The awe-inspiring collection of talent that converged to create the classic 1957 Broadway musical WEST SIDE STORY is astounding to consider, even more than 60 years on. Composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricistStephen Sondheim, bookwriter Arthur Laurents and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins were joined by producers Robert E. Griffith and Harold Prince in adapting William Shakespeare's ROMEO & JULIET and setting it in contemporary Manhattan. Gang violence, rape and murder were not common theatrical tropes commonly viewed on the musical stage at the time, immediately making it a revolutionary piece with a massive impact still reverberating to this day. There was simply nothing like it before and there have been few things better than it since.
Then came the film. While the Broadway show was a commendable hit, the worldwide adoration that WEST SIDE STORY still receives is due in no small part to the 1961 big screen iteration, co-directed by Robbins and movie musical master Robert Wise. Featuring the full score from the stage show and an electrifying cast including Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, the dynamic and dramatic material set the screen alight with a palpable energy and vividly ingratiating style all its own. Accordingly, the film was a worldwide smash, with the soundtrack staying atop the Billboard charts for more than a calendar year. Additionally, the film racked up 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and statuettes for two supporting players, Chakiris and Moreno.
Attempting what perhaps only he himself would have the audacity to do, venerated Hollywood heavyweight Steven Spielberg is bringing WEST SIDE STORY to the big screen once again in a reboot scheduled to begin shooting next year. Featuring a new screenplay penned by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, the fresh take on the material will be a reworking of the original masterpiece, utilizing the iconic songstack while making major and minor nips and tucks to the script. Most notably, the character of Doc will be replaced by a new role in the guise of Valentina, the owner of the corner store where many memorable scenes play out. Most enticingly, the part will be played by none other than original film star and EGOT recipient Rita Moreno, in an exciting bit of news revealed this week. While other casting for the film has remained scarce, Ansel Elgort has been confirmed to be playing the central role of Tony, as well.
Although much of the original cast and creative team has passed away, it is reassuring to know that Spielberg and Kushner will be paying direct homage to the iconography of the property by involving Moreno in the 2019 proceedings. And, who knows what new surprises are in store as we anticipate the film hitting screens this time next year.