Movie Soundtrack Wednesday #25 – West Side Story

Words: Giulia Lombardo

I went to see this movie with my grandpa – who only likes westerns with two lines in them and a lot of fighting – and at the end of it he was just as excited and moved as I was. If this is not enough to prove that ‘West Side Story’ is a great movie for everyone, we’re going to provide a whole article to convince you.

The task taken by director Steven Spielberg wasn’t an easy one, trying to live up to the expectations that the ‘Romeo And Juliet’-inspired musical by Arthur Laurents, which sold out on Broadway in the late 50s, created in us. The 1961 film by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise is almost untouchable, as it collected ten Oscars at the time, including Best Film and Best Director. But, when you combine Spielberg’s passion with experience and technique, there is no challenge to fear.

Hispanics, Italians, Poles, Latinos, Irish. There, in what would eventually become the world’s capital, is a melting pot of ethnic groups and accents, and therefore of fractures, of misunderstandings. Landed on Ellis Island and thrown into a fighting-ring without rules or hesitation, lead character Maria has to face just that, a teenage Latina newly arrived in the city. Soon, 50s New York City has become a battleground for a tribal war with Latinos (the Sharks) and Irish-Americans (the Jets) as its antagonists, and ‘Shark’ Maria and ‘Jet’ Tony at its centre. Fights, love, music, moments of laughter and moments of real sadness… from there, follows the tragedy: that tragedy that made generations and generations fall in love with this young pair decades ago, and their tender, pure love that does not care for ethnicity or social class.

Able to give grace and substance to the legendary roles of Maria and Tony, we find Rachel Zegler – basically in her debut – together with an outstanding Ansel Elgort (even though we really disliked his outfits). Around them are the other characters: Maria’s brother Bernardo, played by David Alvarez (from Broadway’s ‘Billy Elliot’), Mike Faist (from Broadway’s ‘Dear Evan Hansen’) – who did an incredible job as opposing gang-leader Riff – and Rita Moreno, who today returns romantically in the role of Valentina, exchanging the part she had in the 1961 version, Anita, which is played by an amazing Ariana Debose (‘Hamilton’, Broadway’s ‘Bring It On’ and ‘Motown The Musical’).

Award-winning composer-conductor David Newman’s arrangements make the original score by Leonard Bernstein even more – if even possible – majestic, sweeping and captivating, and the incredible voices of the actors featured in the movie are also to acknowledge. Twenty-one tracks, including the legendary ‘Maria’, ‘America’ (a favourite, mostly due to Debose’s outstanding performance), ‘Tonight’, and ‘Somewhere’ (when this writer gets extremely and unnecessarily emotional every time), played by over 80 musicians of the New York Philharmonic, accompanied by six South American percussionists, in the Grand Ballroom of the Manhattan Center: the historic recording studio in which Bernstein himself organised the rehearsals of his orchestra in the 1960s.

With New York City itself an omniscient and decisive protagonist background, Maria and Tony – photographed by Spielberg as two teenagers overwhelmed with love – are brave in challenging themselves and the “rule” that would have them enemies by definition. So, yesterday as today, whether it’s Laurents, whether it’s Robbins or Wise, or whether it’s Steve Spielberg’s hopeful audacity, ‘West Side Story’ is a testament to how much love is more important than any discrimination and more than life itself, in a film that is pure cinematic art.