It was a funny thing, seeing Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story in Lincoln Square. As the film opens, trawling through piles of rubble at a vast construction site, a sign appears: “SLUM CLEARANCE.” These are—were—the 18 city blocks that would become Lincoln Center and its elegant surrounding area, displacing some 800 businesses and thousands of families in the process. And it’s about what’s left of the turf that the Sharks and the Jets, two sparring Manhattan gangs, are struggling to control. That context underscores the frantic futility of this story: In a match between working-class Puerto Rican immigrants and the white poor—or “can’t-make-it Caucasians,” as the local Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) calls the Jets—both groups lose to the gentrifying rich.
Yet the youths of West Side Story—especially as they appear in Spielberg’s superb retelling, with a smart and sensitive screenplay by the playwright Tony Kushner—don’t care for inevitabilities. It’s the possible they’re after and what makes this 64-year-old riff on Romeo and Juliet such a distinctly American tale. (In service to that point, shades of red, white, and blue crop up often in the film, not least when the Sharks, dressed in their characteristic crimsons and purples, and the Jets, in their cool navies and blacks, cross paths.) The central lovers, Maria and Tony, exemplify that struggle.
If, for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s 1961 film, Maria was imagined as a “fawn in the forest,” as an assistant director later recalled (hence, the casting of a doe-eyed Natalie Wood), Rachel Zegler’s take is sharper, hungrier, and altogether more self-assured. Tired of being babied by her brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks, she is keen to be seen as a woman when she heads off to the dance where she first encounters Tony. (A bold red lip—furtively applied before she walks out the door—says this loud and clear, besides marking the first of many small, and then far more dramatic, acts of rebellion.) After the two lock eyes across the gymnasium floor, it’s Maria who makes the first move.
Tony, played here by Ansel Elgort, also benefits from a rewrite. Once the rather thinly drawn Nice Guy—a not-quite Jet who remains close with the gang (and particularly with its leader, Riff) while generally disapproving of their troublemaking—now has a significant backstory: When we meet him, Tony has recently returned from prison after savagely beating another gang member. He’s been changed by both the crime and its consequences, he tells Riff—he knows what he’s capable of now, and it frightens him. So Tony keeps himself busy at Doc’s, the neighborhood drug store run, in this version, by a Puerto Rican widow named Valentina (Rita Moreno, in a poignant full-circle moment)—that is, until he too goes to the dance.