening rhythms to karaoke tracks. 

The star-cross’d lovers fall equally flat. Zegler’s sweet soprano and doe eyes are winning, but her lack of gravitas is exacerbated by the charisma vacuum of her co-star. Elgort could have been replaced with anyone, to more powerful results; the question is why wasn’t he? 

The supporting cast are tremendous. Faist’s Riff coils and pulses with frustrated potential, James Dean without self-pity. DeBose’s Anita is the emotional heartbeat; the film soars in her presence. 

With star-making turns, electrifying dancing, and Rita Moreno’s sublime rendition of “Somewhere”, West Side Story is not entirely a miss. But the wasted potential, like that of Riff and Bernardo, is glaring. 



CAST: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, David Alvarez

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

WRITER: Tony Kusher (after Arthur Laurents)

SYNOPSIS: Romeo and Juliet is transposed to gang warfare in 1950s New York in Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical.