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Stephen Sondheim Says New ‘West Side Story’ Is ‘Terrific’: ‘Spielberg and Kushner Really Nailed It’

Sondheim wrote the lyrics for the original 1957 Broadway musical, which is now inspiring a new film adaptation from director Steven Spielberg.

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2020 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ “West Side Story.”

Niko Tavernise

While we’re not going to believe just anyone who says Steven Spielberg’s upcoming spin on “West Side Story” is terrific, maybe we ought to believe musical legend Stephen Sondheim. Probably Broadway’s greatest composer, well, ever, Sondheim also wrote the lyrics to the original 1957 Broadway version of “West Side Story” (with a book by Arthur Laurents and music by Leonard Bernstein). So while he’s never one to “tout my own work,” as he joked on last night’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” he assured audiences that Spielberg’s new movie is indeed excellent.

“It’s really terrific,” Sondheim said of the film. “Everybody go. You’ll really have a good time. And for those of you who know the show, there’s going to be some real surprises.”

Sondheim said that’s because of Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, who has received two screenplay Oscar nominations for adapting the Spielberg films “Munich” and “Lincoln.”

Sondheim said Kushner “has done some really imaginative and surprising things with the way the songs are used in the story, and the whole thing has real sparkle to it and real energy, and it feels fresh. It’s really first-grade, and movie musicals are hard to do and this one, Spielberg and Kushner really, really nailed it.”

That’s definitely telling a different story than the one Sondheim shared about the original “West Side Story” movie directed by Robert Wise. The composer wasn’t too keen on that iteration, which won a whopping 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. During a National Theatre Q&A in 2016 (via AV Club), Sondheim said, “I don’t think ‘West Side Story’’s a good movie at all because it’s not a movie. It’s a photograph of a stage. When I see a gang of juvenile delinquents dancing down a real street, Broadway, in color-coordinated sneakers, with color-coordinated wash on the line behind them, I’m not scared.”

Spielberg’s reimagining of the beloved musical stars Ansel Elgort (Tony); Rachel Zegler (María); Ariana DeBose (Anita); David Alvarez (Bernardo); Mike Faist (Riff); Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino); Ana Isabelle (Rosalía); Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank); Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke); and Rita Moreno (as Valentina, who owns the corner store in which Tony works). Moreno — one of only three artists to be honored with Academy, Emmy, GRAMMY, Tony, and Peabody Awards — also serves as one of the film’s executive producers.

Watch the Colbert clip below.

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