West Side Story

West Side Story: Steven Spielberg Talks to Us About Why It’s Still Relevant

Dept. of Chats and Confabs


Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story was a revelation. 60 years after the first screen adaptation, he still manages to give his version new life, grounding it, modernizing it, and infusing it with the kind of diversity that was both long overdue and necessary to elevate it for a contemporary audience.

In this Goggler exclusive, we sat down with the legendary filmmaker for a conversation about his first encounters with the musical, the philosophy behind his interpretation, and why it remains so relevant today.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan:  So, last night I was having a debate with my wife on whether I call you sir, or Steven, or Mr. Spielberg. 

Steven Spielberg: Oh no. Please, it’s just Steven.

UA: We decided to go with all three. So, Mr. Steven Spielberg sir, it’s a pleasure to speak to you.

SS: *Laughs*

UA: Theater, unlike cinema, is always changing. With every show, with every director, with every cast, with every staging. And if I may be so bold, watching your version of West Side Story didn’t feel like an adaptation, or a remake, but rather an interpretation. And I was wondering if that was your approach to making this movie.

SS: I was not remaking the 1961 film at all. Everybody knew from the outset that everything was based on the 1957 musical. Every single note that Leonard Bernstein wrote, and every lyric Stephen Sondheim wrote, was my template for planning the sequences, planning my set pieces, and planning my shots. I storyboarded to the original Broadway cast album, and everything was about reimagining that which was very contemporary and very relevant in 1957. But also having to shift that to become something that would be authentic to this generation, to the young kids today who will hopefully see the film. 

Many of them have never heard of West Side Story and don’t even know that there was a movie made in 1961, or a play written and produced on Broadway in 1957. This needed to be a story of our time, albeit set in 1957 still, and that was sort of the marching orders that all of us had.

West Side Story

UA: Do you recall your first encounter with the musical?

SS: I was 10 years old when I heard the record for the first time. That’s how old I was. And so, what were the things that appealed to me? The melodies. I didn’t understand all the words, but I understood the melody, and I understood the words on certain songs like “One Hand, One Heart.” I understood the words of “Gee Officer Krupke!.” That was the first song I memorized because a 10-year-old kid would memorize the most upbeat song in the entire musical. I had that song memorized within two hours and I sang it at dinner that night. My parents hadn’t even listened to the album yet. I had heard it first and had absconded with it. 

So that was the thing that first attracted me to the musical. The passion of the orchestra. Just listening to that New York orchestra play those huge orchestral themes that almost sounded like a celebration. And then, on the other hand, a funeral, or a memorial. And the music went from joy to deep, tragic sorrow, and it really affected me as a kid emotionally. 

SS: Eventually, I got a chance to read the play. This was probably when I was about, I don’t know, 15-years-old. That’s when I got a chance to read Arthur Laurents’ great words. And then when I started having children, I have all these home movies and home videos of my kids growing up, and we’re all running around the house on weekends doing all the numbers in West Side Story. I’ve got all my kids playing Bernardo and Maria. They’re playing Anita. They’re playing Tony. And I’ve got all my kids lip syncing to the original Broadway score. So not only did I have my parents gift me with that record, but I tried to give that record to my kids as well.

In a sense, it was a foregone conclusion that someday, 64 years after the original play, I would have a chance to reimagine West Side Story with this great team of collaborators. 

West Side Story

UA: The themes of the movie – racism and othering, fear and violence – still resonate incredibly strongly today. Having lived with this story for so long now, what answers have you discovered?

SS: I have always felt that the effort to have a conversation is simply to sit down and have a conversation, as opposed to violently or ideologically stating your position without bringing your ears to the to the discussion. I think that’s the initial problem with the Sharks and the Jets, and a problem that we see happening every single day, and has been for many, many years in this country. There is less listening and more of just the stating of one’s position. 

Like Romeo and Juliet – although there was no racial component to Romeo and Juliet – I really feel that there would have been a bit of different outcome had Tony been there at the first war council in West Side Story. But of course there’s no drama if you do that. But just to make my point, I always felt that when I came out the other end of West Side Story, my hope was that it would be a cautionary tale. One that tells us that we just need to get into rooms with people we don’t agree with and talk about everything.

UA: I watch the original at least once a year, and I’m such a big fan, but I’ve never, ever cried. Watching yours yesterday, however, at that moment when Tony and Maria are saying their goodbyes on the fire escape, that was the first time I cried watching West Side Story. So thank you.

SS: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. 

You can read our review of West Side Story here. You can also read about all the major differences between the 1961 movie and Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation here.

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