National Commentary

‘West Side Story’& Loving Again

There are all the usual must-see events back in person after the great pandemic this season, and the saying is true that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” just watching, for example, mice and nutcrackers go at it. It is also the time for some blockbuster motion picture releases, and this year, we feel particularly motivated to call attention to what, in our view, is one of the amazing and poignant Hollywood offerings, the remake of the 1950s Broadway hit musical, “West Side Story.” We are saddened by its poor box office performance in its first weekend, but, come on people, we all as a culture have nothing to lose and everything to gain from making a special effort to tap into our cultural roots from a better time, especially when it is done as well as this production.

A “better time?” That will always be a topic for important discussions. But we look at it from the standpoint of the post-World War II era of optimism, when the seeds of so many of the social changes we’ve seen since began to sprout.
The remake of “West Side Story” is a full-fledged triumph, even if it calls us to reflect about the difference between the American culture of 1961, when the play first hit the big screen, and today, and that difference may account its tragically poor box office performance in its first weekend.

There used to be, in Rita Moreno’s youth (she was a star of the original, brought back for the remake 50 years later), the year our editor graduated high school, a great cultural belief in the power of love. This has changed. Back then, Camelot was in the White House, after all. In 1963, that it all started to change with the assassination of JFK.
Now, this half century later, we believe not in the power of love but the love of power. This is the real tragedy so beautifully invoked by this great masterpiece of a film.

As the BBC’s Caryn James wrote this week, “There was a magical, once-in-a-lifetime quality in that initial collaboration: Leonard Bernstein’s heart-piercingly beautiful music, Stephen Sondheim’s trenchant yet romantic lyrics, Arthur Laurents’s book and Jerome Robbins’ classically-inspired choreography. And there is a similar alchemy in the glorious new version. Directed by Steven Spielberg at his most masterful, with a smartly-conceived screenplay by Tony Kushner and crisp new choreography by Justin Peck, the film honors the production’s roots while giving it a 21st-Century sensibility. Full of energy, wit, passion and tragedy, looking backward and forward at once, it is one of the most moving films of the year.”

It’s taken this collaboration of geniuses – Sondheim, Bernstein, Spielberg, Kushner and the others over decades – to call from us our better angels to fly back to when we, as a nation, believed better in love.