Although it's a perfectly enjoyable movie, West Side Story's failure at the box office, in spite of Steven Spielberg's imprimatur, likely comes down to the question that I had asked myself from the beginning: Why bother remaking the Oscar-winning classic?
There are two answers to the above question: 1. because Spielberg wanted to, and 2. because Robert Wise's 1961 production had white actors playing most of its Puerto Rican characters, which doesn't fly in the 21st century.
Thus the idea of Spielberg taking the old Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical, casting it with ethnically appropriate actors, and "refreshing" the dialogue and backstory (the screenplay is by the director's occasional collaborator Tony Kushner) is laudable. And it all works. But does it make us see West Side Story in a new light? Not really, since it still takes place in mid-1950s Manhattan, still has the same catchy songs and choreography, still has the same Romeo & Juliet-inspired plot. And so those who know the musical well – either from the 1961 film or from countless local stage productions – have little cause to see what Spielberg, Kushner, et al have done with the material.
Purists may be taken aback by a couple of the changes, namely the addition of a brand new character named Valentina, played by Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar back in 1962 for her work as Anita in Wise's West Side Story. At first it seems like a cute cameo. But in fact Valentina has a substantial role – she even gets to sing one of the old songs. Moreno is always a welcome presence, and her character is actually a subtle callback to the Nurse (and Friar Lawrence) in Shakespeare's R&J.
Spielberg's mise en scène is nothing if not energetic – I'm not the first to say this, but the film reveals that Spielberg has essentially always been a musical director, as evidenced by his best movies' brisk pace, clever visual staging, and graceful camerawork. He was born for this genre; it just took him fifty years to get here.
Leonard Bernstein's score still booms, thanks to David Newman's awesome arrangement, and choreographer Justin Peck stays true to Jerome Robbins's original vision. Of the talented cast, Ariana DeBose as Anita is getting most of the attention, but it was rodent-faced Mike Faist as Riff who made the biggest impression on me. He absolutely owns the role. The show's two leads have always been its least interesting characters, but Ansel Elgort as Tony and newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria are both capable, although I just don't care for Maria's soprano warbling, especially since the rest of the cast sings in natural voices.