Film & TV

‘West Side Story’: The Music Survives Socialist Realism

TIMEDecember 20, 2021

The new film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical play “West Side Story” opened Dec. 10 to the conundrum of rave reviews and limp box office. Why director Steven Spielberg decided that the highly celebrated, Oscar-winning 1961 film of this musical needed remaking is anyone’s guess. If his purpose was to update the script to reflect current politically correct attitudes, he succeeded.

Tony Kushner’s screenplay includes several laughable interpolations of present cultural beliefs, including the pointless inclusion of the Puerto Rican national anthem sung with raised fists. Another is the evolution of tomboy character Anybodys into a fully trans female-to-male whose monstrous physical strength somehow allows her/him to beat up a roomful of police officers.

West Side Story Ansel Elgort as Tony
Tony (Ansel Elgort) at the dance, where he meets Maria, in “West Side Story.” (Twentieth Century Studios)

Playwright Arthur Laurents’s original script has been replaced with dialogue and action straight out of socialist realism. A major example: In the stage musical and in the 1961 film, when Tony and Maria first see each other at the dance at the gym, a kind of magical portal is opened in which they see each other and nothing else. But socialist realism admits only of material “reality,” so Kushner has the pair sneak into a curtained-off area. It ruins the moment. But more than that, it clashes absurdly with the following anti-realistic scene, in which Tony sings “Maria! Maria! Maria!” ecstatically as he roams the neighborhood.

Updated Script Plus Original Music Equals … ?

The one thing that Spielberg failed to alter, and was presumably forbidden to alter by dint of contract, is Leonard Bernstein’s glowing score. It is his undoing. While Kushner’s script pushes the political and Spielberg’s direction substitutes naturalistic violence for the stylized violence-as-ballet of the 1961 film, the music has undergone only minor alterations of arrangement and orchestration. Its four core ballads—“Maria,” “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere”—exalt the feelings of its protagonists in a way only possible in the classically influenced music of pre-1960s standard popular music, clashing with the hyper-realistic vision of Spielberg–Kushner.

Bernstein c 1948
Leonard Bernstein (circa 1948) composed the music for “West Side Story.” (New York World-Telegram and Sun)

As I point out in my book, “Experiencing Leonard Bernstein,” Bernstein composed the score for “West Side Story” at precisely the last moment such music would have been permissible for stories of teenaged gangs. In 1957, rock ‘n’ roll was new and was not yet the only music on the scene. Bebop was a thing. Bernstein consulted Count Basie to help with understanding the changing language of jazz. This shows up in some of the music for the dance at the gym and in the song “Cool.” Rock ‘n’ roll is absent, while traditional ballad forms familiar from the Gershwin brothers to Rodgers and Hammerstein dominate.

Just in Time

Another few years and this musical language would’ve seemed hopelessly archaic for the subject. Imagine “West Side Story” being written in 1965 with the same score, ignoring the advance of rock music and the changing sensibilities of teens. It would’ve been a bad joke. The score for “West Side Story” represents an older sensibility captured in musical aspic and invulnerable to interpretations that impose on it the inept silliness of socialist realism.

Such criticism as has been leveled at this “West Side Story” has been, predictably, that it does not go far enough in a culturally Left direction. To do so would have been possible only by replacing Bernstein’s music with hip-hop and current pop. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are almost incidental, and Sondheim’s role in shaping “West Side Story” has been overemphasized. He disliked the show and didn’t even write all the lyrics. The more romantic ones, such as for “One Hand, One Heart,” were written by Bernstein, who was originally to have shared lyric-writing credit.

The Music in Musical Theater

On the other hand, I suspect that the outpouring of admiration for the film has to do with seeing once more the great songs of this score on the big screen. I have never heard “One Hand, One Heart” performed with greater feeling than it is in this film. “Somewhere” triumphs, even in its reassignment to the new character of the drugstore owner’s widow. The fiery “Mambo” in the gym (which Bernstein composed after a trip to Puerto Rico) blazes with energy. And the outright operatic nature of the Maria–Anita duet, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” is a stunning reminder that the composers of musical theater used to be educated in the legacy of classical singing.

West Side Story WSS 1961 Wood Moreno
Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno star in the 1961 film “West Side Story.” (Mirisch Pictures and Seven Arts Productions)

Traditional American musical theater is closer to the fantastic sensibilities of opera than to any form of realism, let alone the socialist variety. The major venue for this condition is the music, in this case the last of Bernstein’s four musical theater scores prior to his taking on the mantle of music director for the New York Philharmonic in 1958. It is strong music, fit to survive any misreading, even this one.

Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He's the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).