8 Musicals Better Suited to Spielberg Than 'West Side Story'

Aaron Netsky

Far be it from me to tell Steven Spielberg what movies to make. In fact, if my career goes where I hope it will, scholars will argue that I took my cues from him. But ever since news broke that he would be re-making West Side Story, while I'm not always excited about the projects he chooses, the combination of director and film has seemed particularly off to me. This feeling only got stronger as I watched the original movie version of West Side Story this weekend, all the while playing "Spot the Actor in Brown Face" (did you know that even Puerto Rican-born actress Rita Moreno was caked with dark make-up to play Anita and accused of being racist when she challenged the choice to make the Sharks and their girlfriends a uniform color?).

Spielberg's West Side Story will probably be good, maybe even quite good, and I'm sure Tom Hanks will be great in it whether he ends up playing Officer Krupke, Lieutenant Schrank, Doc, or the amusing adult character at the dance (is he the principal?), because it's a Spielberg movie and you know Hanks is going to be in it somewhere and probably get nominated for an Oscar.

As I gave some thought to what in Spielberg's body of work suggests he should do a musical, I could not come up with anything, which in turn led me to the conclusion that he wants to try something he's never done, and I'm all for that. But I'd like to offer some suggestions of musicals that I feel would be better suited to Spielberg than the dance-heavy, New York City set (Spielberg just doesn't scream NYC to me), ultimately very intimate West Side Story. In doing so, I have tried to avoid musicals that have already been done on film and don't really need to be redone (The Sound of Music) and musicals that maybe should be put to film, but Spielberg has already done a version of them (The Color Purple).

Here are my suggestions:

South Pacific: Reportedly, there is already a re-make of South Pacific in the works, so why not focus Spielberg's energies there if he must do a musical. The director of this movie would be responsible for getting beautiful, sweeping shots of Pacific islands, staging the "Thanksgiving Follies" (the show within the show that includes "Honey Bun"), and also suggesting more than showing the looming backdrop of World War II. Like West Side Story, dealing with racism is at the heart of the conflict in South Pacific, which includes the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," but the scope of the story is bigger, more Spielbergian. Kind of a Saving Private Ryan filmed where Jurassic Park was filmed.

Cabaret: Sticking with the theme of World War II, and adding social themes that could be explored much more now than when the original film was made in the 1970s, Cabaret might well be due for a remake. More than with Anybodys in West Side Story, queer themes are part of the point of Cabaret, and much like the original film did for Joel Grey's version of the Emcee, Spielberg could truly immortalize Alan Cumming's much lauded re-interpretation of the character. Plus, the man who made Schindler's List is familiar with exploring the plight of Jews in Germany at that time. The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood's novel on which Cabaret is based, already has multiple adaptations, but the king of them is Cabaret, and a new version of a classic story about people ignoring the signs along the road to ruin, and the motivations of those people, might well be due.

Sunset Boulevard: Like South PacificSunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, reportedly has a current movie adaptation in the works, though such reports have been on and off for about thirteen years, if not longer. With big personalities, big implications, and high drama, taking place in a sprawling mansion and on the movie lots of Paramount Studios, this musical seems a very good prospect for Spielberg's musical. Glenn Close would, of course, play the role she has done twice on Broadway to great acclaim, Norma Desmond, Tom Hanks could be Max, her butler/chauffer, and, let's say, Daniel Radcliffe could play Joe. Radcliffe's already been in a musical and shown he can handle singing and dancing, though perhaps he wouldn't want to make a movie with the man who would have cast someone else as Harry Potter.

Side Show: Here's a weird one for Spielberg to do, and I'll be honest, I can't get into the score no matter how many times I hear it, though I reserve total judgement until I see it on stage. Or on the screen. Side Show had a recent, acclaimed revival on Broadway, and tells a story, about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, the likes of which is not often seen, well, anywhere. Their tumultuous but fascinating show business career in the early twentieth century, and the very interesting side show people they met along the way, would be a new and exciting story for Spielberg to tell, calling for him to bring in talent who, like the Hilton sisters were, have been relegated to the sidelines of the entertainment world.

