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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Feb 16, 2022



WE GREW up loving musicals after we saw “Lili”, a 1953 movie starring Leslie Caron in the title role. It’s about a teenage girl and her love story with a puppeteer. 

We saw it with our aunt who took us to the movies every weekend. We fell in love with Lili and her song: “The song love of love is a sad song, Hi Lili, Hi Lili, Hi Lo”. 

We were then 7 years old and we got LSS and kept on singing it for the longest time. The movie was later turned into a stage musical titled “Carnival”. 

But we saw more movies that started as a Broadway musical then made into film, like “The King and I”, “South Pacific”, “Carousel”, “Oklahoma”, “Showboat”, “Flower Drum Song”, and of course, the most well loved of them all, “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music”.

One of the classic musicals is “West Side Story”, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim in his Broadway debut. It was first staged in 1957 and a film version was made in 1961. 

It got 11 Oscar nominations and won 10, including best picture, best supporting actor and actress awards for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno. 

We’re sure many of today’s young viewers have not seen this movie shown 60 long years ago. It is now remade by THE Steven Spielberg and when we first heard about it, we wondered what else could he do with it as the 1961 movie is a classic in its own right. 

 But we never should have doubted that the filmmaker who did “Schindler’s List”, “Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “ET”, “Jurassic Park” could pull it off, with the script written by Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay of Spielberg’s award-winning “Lincoln” and the acclaimed play “Angels in America”.

Set in 1957, the story of “West Side Story” is inspired by “Romeo and Juliet” and the ill-fated lovers are now Tony and Maria. They don’t come from warring families but from rival gangs: the Jets, who are whites of Irish-Polish descent, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Ricans. 

New York is a melting pot but these ethnic groups are fighting for control of San Juan Hill in Manhattan’s West Side. 

The cops tell them all their fighting is useless since they will all soon be evicted as their neighborhood will be demolished to give way to the construction of the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts, built by mogul John D. Rockefeller and now a distinct landmark in Manhattan.

Riff (Mike Faist) is the leader of the Jets and he tries to convince his friend Tony (Ansel Elgort, who we didn’t know could sing), an ex-con on parole, to rejoin their gang and help them in their fight against the Sharks. Tony wants to go straight after a year in jail and rejects him. 

Bernardo (David Alvarez) is the leader of the Sharks, a young boxer who cares very much for his sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler, who was cast after she auditioned via youtube). He tries to match her up with his best friend, Chino. His girlfriend is the sexy Anita. 

At a community dance party designed to reconcile the warring gangs, Tony and Maria meet and it was love at first sight for them.

Bernardo gets mad about this and arranges a street rumble between their two gangs. There’s no need to go into the details of the plot as we all know what happens to the doomed lovers.

Spielberg has made his own film version that is faithful and does justice to its source but so alive to contemporary sensibilities. 

It’s one movie that is more than two hours but you don’t feel that it’s been unnecessarily padded as it’s swiftly paced and filled with stunning imagery. You can really feel the joie de vivre Spielberg felt while making it. 

So what are the changes Spielberg made in his own version? First is he got Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the first film, to also appear here, as Valentina, the store owner Tony works for. 

In the original it was played by a man called Doc who is now said to be Valentina’s late husband. Spielberg gives Rita, now 89 years old, one of the most iconic songs in the show to sing, “Somewhere”.

Rita was a true spitfire in the first movie and this time, Ariana DeBose, similarly shines in her breakout role as Anita. Considering she gets uniform good reviews for her portrayal of Anita, history might just repeat itself with her also winning the Oscar for the same role. 

The singing, the dancing and the acting are all just fantastic. The show has great songs but it also succeeds as a commentary about racial discrimination and violence among street gangs.

Spielberg’s version keeps the songs intact but Justin Peck has surely improved on the choreography (the dancing is really infectious). The Puerto Ricans are played by real Latino actors, with a lot of the dialogue delivered in Spanish. 

The movie starts with scenes of urbanization taking place with a wrecking ball destroying current buildings. We don’t know how they did it but the exterior scenes showing crumbling, dilapidated buildings in the 50s with its gritty narrow streets and alleys look so authentic. 

Spielberg has never directed a musical but he shows here how versatile he is as a filmmaker. The camera movement is just splendid. 

In the dance hall, it glides over dozens of dancers and Spielberg shows a lot of visual mastery over his camera, resulting in spectacular shots and complemented by the superb choreography.

Ansel Elgort was lambasted by many reviewers for not being adequate for the role Tony, but honestly, we think he’s even better than Richard Beymer in the first movie. His reaction when Anita tells him that Maria is dead is so heartbreaking. 

Many of the songs in this show have become big hits, like “Tonight”, “Maria”, “Somewhere” and even lesser known songs like “One Hand, One Heart” which is heard when Tony takes Maria to the convent, The Cloisters in Manhattan, and they exchange their make believe wedding vows. 

The sprightly “Gee Officer Krupke” no longer takes place on a “bangketa” but inside a police station. The most welcome change is the “America” production number. 

In the first movie, it’s set on a rooftop. This time, Spielberg takes it out into the streets in a truly contagious dance routine that’s no doubt the most intricately conceived number in the film.

At first, we wonder why a total newcomer like Rachel Zegler is cast as Maria. But the moment she sings, we’re quickly blown away as her voice quality has so much verve and flair. In the first movie, Natalie Wood didn’t use her own voice as Maria. 

The entire ensemble in this film is just fabulous. The movie may be a musical but, ultimately, it has a sad tragic story that delivers a valid message about racial intolerance. 

People still resort to violence today just because other folks look or think differently, like in Asian Hate. It reminds us that up to now, what the world needs is not hate but love for one another. 

As the line from the song goes: “Life is all right in America, if you’re all white in America.”