Tony Kushner Deconstructed ‘West Side Story’ for Steven Spielberg – Until He ‘Started Making Sh*t Up’

On his third collaboration with Spielberg (with a fourth coming up), the writer added characters, shuffled songs, and waited for the director to improvise on set.
Paloma Garcia-Lee as Graziella, Mike Faist as Riff, David Alvarez as Bernardo, and Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
"West Side Story"
Niko Tavernise

You can’t remake a Hollywood and Broadway musical classic without breaking a few eggs. Long-time Steven Spielberg collaborator and “Angels in America” Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner knew that from his very first discussions with the director, who came to him in 2017 to adapt the 1957 “West Side Story” musical into a second movie. Their shared goal: make the story and characters deeper, richer, and more authentic to the period, from the history of juvenile delinquency in the ’50s and the San Juan Hill neighborhood razed to build Lincoln Center to the roots of Puerto Rican New York.

While Kushner and Spielberg addressed the Arthur Laurents book and music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim with respect, there was no point in updating the story if they weren’t going to change it. Here’s what they did and why. At this point we assume you know the story: spoilers abound.

The bombed-out rubble setting came from Kushner watching “West Side Story” in his Lincoln Towers apartment with his husband, film writer Mark Harris. “In the prologue, when the Jets are charging at the Sharks, they run up a berm of dirt and throw rotten vegetables and garbage below,” Kushner said in a phone interview. “If you look past the foreground, it’s as terrifying as Hiroshima, with scorched earth and building foundations all way to the Hudson River. They filmed on 65th: they were waiting to tear down that street until the filming was done.”

From the start, Spielberg told Kushner, who attacks his research like an historian, he wanted the movie “to be about new arrivals and racism and xenophobia,” the writer said, “and the effect of poverty on the street kids the Jets and the Sharks. We want to see how harsh their lives are, living in slums being torn down around them.”

They added Spanish

Kushner figured out that the 1961 movie shortchanged the Sharks in terms of representation. “There is a balance in the score, but the Jets have more songs than the Sharks,” he said. “The division is not just Jets and Sharks, but male and female. On the male side, white people are Jets, and the female side are Puerto Ricans. Bernardo (David Alvarez) is the main Puerto Rican character, but if you add in the two Puerto Rican women, Anita (Ariana DeBose) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), there’s more of a balance.”

So the Sharks got a couple of scenes after the rumble; Kushner added the boxing ring and enlarged the role of Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera). Spielberg and Kushner agreed that these new arrivals to New York were bilingual and struggling to learn to speak English.

“We want to have a lot more Spanish,” Kushner told him. After some debate about subtitles, they sweated over making the Spanish easy to understand. (Kushner did not touch Sondheim’s lyrics.)

David Alvarez as Bernardo Vasquez in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
David Alvarez as Bernardo in “West Side Story”Niko Tavernise

As far as Spielberg was concerned, it was about “being legible,” said Kushner. “It’s a political democratic principle: no one is left behind. He doesn’t dumb it down. He doesn’t over-explain. He’s brilliant at figuring out how to keep everybody on board.” A group of consultants and translators formed a study group with five actors of Puerto Ricans descent in the cast. “They discussed every line in the script. They would call their grandmothers: ‘Did they say this in 1950?'”

Even the fight scenes with Anita, Bernardo, and Maria had to nail the question of Anita being a Prieta, or a dark-skinned woman, said Kushner: “The color line is a real issue, everybody writes about it.” That’s why Spielberg actively looked for an Afro-Latino actress to play Anita or Maria. “Anita is a character of immense power and dignity,” Kushner said. “Actors help you to get it right. It’s not a coincidence that the part was created by Chita Rivera, and done in the film by film Rita Moreno, who is Puerto Rican.”

Women are powerful, too, especially to Kushner. “It may be true of all immigrant cultures, but in the old country Jewish men aspired to be scholars and sages and rabbis, and women were workhorses,” he said. “The women were the glue that held families and communities together. That’s part of where Anita comes from. One thing the Jews and Latin cultures have in common is a powerful matriarchal presence.”

"West Side Story"
“West Side Story”Disney/20th Century Studios

They juggled the songs

As Kushner revisited the beloved “West Side Story” cast album he grew up with, he realized, “the songs are there,” but it needed some tweaking. “It’s a perfect score written for a Broadway musical,” he said. “But I do have to retrace, as I am rethinking this and restructuring it; I have to work my way through every song, asking, ‘How does the story continue?'”

