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7/29/2021 • 4 min read
This Christmas, Steven Spielberg unleashes his first full-on musical: An update of the classic WEST SIDE STORY. First filmed by Robert Wise in 1961, it's based on the 1957 Broadway musical with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. WEST SIDE STORY is a canny update of ROMEO & JULIET, transplanted to the social and cultural melting pot of New York City.
The first trailer and TV spots suggest that Spielberg and his collaborators (including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who is providing the new screenplay), have replaced some of the stagier qualities of the original film with grittier, more organic textures. But one thing will remain in this new version: The songs. With those songs in mind, we wanted to look at our very favorite WEST SIDE STORY compositions. We can’t wait to see how they’re translated by Spielberg and company. Is it December 10 yet?
Is it unflaggingly sentimental? For sure. Does the lyrical repetition of "Maria" make it the most "late '50s" song of the bunch? You better believe it does. But is it also sweeping and beautiful and embroidered with small details that come to the fore on repeated listens. WEST SIDE STORY wears its heart on its sleeve and that heart is Maria. Rachel Zegler makes her big-screen debut playing the character in Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY. Those are some big shoes to fill; no pressure!. Considering she’s already been cast as Snow White in an upcoming Disney live-action remake, we’re sure she’s more than up to the challenge.
Another straight-up classic. WEST SIDE STORY is punctuated by bursts of violence and a sense of impending doom but it often places the most memorable songs in moments of hope and optimism. That's the case here, as Tony sings about leaving the gang world behind. (Apparently, the title of the song was also used in the marketing materials for the play. The original movie marketers opted for the more grandiose "The screen achieves one of the great entertainments in the history of motion pictures.") While it lacks some of the heft of some of the other songs (and isn’t a comedy number – we’ll get to that next), it is still quite memorable and certainly one of the favorites.
Here’s why we’re giving "Gee, Officer Krupke" the edge: It showcases the musical’s clever wit and sense of humor. This comes through in other songs (like "America," below), but this tune is funny before anything else. (Of course, there is commentary in the song as well, about the police’s unnecessary targeting of minorities for seemingly minor offenses.) The lyrics are hilarious and sharp; it’s easy to imagine that a young Lin-Manuel Miranda appreciated the zippy wordplay and sharp social criticism. The number is so effervescently staged in the Wise version, we can’t wait to see what Spielberg’s approach will be. (If you disagree with us, sub in your favorite WEST SIDE STORY tune here – "Jets" maybe?)
Simply iconic. Chances are that, even if you’ve never seen WEST SIDE STORY, you know at least part of this song. It’s the big, bombastic, sing-along, dance-along number and it is totally unforgettable. From a songwriting standpoint, it’s a marvel; as the song goes along, it reveals itself to have different movements and rhythms. It also has a number of tones and textures, ranging from patriotic to cynical. Like the rest of the musical, the lyrics walk a fine line between commentary and celebration. It’ll be interesting to see if the new movie updates the music or dialogue at all. We cannot wait to watch Steven Spielberg turn this into an even more epic spectacle. The song is just as timely today as it was in 1957.
There’s a reason that this is the song chosen for the incredibly evocative trailer (above) for Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY – it’s the emotional core of the original movie and still resonates powerfully to this day. (Just hearing a few lines in the trailer is enough to make us well up.) Built around a movement originally written by Beethoven, "Somewhere" expresses longing, desire, and an optimism that isn’t always easy to see from the characters’ vantage point (or in the lives of many of the audience members). It is beautiful, haunting, and so romantic. Even in the bleakest scenario, it’s always good to remember that there’s a place for us — a time and place for us.
All images courtesy of 20th Century Studios.
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