According to a recent casting call announcement, there may be a West Side Story remake in the works. Reportedly, Steven Spielberg is attached to direct, and the casting call asks for actors of Latinx descent. Ergo, the movie, if it's made, financed, distributed and publicised properly, is going to be a big deal. (Refinery29 has reached out to 20th Century Fox, which is rumoured to be producing.) Vanity Fair points out that Spielberg has mentioned this project before in interviews, although that doesn't even mean a project will get made. Still, the casting call looks promising, and, high off the success of The Greatest Showman, Hollywood might just give us a Big Deal movie musical. Remember in 2013 when Les Miserables swarmed the awards shows? Anne Hathaway took home an Oscar for it! The movie won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, comedy or musical (this being one of the few instances the word "musical" need be applied).
So, West Side Story is on the up-and-up, and if Steven Spielberg's involved, it's going to be the talk of the office in, say, 2021. (Or never!) This has me feeling all sorts of conflicted because West Side Story is a beautiful show. But big giant movie musicals tend to be aggressively mawkish. (See: The Greatest Showman.) West Side Story: The New Movie might be terribly, terribly great, or it could go terribly, terribly wrong. I'm battening down the hatches for bad news, but hoping for good news.
Here's how it goes terribly: Spielberg, in the interest of a newsworthy movie, casts big names in the leading roles. Like, say Zac Efron earns the role of Tony. (Whoops did I write that out loud?) Then, Efron shimmies his way through the part — and don't get me wrong, my high school self has all sorts of feelings — but his rendition of "Maria" sounds more like Daft Punk than Josh Groban. Another terrible potential situation: Josh Groban plays Tony.
Les Miserables, another Big Movie Musical developed with prestige in mind, succeeded largely on its star power. It had a big director, Tom Hooper, who also directed The King's Speech and The Danish Girl. It also had Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and Helena Bonham Carter and Amanda Seyfried and Sacha Baron Cohen and Anne Hathaway. The movie itself was middling, earning a score of 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. The (notoriously venomous) critic Anthony Lane declared the movie full of "basic, inflationary bombast" and The Guardian compared it to experiencing a "prolonged assault." The kinder reviews lingered on Anne Hathaway's performance of the song "I Dreamed a Dream," which, hey, won her the Oscar. The more vituperative parts of the internet went after Russell Crowe's deadened performance. (He's in a rock band, but, in the movie, he sung as if he were providing backup vocals for Bon Iver.) Despite the critical roasting, the movie was a box office smash, earning $148 million in North America in total.
All this means the movie was forgettable, a criminal act to do to such a bullish musical. Les Mis may be grandiose, and, if done right, sneakily affecting, but forgettable it is not. Hooper's musical stands as a warning to all Oscar-hopeful musicals: This is what can happen to you if Hollywood gets a hold of you.
Chicago proved in 2002 that musicals can leap to the screen with some success, although not without some deft casting and camerawork. Chicago, which won an Oscar for Best Picture, succeeded by elevating theme over presentation. Chicago is about the ways we use fantasy to ignore social flaws. So, the movie gave us two narratives: The fantasy narrative in Roxy's (Renée Zellweger) mind, and her bleak reality. Her fantasy was the musical theatre part of the movie; director Rob Marshall effectively used musical theatre and its grandiose styling to highlight Roxy's delusion.
West Side Story isn't as grandiose a show as Les Mis, nor does it have the razzle dazzle of Chicago. The music is less ambitious, and it's not based on a Victor Hugo novel, for starters. But it's just dramatic as Les Miserables ("How many can I kill, Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?") — and it's dealing with more prevalent themes like gentrification, emigration, and racial intolerance. These are all extremely relevant given our current political climate. It maps the story of Romeo & Juliet atop 1950s Manhattan, and even goes so far as to name it after the Upper West Side.
The original movie has more than a few missteps. Namely, the Puerto Rican Jets were cast with white actors. Natalie Wood, who is not Latinx, played Maria. She also didn't sing in the role; the longtime singer-dubber Marni Nixon sang for her. (Les Miserables, at least, made its actors sing.) The saving grace of the movie was Rita Moreno, who should 100% make a return for the reported remake.
In 2009, when the show made its way back to Broadway, it featured Latinx performers in the roles of the Puerto Rican Jets. Josefina Scaglione, an Argentinian opera singer, took the role of Maria. Lin-Manuel Miranda translated portions of the songs into Spanish. Later, some of the lyrics were traded back to the original English after audiences "weren't getting" the Spanish.
In my hopeful 2021 future, West Side Story is a huge hit, and none of the actors are well-known. Young & Hungry's Aimee Carrero plays Maria. Better yet, my new favourite pop sensation Camila Cabello. For Tony, I want Taron Egerton, Grant Gustin, or Garrett Clayton. I will allow Darren Criss to be Riff. And John C. Reilly can be Officer Krupke if he so wishes.
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