As he dug into the mechanics of the musical, he noticed differences between the 1957 Broadway and the 1961 movie versions. And he decided to make changes of his own, with the blessing of Sondheim. (The two briefly flirted with writing a musical together.)

For one thing, Kushner added the character Valentina as the original shop owner Doc’s widow, played by Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for playing Anita in 1962. She sings “Something’s Coming” with Tony (Ansel Elgort). “She’s singing to herself and the memory of her husband and herself,” said Kushner. “‘Something’s Coming’ is a reason to sing to Valentina. It’s not just him alone.”

Mark Harris had joked that they should get rid of Doc by turning him into a Puerto Rican woman and cast Moreno. “I called Steve and he loved it,” said Kushner. “The relationship between Valentina and Tony began to develop. It was moving. I met her, love her work. She’s a genuine great actress, a comic genius. The part kept getting bigger.”

But she needed a song. Kushner decided to give her “Somewhere,” which reduces movie audiences to tears and could land Moreno another Oscar nod. The 1961 movie had Maria singing over her fallen lover, but in the original musical, “Somewhere” was sung during a dream ballet that filled the spot when Tony and Maria are sleeping together.

“It’s not Tony and Maria,” said Kushner. “They didn’t want to have Tony and Maria fucking onstage. It’s very touching, it’s one the earliest manifestations of popular culture, of the youth revolution that’s coming, as other young people are singing.”

In this case, the move was so radical that Kushner needed Sondheim to say it was fine, which he did, as well as Spielberg. He also checked with the Bernstein estate. “It works,” said Kushner. “‘Somewhere’ is the specific Puerto Rican experience and Latino experience. By putting Rita in the movie, we’re making a conscious connection that is both an homage to the ’61 film, but more than that, she’s one of the great actresses. When you watch her sing ‘Somewhere,’ you’re meant to feel, to think about the 60 years between that movie and this movie, what hasn’t been achieved and hasn’t been. It’s an archive, a song of yearning, tragedy, and hope.”

Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.
Rita Moreno as Valentina “West Side Story”Niko Tavernise

For the balcony scene, Spielberg and Kushner went back to Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” for “the best balcony scene ever,” said Kushner. “The mistake everyone makes, it’s too easy for Romeo. They can’t reach each other. That’s the reason Shakespeare put it on a balcony. They have to do these amazing speeches to heat them up so much that he climbs the wall. At the beginning he can’t get to her. We put in a locked fire escape grate. They literally physically can’t get together. Tony’s out on the scaffolding and cooks up the temperature when he sings. Steven and I talked about it and he did storyboard. But finally things get magical on set, when he starts making shit up. The filming of the fire escape scene was out of this world!”

And Kushner shifted some settings  — for example, putting Tony and Maria at The Cloisters for “One Hand, One Heart” — “amid all these tombs, pledging ’til death do us part, only death will part us now,'” he said. “It’s there at the beginning, part of what makes love so powerful is the admission of mortality.”

And Kushner wanted to up the ante on the dance numbers (choreographed by Justin Peck). “I was thinking about the Jets as a pack of white street brats left behind by previous immigrant generations,” he said. “The Irish ran gangs on the docklands on the West Side into the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, and after World War II the mafia took over. With ‘Cool,’ we have to do something spectacular dance-wise. Everyone loves the rooftop for ‘America,’ so we have to have some competition with the 1961 film. We don’t want to disappoint fans who want something different.”

He and Spielberg looked at YouTube Parkour videos of teenage boys on French construction sites, including dangerous demolished piers. “They could play a scary game of Keep Away,” Kushner said. “At first it was just Riff and the other Jets playing Keep Away with the gun. But Steven was nervous that we had a long stretch when we didn’t see Tony and Maria, which was a problem. ‘Oh! What if it’s not just Riff, and Tony shows up to play Keep Away.’ Riff and Tony: we ran with it and turned into a real moment of development.”

