West Side Story: The Musical review – face the music

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Spielberg wants a remake of the 1951 classic to set the record straight

Once upon a time, “America” was a melting pot. You looked at the giant Passover-like crowds enjoying beach holidays in Miami over the weekend, and it felt like a different planet.

But that was back in 1954.

Spielberg’s latest production remake of West Side Story, West Side Story: The Musical, begins way back in 1962.

In the country of Rubio, the breakdancing kids grow up and are trying to make something of themselves in an environment of exploitation and violence.

That’s in the parochial surroundings of Pacific Palisades. Now a Cuban community has immigrated, and salsa and hip-hop collide with their way of life in New York.

Don’t get caught between the petty crimes and the gangsters. This is not where you want to live.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The music spans the range of Latin rhythms, like Puerto Rican bolero

It is in this world that the teenagers in the show are gangbangers who try to watch their biggest star die of cancer before the shoot of the biggest blockbuster, Next World, to be filmed in their neighbourhood.

In real life, this is the world of drugs, gangs and poverty but it is also the world of urban migration, migration that we can now imagine and create within our screens.

Those who set out to produce a modern-day parable have found themselves at the unprecedented intersection of the modern world, the film culture of Hollywood and the world around them.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Eljio Gomes, Keala Settle and Tony Shalhoub star in the remake

Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Greenberg) has written the script. The musical is not her first brush with hard luck. She was a teenage actress of Puerto Rican descent in the early 1990s.

She has said that she felt a duty to the new Hollywood generation to tell the story of how “these young people lived it. To try to not only get half of the story right, but to get the other two-thirds right as well.”

She has given in a couple of ways. First there is the conflict of white versus minority life and a song – Dance Without You – says it all.

Second, she has turned the original into a non-musical about a street gang. That’s certainly the subtext for this version.

“It’s a reframing for the band,” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the playwright of television’s Big Little Lies said.

“The big musicals are technically almost impossible to do because they’re all so big, in so many different places.

“The West Side Story they have done here is about the gangs of New York, about this New York City.

“The fact that it is about a group of kids of Puerto Rican descent instead of these young white kids we know from the first movie makes it very different.”

The reaction to this version has been generally favourable. “Disney reimagined the original and now Spielberg has aged it up,” wrote New York Post columnist Michael Riedel, and many writers are saying that not only is this the best remake of a West Side Story, but the best film on gang violence in recent years.

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