by Joanna Robinson
Back in March, rumors started circulating that Steven Spielberg might be interested in directing a remake of West Side Story. Though we still don’t have ironclad confirmation, Spielberg didn’t exactly deny his involvement when asked last week on Good Morning America. He replied:
Well, you know something, West Side Story is one of my favorite Broadway musicals and one of the greatest pieces of musical literature, my goodness, one of the greatest scores and some of the greatest lyrics ever written for a musical, so just let me put it this way: it’s on my mind.
In an era of reboots, remakes, and reborquels, I’m usually the first to declare most unoriginal films as “unnecessary.” But the Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise–directed version of West Side Story, as lovely and brilliant as it is, is woefully in need of an update.
It’s fantastic that West Side Story remains, through the power of its Leonard Bernstein score and with more than a little help from Shakespeare, one of the most powerful stories about immigration in American history. But the fact that of the three Puerto Rican leads in the 1961 version, only one actor, Rita Moreno, was actually Hispanic (in fact, actually Puerto Rican) is something that could use an update.
That’s no insult to Natalie Wood (ethnically Russian) or George Chakiris (Greek), both of whom turned in wonderful performances. But it’s a little uncomfortable that one of the most famous Hispanic characters in American cinema is, in fact, quite white.
Race isn’t even the only issue. The tale of young love and rival street gangs, famously based on Romeo and Juliet, ought to be a story of youthful exuberance and foolish, impetuous young love. In other words, the teenage story loses some of its vim when you realize hot-headed Riff was played by an incredibly athletic 27-year-old Russ Tamblyn, and moonstruck Tony by 23-year-old Richard Beymer.
And of all the directors to be tasked with the job of making an age-appropriate, racially accurate West Side Story, few seem better for the job than Spielberg. No, he may not have any musical experience, but he had always been unafraid to cast young performers, and his long career is peppered with racially charged films such as The Color Purple, Amistad, and Munich. In fact, wouldn’t it be fascinating to see Spielberg take on the bilingual revival of West Side Story that hit Broadway back in 2009?
And despite his reliance on a certain stable of actors (our Richard Lawson predicts Tom Hanks as Officer Krupke), Spielberg is also fond of discovering new film talent (e.g., Drew Barrymore in E.T., Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws , Djimon Hounsou in Amistad, etc.). And there’s no danger that Steven Spielberg, a man with an abundance of sentiment, would lose the heart of what makes West Side Story great in too-slick dance numbers or overly produced sound mixing. The original West Side Story with its white, dubbed Maria and too-old Riff was and is fantastic . . . for its time. But isn’t it time for a new take on this timeless yet topical subject? And doesn’t Steven Spielberg feel like the man for the job?
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