How West Side Story Pays Off Steven Spielberg’s History of Near-Musicals

Movies Features Steven Spielberg
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How West Side Story Pays Off Steven Spielberg’s History of Near-Musicals

The new remake of West Side Story has something most movie musicals don’t: Absolute technical assurance behind the camera. Since the musical has re-asserted itself in American cinemas, a group of filmmakers, usually with backgrounds in theater or choreography, have become go-to directors for the genre: Your Rob Marshalls, your Adam Shankmans, your Bill Condons. Once in a while, someone like Jon M. Chu will prove especially adept and exciting; more often, new musicals languish somewhere between clunky stagebound presentation and senseless editing, a worst-of-both-worlds approach that’s distressingly common. The 2021 West Side Story, though, moves with uncommon grace: Bodies cut across the street with fierce energy; the camera moves with them without getting lost in a frenzy; color and shadow dance together as beautifully as the talented performers. Who is this young buck behind the camera, bursting on the scene to school filmmakers with far more experience in this tricky artform? Why, it’s septuagenarian Steven Spielberg!

It shouldn’t be surprising that Spielberg, one of the most talented American filmmakers working, has an affinity for this genre, just as he’s worked in sci-fi, action-adventure, historical drama and war movies with similar verve and aplomb. It is strange, though, that Spielberg’s long-spoken desire to make a musical has taken so long to produce an actual result. Even stranger, he’s come close to making a musical multiple times—and not just behind the scenes. Sometimes he’s expressed his interest in plain view.

For example: Would Spielberg’s notoriously ill-received 1941 have worked as a musical? Maybe not; it might well have retained the moments where its spectacle turns lugubrious, straining and burdening the comedy that’s supposed to hold it up. On the other hand, while it’s uneven as a comedy, 1941 is a marvel of choreography. Its best sequence is a slapstick chase across and around a dance floor at a USO club—a splashy and exuberant number that manages to feel a little subversive (its hero is impersonating a soldier, barging into the narrative of a noble officer taking his best girl out on the town) and causes a full-blown riot. Spielberg would repeat the trick a few years later in another one of his less-beloved films: The opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is another production number chased with slapstick, as a nightclub performance of “Anything Goes” gives way to a sequence where a poisoned Indy (Harrison Ford) pursues an antidote across a dance floor. In this case, the dancing and the mayhem are kept separate, but they’re still juxtaposed via the score and the many bodies in motion.

As it happens, his version of West Side Story opens much the same way: With pursuits and conflicts between the Jets and the Sharks that are part balletic dance and part kinetic confrontation. Rather than shying away from the Jerome Robbins dance-fighting that might risk looking silly to contemporary audiences, Spielberg amps up both the dancing and the fighting; the remake is more violent than the original without losing its beauty. If anything, its physicality is more exhilarating, the camera whipping around the gangs with muscular grace. The dance at a local gym where Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) first meet feels a bit like that 1941 sequence, as exuberant couples and hostility twine together inextricably. It’s a less comic version, even more vivid in visualizing pent-up aggression and how it can be released by young people throwing themselves into dance—or squaring up for a rumble.

There have also been projects where Spielberg considered committing to a full-movie musical, rather than presenting one in miniature. The Color Purple, which producer Quincy Jones brought to Spielberg, seems to have been considered as a potential candidate; multiple singers apparently auditioned for the role of Shug, eventually played by Margaret Avery, and the finished film has a number of musical scenes, including a performance of the Oscar-nominated original song “Miss Celie’s Blues,” co-written by Jones (who also did the film’s score). Clearly, Alice Walker’s source material held musical promise, as it was later adapted into a Broadway musical—a Spielberg-produced movie adaptation of which is on the Warner Bros. release schedule for 2023.

Spielberg’s long-time composer John Williams, who sat out The Color Purple, had his own Oscar-nominated song from a Spielberg movie with “When You’re Alone,” a ballad warbled by Amber Scott in Hook. “When You’re Alone” was a remnant of an earlier, musical version of the project (once thought to be a possible Michael Jackson vehicle!). Of the eight songs Williams composed early on, only two made it into the final film. Like 1941, Hook is a mega-production that gets out of hand—with the additional drawback of overdoing on sentiment rather than antic farce—but maybe some musical numbers could have tamed its teeming cast and oversized yet phony-looking sets. In West Side Story, the Jets and Sharks similarly teem with bit and background characters, zipping around elaborate studio sets. In spite of his many lavish productions, many of Spielberg’s signature hits succeed by applying his showmanship to deceptively simple set-ups: Three men versus a shark in Jaws, or a kid and an alien tooling around the suburbs in E.T. Though Spielberg has obvious command of spectacle (see War of the Worlds, among others), few of his most overt Old Hollywood plays—1941, Hook, Always, even the largely excellent but occasionally mawkish Color Purple—are widely considered among his very best.

In a way, West Side Story resolves that tension between Spielberg and Old Hollywood—and between Spielberg’s movie-brat buddies and their clear desire to make something out of what was, early in their careers, an unfashionable genre. Around the time Spielberg was first experimenting with full-blown musical numbers, some of his buddies were attempting to revamp the genre in their image. Martin Scorsese made the abrasive jazz musical New York, New York, while Francis Ford Coppola attempted a dreamier marriage of musical artifice and unpleasant relationship bickering with One from the Heart. While these movies were off cratering their directors’ careers, Spielberg bounced back from his own boondoggle (1941 cost a pretty penny) to make some of his biggest hits. 1941 is not only less musical than New York or Heart, it’s also less daring (if probably more purely enjoyable). As notorious as it became in his filmography, it also made an amount of money that would have been face-saving for Scorsese or Coppola.

Yet even if none of Spielberg’s four not-quite-musicals is a Heart-sized deconstruction (or destruction) of its own genre, they’re all affixed with some kind of asterisk or another: The hubris of 1941, the sourness of his least-sweet Indiana Jones adventure, the Oscar-courting of The Color Purple, and the outright flailing of Hook. And of course, none of them are genuine musicals, further suggesting that the genre just wasn’t fitting with that generation of American directors. West Side Story breaks down that resistance.

Though credited as another adaptation of the original stage show, is also paying homage to one of the most beloved cinematic musicals of all time; Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner go so far as to devise a new role for Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the earlier film (and did not play the part on Broadway). It’s not as big a swing as New York, New York or One from the Heart were in their day; instead, Spielberg and Kushner approach the genre from the inside. It’s an especially notable approach when so many contemporary musicals feel self-conscious about their offers of transporting magic. By tweaking an established classic—making its racial tensions both more explicit and more nuanced; adding some historical New York context; throwing a roving camera into musical numbers—the new West Side Story feels almost impossibly fresh and energized. It was worth the long wait it took for Spielberg to arrive at his take on the musical. His mastery of the form is so impressive that the wait for the next one might feel longer.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.