Follies: Another big, old show business throwback, taking place in a theatre during its last days and haunted by the ghosts of its assembled visitors, there are all sorts of cinematic tricks Spielberg could employ to capture the eerie magic of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. It's more a periods piece than a period piece, and Spielberg would have to jump between the story's present day, 1971, and the theatre and its guests' heyday, the 1930s and 40s, and also between straight period drama and elaborate production numbers, sometimes performed by younger and older versions of the same character. While there are no immediate plans for a film adaptation of Follies, screenwriter John Logan (SkyfallSweeney Todd), who Spielberg has yet to work with, is apparently very interested in adapting the musical.

Parade: Spielberg, as I've pointed out, is not unfamiliar with making films about the persecution of Jews, mostly on a large scale (I have a movie I'd like to make with him, given the chance, that covers that subject). Parade is about a smaller scale Jewish persecution, the true story of the sensational trial and ultimate lynching of Leo Frank, who was accused of raping and murdering one of the girls who worked in his factory. The musical begins and ends with imagery of Georgia's "Old Red Hills," as could the movie, and perhaps Spielberg could also go into how this chapter of history helped lead to the revival of the KKK and the formation of the Anti-Defamation League. It's an amazing, under-appreciated musical, and it even has a plum role for Tom Hanks in Governor John M. Slaton.

The Book of Mormon: There have been calls for a movie adaptation of the musical The Book of Mormon ever since the it debuted, becoming one of the hottest tickets on Broadway and taking home more Tonys that most musicals get nominated for. Admittedly, there's not a lot in Spielberg's directorial résumé that suggests he should do comedy as broad as Mormon, but that would mostly be taken care of by writers Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Robert Lopez. Spielberg's job, the way I see it, would be getting spectacular shots of Africa's landscapes and putting together fantastical sequences like the "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream." Mormon also has parts that imitate the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which Spielberg would be good for, and though he was not involved with the franchises referenced in "Making Things Up Again," I think that he could blend Mormon mythology with those of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as well as Elder Cunningham (I've never read the novel Ready Player One, but I've seen trailers for his adaptation, and blend franchises he can), and he does have experience sneaking Yoda into non-Star Wars films. The movie could also address the depiction of Africans in the musical, which has been criticized.

Fun HomeFun Home may seem the oddest among these for a Spielbergian adaptation, but I include it largely because, from Jaws to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Lincoln, Spielberg likes to explore complicated relationships between parents and children, having had such a relationship with his father following the divorce of his parents. Many of Spielberg's young heroes have divorced parents. Alison Bechdel's father, in Fun Home as in life, was hit by a truck in a likely suicide two weeks after his wife asked for a divorce. Bechdel has, in the past, been reluctant to have her story filmed as a movie, but perhaps its success as a musical has made her more receptive to the idea. In any case, her relationship with her father and what she learned about herself and the connection she never realized she had until it was too late, as explored by Spielberg, could make for a very important movie-going experience. More queer stories in the cinema is always a good thing, and if the movie, like the musical (at least when I saw it) not only depicts the story of the father/daughter relationship, but of the adult Bechdel's attempts to tell it as a graphic memoir, interesting things could be done directorially.

Maybe there's a reason I'm not the one making the calls about which movies get made by who, but Spielberg created the question when he took on the project. There are all kinds of reasons to re-make West Side Story, not the least of which being the ethnic make-up of the original film's cast, but it just feels wrong that it would be done by him. However, as one of his biggest fans, and one of the biggest fans of musical theatre as a genre, the prospect of a Spielberg musical does excite me (just not E.T.). 


Aaron Netsky’s writing has appeared on AtlasObscura.com, Slate.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, Medium.com, and all over his personal blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Days/366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). He is also a novelist, actor, singer, and songwriter who has performed and worked in a variety of capacities off and off-off Broadway. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.