Why a Spielberg 'West Side Story' Film Remake is Necessary

Bridget McCarthy ‘17/ Emertainment Monthly Stage Section Co-Editor

The cast of West Side Story. Photo Credit: MGM
The cast of West Side Story. Photo Credit: MGM
After coming off the success of NBC’s last live musical The Wiz Live!, there were whispers of West Side Story being the channel’s choice for their 2016 production.
It made sense.
The Sound of Music Live!, though gaining a high viewer rate was by all means a flop, and Peter Pan Live! starring Allison Williams was better, but still didn’t have the musical talent to handle the score. The Wiz Live! was a hit because NBC casted based on talent, not star power.
But its success also came from choosing a musical with people of color (POC). The choice addressed a diversity issue both television and musical theater still struggle with in 2016. (Think: Hamilton casting call controversy. White people are asked not to attend and suddenly the “world turned upside down.” Meanwhile, almost every other show on the Great White Way is, well, white.)
After The Wiz Live!, NBC needed to choose another musical that was both diverse and family friendly. Two big names immediately came to mind: Hairspray and West Side Story. Since NBC live musical producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron had produced the 2007 movie musical of Hairspray, it was assumed that West Side Story would be chosen in order to do something new.
But Hairspray Live! was the final decision.
Although Hairspray is by all means a great choice, it must be noted that Steven Spielberg holds the rights to West Side Story right now for a long overdue film remake.
The cast of West Side Story. Photo Credit: MGM
The cast of West Side Story. Photo Credit: MGM
In a summer interview in 2014 on Good Morning America, Spielberg was asked about his interest in a new West Side Story film. He said, “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.”
It’s comforting for musical theater fans to know that even though this interview was almost two years ago, Spielberg still has the rights. What’s even more comforting for theater lovers is Spielberg’s immense respect for the musical score; notice he never gave a nod to the 1961 film version.
That’s not to say the Oscar-winning movie does not have Spielberg’s reverence, or that it’s undeserving of being a classic. However, a new film is needed because, on the issue of diversity, not all cast members of the original movie match the characters’ ethnic backgrounds: an issue that Spielberg can bring justice to with new talent.
Natalie Wood was of Eastern European ancestry, playing the lead role of Maria, who is Puerto Rican. Not to mention Natalie Wood’s singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon.
George Chakiris, who played Bernardo in the movie, was the only one out of the main characters (Riff, Tony, Anita, Maria) to not be dubbed over for singing. This is because he had no major solo to perform.
Rita Moreno and the cast of West Side Story. Photo Credit: MGM
Rita Moreno and the cast of West Side Story. Photo Credit: MGM
If the new film hires actors that are both ethnically appropriate for the role and also vocally trained, it has potential to be even bigger than the original.
Not to mention Spielberg also has an affinity for finding new talent (Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, Drew Barrymore in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), a skill that is especially vital to musical movies, where singing and dancing abilities matter more than celebrity status.
If this new movie version sticks to the credentials of diversity and talent, Spielberg could have another masterpiece on his hands. A film worthy of Leonard Bernstein’s score he admires so deeply.
Oh, and one last recommendation: please keep the dance scenes lengthy, Spielberg.
The nine-minute prologue with gang members snapping and pirouetting simultaneously is a must.

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One Comment

  1. I disagree with the notion that Spielberg’s re-make of the 1961 film version of West Side Story is necessary. Nothing and nobody can take the place of the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story, in so far as the cast, the orchestra, the musical score, the very story behind WSS, or the cinematography and beautifully-designed costumes.

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