Find me a William Shakespeare story that has not been given a modern twist. Some of these include the more recent takes, like 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, which is the Bard’s Taming of the Shrew in a late, turn of the twenty-first century high school setting. Perhaps the Elizabethan poet and playwright’s most iconic work is Romeo and Juliet, and this has inspired many versions retelling the classic tale of the star-crossed title lovers. One could be led to think Shakespeare invented the subject, although it is a concept that goes back to some of the earliest days of the written word. Put in Disney-phonics, it is “. . . a tale as old as time.” With such a cultural legacy with which to contend, you want to approach it with a certain level of gravitas. Hence, while walking out of the theater, I asked my special someone what she thought of the latest interpretation of Romeo and Juliet in West Side Story (2021). In her wonderfully positive way, she said that she found it “okay.” I cut right through any backhanded flattery: I was bored and we giggled about this the whole way to the car.
Set in the late 1950s in the Upper West Side district of Manhattan known as San Juan Hill, West Side Story is about people dealing with change, literally and figuratively. The film beats you over the head with this theme from the outset, showing white and Hispanic (mainly Puerto Rican) gangs fighting for control over a crumbling city-scape undergoing demolition in order to make way for modern high-rise apartments. The first group you meet are the Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), the white clan. Their goal is to push off the Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), the Puerto Rican crew. The Jets move en masse into the San Juan neighborhood, provoking the Sharks by painting over a Puerto Rican flag. After a small tussle, which is hard to take seriously in a musical as it involves dancing and singing, they are pulled apart by the arrival of Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll). Lieutenant Schrank, in particular, delivers a withering and racially charged diatribe about how both sides are a bunch of degenerates. Regardless, Bernardo and Riff manage to come face-to-face and agree to a “rumble,” a sort of winner-take-all battle for ultimate gang control of the district. Riff’s next move is to visit his old compatriot and friend Tony (Ansel Gort) for help in the planned struggle. Tony, out of jail on parole, is attempting to live an honest life and not get involved in the Jet ways, thus refusing Riff’s advances. One thing he cannot say no to, despite answering to the contrary, is attending the local dance where the rumble is slated to happen. Also planning to make an appearance at this event is Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler). While the Jets and the Sharks, along with their dates, size each other up on the dance floor, Maria and Tony lay eyes upon each other and it is love at first sight. As for the arranged rumble, it is postponed, thanks to female intervention, but not before Bernardo agrees to Riff’s terms, which include Tony being present. Bernardo seeks to harm Tony for interacting with his sister. Afterwards, a starstruck Romeo, er, I mean Tony wanders the streets singing his heart out, and happens upon Juliet’s, er, Maria’s balcony, er, fire escape. They agree to meet the next day to spend some time together. At this point, they decide to run off with each other, but Maria does not want to do so without there first being peace established between Tony and Bernardo. Tony believes Riff is the key to this problem. Meanwhile, Riff, seeking to get an upper hand in the upcoming rumble, obtains a handgun. When Tony finally catches up with Riff and discovers that the Jets have obtained a pistol, he tries to convince them not to go through with the rumble. This results in Tony tagging along to the fight where he attempts to reason with Bernardo. None of his efforts work, and after Bernardo kills Riff, Tony immediately murders Bernardo in revenge. Everyone scatters at this point. The Jets take refuge at Valentina’s (Rita Moreno) drug store where Tony had been staying. It is there that Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) delivers the false message that Maria had been killed, doing so after the Jets had attempted to rape her. When Tony learns of this, he takes to the streets to find the perpetrator, a one-time suitor of Maria’s named Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera). Unfortunately, Chino had picked up the accidentally discarded handgun from the rumble, and uses it to shoot Tony dead. Adding to the tragedy, this comes as Maria appears on the scene, suitcase packed, ready to leave with Tony. She picks up the gun points, it at some of the gathered gang members, but is unable to pull the trigger. Instead, she joins the procession as the combined crews carry Tony’s body away.
I used the word tragedy in talking about the end of West Side Story because it thematically mirrors its source material. There is one change: the Juliet analog does not die. In the original story, when Juliet awakens and sees her slain lover next to her, she, in turn, takes her own life. That is a complicated way of saying they both commit suicide. Hence, if literally nothing else, my Catholic conscience did not have to deal with that double whammy to the soul. Crucially, though, there seems to be a disconnect with this version and its audience. It could be some of the more subtle departures not only from Shakespeare, but I am guessing also from the 1961 iteration. This last bit is speculation as I have not seen it, thankfully. It seems to me, though, that the chemistry between Maria and Tony is lacking. I suppose love at first sight can be a thing. Yet, I could not get over the fact that they had known each other for the sum total of roughly twelve hours before Tony is out in the streets yelling for Chino’s head. I mean, kids these days, am I right? Or those days. Whatever. The point is that it could not be true love motivating these actions. Granted, Tony did attempt to play the peacemaker, but then he inexplicably stabs to death the one person his supposed lover had asked him to win over, Bernardo. I say “inexplicably” because his relationship with Riff is not one I would call close, even if they attempt to make it seem that way through dialog. So, if murder, lies, and other criminal behavior is what true romance means, then call me unromantic.
There is a fair bit of Catholic ephemera in West Side Story. Each of the warring factions appear to come from Roman stock. You see each wearing crucifixes, as well as those particular symbols adorning their homes. There is also a scene of the Puerto Ricans attending Mass, and a few of the Sharks kneeling and praying around a candle with the image of the Virgin Mary. I have to confess, however, to seeing these things and thinking about my training and research as an American historian. Inner city ethnic groups competing with one another for neighborhoods did not begin in 1957, nor is it a unique cinematic theme. You can see the same struggles occurring in films like Gangs of New York (2002). Given my knowledge of this history and Shakespeare’s words, and my already established distaste for musicals, I let myself rest my eyes during a few of the musical numbers. Give me In the Heights any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.