The recent Academy Award Nominations held a number of surprises, and though the Best Adapted Screenplay category is particularly stacked this year, the lack of love for West Side Story was truly unexpected. Why Academy voters neglected to honour Pulitzer Prize recipient Tony Kushner’s 2021 revamp is anyone’s guess, but it probably has a little something to do with members feeling Kushner had not made the sort of significant adaptational changes which warrant recognition in the category.
It’s true that director Steven Spielberg’s bravura filmmaking is the main draw of the new film, but Kushner’s screenplay works to heavily contemporize and intensify Laurents and Robbins’ material, whilst
keeping its hallowed source intact (it doesn’t get much more hallowed than the original Broadway show, or Romeo and Juliet for that matter). Let’s run through some of the more obvious examples. Spoilers from here on out.
First there are the changes to the songs, in sequencing, performers and purpose. Some of the numbers in West Side Story tend to jump around in the play’s chronology, as adapters try to reckon with their place in each interpretation of the material. ‘I Feel Pretty’ as a fan favorite has shifted back and forth, but here is placed once again right after the rumble, emphasizing the dramatic irony of Maria singing about her glorious love and future with Tony, who, unbeknownst to Maria, has just murdered her brother. For Kushner’s purposes, the song likely helps audiences settle following the incredibly tense and devastating knife fight at the Salt warehouse.
The purpose of ‘Cool’ is revamped the most of any song, changing from a warning to Jets members to stay level-headed ahead of the rumble, to a more personal confrontation between Tony and Riff over Riff’s gun. Allowing Tony another chance to reach out to the unshakable Riff heightens the inevitable tragedy when the latter dies during the rumble, and strengthens the conflict between the characters in the meantime. Riff takes on a more Mercutio-esque quality in his distress over his friend’s “calm,
dishonorable, vile submission”.
‘Somewhere’, once sung as a naïve dream shared by Tony and Maria, becomes even more melancholic, as Valentina, a matriarchal figure to Tony, seems all too aware that that “place for us”, at least for these kids, is not out there. This leads us into character alteration, of which Valentina is the most prominent, being a completely original addition. Played by Rita Moreno, of the 1961 film version, Valentina takes the place of Doc, owner of a general store and elder figure to the younger characters. Valentina occupies a
more charged position amidst the turmoil of the youths, being a Puerto Rican who married a white man. Her world-weariness holds greater weight than the original character’s, and there is far more power behind the moment where Valentina rebukes the Jets for attempting to gangrape Anita.
The at-home-dynamics and backgrounds between Anita, Bernardo and Maria are a little more developed (and more time is given to conversational Spanish, which goes unsubtitled), Maria especially is more adult, but Tony receives the strongest additional history, which goes some way to strengthening his motivations. Tony is now on parole, having spent a year in the clink for nearly beating a rival gang
member to death. The character is now a cautious, regretful ex-Jet, whose need for salvation could read to a cynic as coloring his teenaged love-at-first-sight for Maria. Their conversations behind the bleachers, as well as on the way to and at the Cloisters are also welcome additions that add a more natural dimension to the star-crossed lovers.
Anybodys was essentially a tomboy in the original production, but here receives a handling more potent and appropriate for a story this concerned with characters confronted by a world that does not have the compassion to accept. Anybodys is now a transgender man, still struggling to assimilate into the Jets.
Chino’s downfall is given a stronger arc; in making the character a bright and bookish outsider to the Sharks, eager to join and defend his people, who’s opportunities are dashed by his need to avenge the death of his masculine role model Bernardo, Chino is elevated from another delinquent to sympathize with, to a tragic example of the destructive nature of racially motivated conflict. We spend the last moments of the film watching police squads approach, as Chino awaits the consequences of his actions. No one escapes with a brighter tomorrow.
One of the strongest modernizations of the film is in its clearer delineation of the Jets as white supremacists, through dialogue and updating the story’s setting, pointing out that though, yes, these are two violent gangs giving as good as they get, the Sharks only exist to defend their people from the Jets (exemplified when the gang breaks into a rendition of La Borinquena, a new addition to the soundtrack, and are met with cheers from the neighborhood).
This change in setting was made to reframe the story around Robert Moses’ destructive city planning initiatives for the Lincoln Square Renewal Project, a “slum clearance” scheme which leveled the homes of more than 7000 families living in San Juan Hill to make way for the development of the Lincoln Center for the performing arts (where 2021’s West Side Story had its premiere). This is an essential element of the neighborhood’s history, one which was not incorporated into the original show because it’s planning was still ongoing, approved only a year before the show’s premiere, with demolition beginning the year thereafter.
Personified in Lieutenant Schrank’s more personable relationship with the Caucasian Jets, the government’s disregard for the Puerto Rican and black population of the neighborhood as second-class citizens hangs over the Jets’ insistence that they’re “protecting what’s theirs”. As systemic racism comes to be more broadly understood and confronted by modern audiences, this acknowledgement was necessary, but it also serves the text well. The tragedy of the Sharks and the Jets’ gang war is often exacerbated by its futility; that while the conflict costs each side dearly, the greater forces of the world ensure that nothing is to be won. All 18 blocks of this ‘turf’ will be gone in a year.
There are many more adaptational changes, and what has been covered today has not been discussed in depth. Kushner’s 2021 adaptation of West Side Story may not have won over the Academy, but it is immeasurably important to the film, and the film is a stunner.