West Side Story 2019 – Will the Spielberg Remake Measure Up?

I make no secret of the fact that West Side Story is my favorite musical. In fact, I’ve performed on stage in over 20 different productions of the musical.

A retelling of the Romeo & Juliet story conceived by William Shakespeare, West Side Story depicts racial charged teen gang violence in the 1950s on New York’s upper west side. In the story Tony and Riff are blood brothers who start the primarily white Jets gang. Bernardo heads up the Sharks – a rival gang made up of all Puerto Rican teens.

In a chance meeting Tony falls for Bernardo’s younger sister Maria. He doesn’t realize she is Puerto Rican, and she doesn’t realize he is not. Their forbidden love affair sparks an already charged race war between the Jets and Sharks.

Back in there early 1990s when I was still young enough to play a teenager, there was a rumor that Steven Spielberg was going to direct a movie re-make of West Side Story. I was sure I would be in the running to play one of the leads – Tony, Riff, or Bernardo. I had successfully played all three characters on stage to rave reviews and figured I would be a natural fit for the film remake.

Ultimately it turned out to be just a rumor, and I continued in my stage career playing teenage gang members who could sing and dance.

Finally in 2018, there was an official announcement that Steven Spielberg would indeed be producing a remake of the film and was embarking on a nationwide hunt for talent.

Of course, I can no longer believably play a teenager. Maybe I could still get away with it on stage, but definitely not on film. Maybe, I figure, I could now play one of the adults in the Spielberg film. I’ll be sure to have my agent submit me for Lt. Shrank – the hardnosed cop dead set on curbing the gang violence.

Recently the first casting of the film was announced: Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, The Fault in Our Stars) has been signed to play the male lead Tony in the 2019 Spielberg film. I’ll be interested to see how he does.

I love the original movie version of West Side Story that starred Natalie Wood as Maria, Richard Beymer as Tony, Russ Tamblyn as Riff, Rita Moreno as Anita, and George Chakiris as Bernardo. The film was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Robbins conceived the Broadway musical with Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents. A young Stephen Sondheim provided the lyrics. Robbins also choreographed the piece.

My one problem with the movie, and with most stage productions I have seen, is that Tony is played as a wishy washy whimp – not the tough as nails gang leader that is depicted in the script.

The truth is, I never wanted to play the role of Tony – that is, not until I saw a production starring Greg Kohout as Tony, directed by Diana Martinez. Finally, an actor was playing the role the way it needed to be played to make the violence make sense. I immediately fell in love with the character of Tony and played the role countless times – always with a characterization inspired by Kohout and Martinez.

It is my sincere hope that Spielberg and Elgort embark on this type of characterization for the new movie. At 6’3 Elgort has the size to be an intimidating gang leader, now it all depends on how the director decides he should play the role.

The original 1961 West Side Story was a near perfect film. It won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Spielberg and company will be hard pressed to top the original, but as a fan of the musical I most certainly hope the 2019 version will be just as good.

Peace. Love. Trust.


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