by Jemima Laing
My Dad and I have many shared enthusiasms, politics (perennial), Wordle (current) and, above all things, musicals. In my endlessly rewritten Desert Island Discs list (should fame unexpectedly arrive) is one constant – Maria – because it reminds me of my dad and his favourite musical of all time West Side Story. We’ve seen and wept through many incarnations, on screen, on stage and I even worked on it as a dresser at the Theatre Royal here in Plymouth ensuring I have seen it many more times than all but the most ardent of fans.
So it’s safe to say it’s earned its place in the Laing pantheon (Laingtheon?) of the finest musicals ever written and my dad and I are clear about one thing: you have to believe what you’re seeing when Tony and Maria first lock gazes across the gym. At the social designed to try to repair relations between two warring West Side gangs – the Jets and the Sharks – you have to buy that what you are witnessing is love at first sight or the story just won’t work. And believe me, you do, so it does. I’ve seen criticism of Ansel Elgort’s portrayal of Tony, but he and Rachel Zegler, making her screen debut, are perfect as the ill-fated lovers.
Their lightning speed romance is tender without being trite, sweet but not saccharine. I’ve also read that Sondheim didn’t much like I Feel Pretty, apparently rueing its potential to tend towards sounding self-absorbed and narcissistic. I’ve never read the song that way but Spielberg ensures that, here, it’s a joyful hymn to the confidence which can accompany the startling arrival of new love. Zegler imbues it with such anticipatory joy and sincerity it’s impossible not to be touched. That her exuberance is to prove, in the very next scene, shortlived and eventually fatally naive makes it all the more poignant. She and Elgort are supported by some exemplary performances from Ariana DeBose as the optimistic Anita, David Alvarez as the cynical and overbearing Bernardo and Mike Faist as a markedly nihilistic Riff who bristles with malevolence and whose menace and disaffection are front and centre. Likewise some of the issues hinted at in the 1961 film are more heavily drawn here and Sondheim’s razor sharp lyrics still resonate, no more so than in Gee, Officer Krupke and America where the themes of race, gentrification and youth alienation hit a contemporary nerve.
It’s the dance numbers which amass the greatest anticipation and the set pieces of the Dance At The Gym and America are breathtakingly conceived and carried out. I especially admired America being reimagined on the city’s bustling streets instead of the rooftops of the Robbins/Wise version. The golden thread through the two cinematic versions is the remarkable Rita Moreno, Oscar-winning as Anita in 1961 she is quietly powerful in the newly-invented role of Valentina. If you weren’t already mopping tears before her rendition of Somewhere – cleverly assigned to her instead of the more usual Tony and Maria – it would take the hardest of hearts to remain dry-eyed. For the record my sobbing started with One Hand, One Heart and really didn’t stop.
Even those as devoted to the 1961 version as Maria is to her Tony will find Spielberg and Kushner’s retelling a glorious watch, the choreography is extraordinary, executed by a screenful of triple threats, complemented by a thrilling colour palette and afforded an additional layer of authenticity thanks to a liberal peppering of chunks of unsubtitled Spanish dialogue. A heartfelt homage without being slavish it is as captivating now as the first time I saw it.
In an ideal world where Covid was but a memory my movie-going companion nestled in the seat next to me would have been my 82-year-old dad but, for now, he’ll have to take my word for it: it’s a beautiful film. My heart, Mr Spielberg, but my heart…
West Side Story is screening from 7th – 13th January 2022 at Plymouth Arts Cinema.