How Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner conceived 'West Side Story' for today

With racial politics already baked into the script, refreshing the 1957 musical meant using language to enrich the characters for the audience while acknowledging their powerlessness in a hostile system.

West Side Story

During the opening brawl of the 1961 West Side Story film, Bernardo and his gang, the Sharks, pursue Little Johnny of the rival Jets gang after they catch him painting "Sharks stink" on a wall. In Steven Spielberg's remake, the fight begins with graffiti — when the Jets, together, take their paintbrushes to a mural of a large Puerto Rican flag, and not to touch it up. The act immediately articulates the racial conflict between the white and Puerto Rican factions of West Side Story, even before the anti-Hispanic slurs begin to fly.

When the police show up, the Jets leader Riff launches into a spiel about "territory," how they're mostly worried about holding on to their home neighborhood. It's a racist and groundless excuse, which Spielberg preempts: He replaced the opening aerial shots of Manhattan from the 1961 film with close-ups of half-toppled buildings, rubble, and a rendering of the shiny new Lincoln Center that's soon to take their place. Spielberg noted, "The territory that they're claiming to be warring about is all under the shadow of the wrecking ball." The Jets — and the neighboring Sharks, for that matter — can't "protect their territory" from its imminent demolition, laying bare their racially motivated hate more pointedly than ever.

These are just a few of the changes Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made to Arthur Laurents's 54-year-old book. They're subtle, as updates for modern political relevance go, but the story didn't need drastic updates to criticize hate, and through the central love story between former Jets leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo's young sister María (Rachel Zegler), assert that love is more powerful. That's all been there from the start. As Kushner mentions in the production notes, "What it’s about is what we are living in this country today — a time of tragic division and distrust, and the waste of human life through violence, racism, and xenophobia."

But the new film places takes a bit of the blame, so to speak, off the gangs for perpetuating a hostile environment. "The system" is at fault, represented not only by the wrecking ball, but also the police, who see the Jets as abject failures and the Sharks as abject "others," wanting rid of both. Kushner gives the police some degrading lines aimed at the Sharks, but he didn't have to do much adjusting to drive the theme of systemic failure home, either. With calls for police accountability remaining at the forefront of national consciousness, the arrival of Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James) at any given moment not only puts the gangs on edge, but automatically invites the audience's skepticism.

"The understanding of race and of ethnicity and of language that [Kushner] brings to it is more about the systemic forces and how power instills itself on a community as opposed to, 'That person is a racist, so we can pick them out. They're the bad person, and we're good in relationship to that,'" Stoll said. "It's about power and about how those who are in power hold on to it."

One deliberate change in this regard isn't verbal, but musical — Kushner felt that the jaunty opening notes of the morbid slapstick number "Gee, Officer Krupke," in which the Jets sing about the societal forces that resign them to the streets, "[make] it hard, before you hear the first word, to hear the seriousness of what [lyricist Stephen] Sondheim describes," he said. "There's this terrible machine that exists not to cure juvenile delinquency, but to perpetuate it. So we just asked for permission to take away the first 'oom-pah-pah' section."

What warranted a greater change were the characters lacking in systemic power. West Side Story, heralded as it is for cinematic, choreographic, and musical achievement (for the 2021 film, Justin Peck devised new choreography inspired by Jerome Robbins' original, and Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein's timeless lyrics and score remain mostly unchanged), has drawn criticism for stereotypically drawn and inaccurately cast characters, particularly the Puerto Ricans.

Spielberg's film aimed to address this in a few different ways: firstly, by casting a 100 percent Latin American ensemble for the Sharks, a non-negotiable for Spielberg. Secondly, the Puerto Ricans speak Spanish throughout, presented without subtitles to avoid othering Puerto Rican culture. "We thought it was out of respect that we didn't subtitle any of the Spanish," Spielberg said. "That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English." The language's importance is first established when the Sharks sing the Puerto Rican anthem, "La Borinqueña," before the Jets, Schrank, and Krupke in defiance of their racism.

"We're a bilingual country," Kushner added. "This feels like a movie for a country that is bilingual."

The use of Spanish goes hand-in-hand with adding nuance to the Puerto Rican experience by way of the leads. Bernardo (David Alvarez), for one, is now a prizefighter-in-training with strong loyalty to his home island. With his parents out of the picture, he's a de facto parental figure to María alongside his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose), who wants to open her own tailor shop and assimilate as an American, urging Bernardo and María to speak English and do the same. With the casting of the Afro-Puerto Rican DeBose, too, West Side Story doesn't go by without addressing colorism — in one scene, when Bernardo dismisses Anita from a talk he's having with María on the grounds that it's a "family discussion," Anita slips back into Spanish to ask if he's excluding her because she's prieta — meaning "dark" in a derogatory sense.

"I inherently did not think that this was ever a job that I would book because Anitas don't look like us. They look like Rita Moreno," DeBose recalled. "And I was not shocked, but really amazed that Steven and Tony were open to having the conversation around it. It was something I said in the room; I was like, if we don't want to touch on that by virtue of my being a Black woman, that that can inform this character's path, then maybe this isn't the choice for you. Maybe I'm not the choice for you."

Speaking of Rita Moreno (an Oscar winner for her 1961 turn as Anita), she returns to the 2021 film in the new role of Valentina, the Puerto Rican widow of the white shopowner Doc from the musical and 1961 film. Though in a happy interracial marriage, she and Doc faced their share of hate, and audiences see Valentina's heart break to watch that same hate destroy another generation. Conversely, her love story is a bittersweet nod to the life Tony and María could have had.

In that way, Valentina's enduring presence becomes, perhaps even more than the doomed leading couple, the musical's strongest symbol of hope this time around. The message of West Side Story shifts just so, proposing not exactly that love can conquer hate, but that somewhere, there's a place where love can survive hate.