WEST SIDE STORY, Mike Faist, 2021. ph: Niko Tavernise /© 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection
“West Side Story”©20th Century Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

The original inspiration for “West Side Story,” Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” also added some context for Mike Faist’s Riff as Mercutio. In the original, “clearly Mercutio is not a leader of anything, he’s a cousin,” said Kushner, “but something is wrong with him. He’s a great poet, seething with anger and lust, and adores Romeo. Mercutio is a crazy tragic figure, that’s interesting for Riff.”

“West Side Story” departs from “Romeo and Juliet” in that Shakespeare makes the point that the Capulets and Montagues can’t remember why they hate each other so much; their violence is senseless. “Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein decided it should be about race,” Kushner said. “Catholics and Jews on the East Side: that went nowhere. ‘East Side Story’ was the original idea. Montgomery Clift suggested to Jerome Robbins that he do a musical of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ For two or three years it came to a screeching halt. They couldn’t find anything worth telling.”

By Kushner’s account, Laurents and Bernstein were hanging by the pool at Chateau Marmont while Laurents was working on a screenplay for “Rope” and Bernstein was composing the score for “On the Waterfront.” They heard about gang fights in Los Angeles. Laurents said to Bernstein, “make it ‘West or LA Story,’ with Chicanos against whites.” Bernstein said, “Why not move it to New York: make it Puerto Ricans against whites.” They called Jerome Robbins and he said “Great, but I have some issues.”

From these progressives back in their day to liberals Kushner and Spielberg, no one wanted to make the xenophobic white Irish gang into villains. The way to manage that: make the Jets and the Sharks teenagers. “They’re forgivable,” said Kushner. “In their twenties, they’re career criminals. A fucked-up kid, maybe they need help, maybe they can change.

That’s where all that comic-book, corny teenage boy talk comes in. “They’re kids,” said Kushner. “That’s why we need to have a Juliet who is 16. Listen to her talk. She doesn’t know what death is. It’s spooky, she’s a bit of a Goth. She’s cool, it’s titillating and arousing. She doesn’t get the absolute finality, she’s so adolescent. That’s why teenagers are at risk; they don’t understand death is for keeps.”

Sondheim wasn’t the original choice as lyricist. It was supposed to be Bernstein’s “On the Town” collaborators Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were sidelined on another project. Laurents met Sondheim at a party. And eventually, Bernstein made sure that Sondheim got full credit for writing the songs, which were simpler than his others, because they were written for kids.

“Part of his greatness lay in treating every song like a dramatic monologue,” said Kushner. “What would this person have sounded like? The ‘Tonight’ lyrics are not meant to be great poetry; they’re sung by two teenagers. They are meant to be immature.”

"West Side Story"
“West Side Story”Disney

Spielberg’s new finale

For the ending, Kushner was following the sentimental beats of the 1961 movie — until Spielberg took over on set. “It was 2 a.m. and he was filming the ending and doing something different,” said Kushner. “I got upset. He showed me video of the shot through the fire escape. It’s so tough. He’s not letting anybody off the hook. He ends this movie in the grit, in the reality of a young Latino guy bound in cuffs in a police car. The fire escape became the bars of prison. That came from him.”

…and Oscars are coming

The 1961 “West Side Story” won ten Oscars, including Best Picture, a tough act to follow. The biggest threat facing Disney’s “West Side Story” as an Oscar contender is some audiences’ resistance to the idea of remaking the movie in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s not about some crass commercial motive on Spielberg’s part. Broadway movie musicals are hardly box office gold, even if global smashes like “Mamma Mia!” ($603.6 million) and its sequel “Here We Go Again” ($395 million) and “Les Miserables” ($438 million) encouraged studios to put a dozen musicals into the 2020/2021 pipeline. But in the pandemic era, many adult audiences who might have bought tickets to “West Side Story” stayed away from its exclusive theater runs ($53 million worldwide) just as they did for Warner Bros./HBO Max’s day-and-date “In the Heights” ($43.6 million) and Universal flop “Dear Evan Hansen” ($17.5 million). (Other musicals, like Amazon’s “Everybody’s Talking about Jamie,” are going straight to streaming.)

On the other, theater and film classics are often remade, over and over, from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” to Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” and Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice.” Why not reinvent “West Side Story” for a new generation? That’s what Spielberg and Kushner tried to do, with Sondheim’s blessing, which he shared with Stephen Colbert before he died.

“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.” That’s because Kushner, he said, “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.”

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