Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ Grapples with History
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Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ Grapples with History

The new film version of the legendary musical is a major financial disappointment.

Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” released last month to nearly unanimous critical acclaim, is officially a box office flop. The remake of the 1957 Broadway hit, which officially opened in theaters around the country on Dec. 10, recorded dismal ticket sales during the holiday season.

By year’s end, the film, which was developed over a three-year period and cost $100 million to produce — and tens of millions more to market — had brought in only about $36.5 million in ticket sales worldwide.

That’s in sharp contrast to a very different film, “Spiderman: No Way Home,” which reportedly brought in over $1.05 billion following its Dec. 17 debut.

Industry observers blamed the box office slump on a variety of factors, including the lack of a bankable film star in the largely talented cast of young actors; the uptick in COVID infections that began about the same time, keeping older audiences at home; and the film’s inability to fully capitalize on the magic of Spielberg’s name.

Nonetheless, the film resonates with the emotional power that has marked Spielberg’s finest work. In his retelling of this classic, he has brought into focus the very personal story of two young people caught up in a cycle of violence they can’t control. At the same time, this major work conveys in no uncertain terms the implications of the dangers that such violence poses to our society, then and now. Perhaps the greater tragedy, though, is that, in the first month of its release, the film has yet to find a larger audience.

Natalie Wood played Maria in the 1961 film version of the play.

It was a much different story in early October 1961, when the first film version of the play opened at the Rivoli Theater in New York City’s Times Square. The film was what was then called a roadshow release, meaning that, just like in the theater, audiences reserved tickets in advance for screenings limited to afternoon and evening performances, with an upscale atmosphere and an intermission between acts. Tickets were sold for $3, roughly six times what an average movie admission cost.

Still, those first performances in New York were sold out until the early spring. Even then, cutting out the coupon in your local newspaper and mailing it in with your check didn’t always guarantee you a seat. Over its three-year distribution window in the early 1960s, the film — which cost $7 million to make — grossed $55 million, which today would be over $500 million. It also won 10 Academy Awards. (The film’s soundtrack was ranked by Billboard Magazine as the number one album in America for 54 weeks, a record that has yet to be broken.)

It was yet another milestone for the record-setting production, which brought to life a musical unlike anything Broadway had ever seen. In its complex and heavily orchestrated score by composer Leonard Bernstein and its often-poignant lyrics, written by a young Stephen Sondheim, it seemed to reach beyond established Broadway traditions toward forms often reserved for modern opera.

In its book, by Arthur Laurents (born Arthur Levine, in Brooklyn), the stage play borrowed heavily from Shakespeare’s tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet, transposed to what were then the decaying slums of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The ancient family rivalries between Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets were replaced with the savage contests of will between two teen gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Their struggle for control of the streets, as envisaged by choreographer Jerome Robbins (born Jerome Rabinowitz, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side), entangles two lovers from opposing sides — the Puerto Rican Maria and the Polish Tony — that leads to death and despair.

Yet, despite the tragedy of the source material and all its allusions to American culture of the 1950s, it is, as many have noted, essentially a love story, lifted by melody and song.

For Andrea Most, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, it is also a uniquely American love story.

“To champion romantic love, even romantic love thwarted by violence,” Most writes in “Theatrical Liberalism,” “to insist that romantic love is the redemptive force that can break down the barriers of prejudice, lies at the heart of what makes this version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ so distinctly an American musical of the 1950s.

How, then, is this star-crossed tale of love, which plays out so strongly in the 1961 film version, updated 60 years later to reflect a very different America? In Spielberg’s version, which has been shaped by screenwriter Tony Kushner, there are other issues to highlight.

For one, there’s a new emphasis on ethnicity and the concerns of ethnic migration. Guns are more prominent and their role in everyday violence gets more attention. The divide between neighbors, so much a part of the 1950s drama, now alludes to the political divide that cleaves America.

The 1950s musical reflected the artistic sensibilities of four urban Jews who saw love as the answer to much of what afflicted us then. In the new film, Kushner and Spielberg have crafted a much darker and more politically nuanced drama.

But if the financial statistics of the last month are any measure, audiences aren’t buying it. In the theater where I watched the film on a Tuesday afternoon, soon after it opened, only a half-dozen seats were filled.

What’s missing in Spielberg’s film is the shock of a new kind of musical, so much a part of the original production, and a new kind of theatrical lyricism that made audiences scramble for tickets. The weight of history is heavy, and it’s obviously presented a major challenge to the creators of this production.

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