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3 Reasons Why Spielberg’s West Side Story is the Best

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Illinois State chapter.

In recent years, there has been a large distaste for remakes as there seems to be an excessive amount. After all, how can you top the original? How can you match the talent of stars like Rita Moreno? Well, Steven Spielberg’s solution for that one was simple: create an entirely new character just for Rita Moreno. He made many other significant choices that allowed the 2021 adaptation of West Side Story to top the original. 

Since this film was made available to stream on Disney+ beginning March 2, I think now would be the perfect time to dissect exactly why you should watch it. The 1961 movie adaptation of the Broadway musical may have won 10 Oscars, but also had many flaws. This new adaptation fixed many of these flaws and brought a breath of fresh air to this beloved musical.

1. Tony Kushner’s adapted screenplay 

Though thought to be a daunting task at first, Kushner and Spielberg worked together to create a new and improved screenplay based on the Broadway musical. They fleshed out the characters to give them improved characterization.

Tony is given reason to be working at Doc’s Drugstore and avoiding the Jets, as he is trying to better himself after a stint in jail. Bernardo and Anita are revealed to not only be María’s brother and sister-in-law, but also parental figures for the young girl as their parents are not with them in America. There is also, of course, the added character of Valentina—played by Rita Moreno herself—that provides an added understanding of star-crossed lovers and an added tragedy being Doc’s widow. If you’d like an interesting read and to look at this adaptation a little more closely, I’d highly recommend the script, which is available for download. 

2. Order of the songs 

This 2021 film is described as not just a remake of the 1961 film, but an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical. The song order mostly resembles the stage version, but every difference is well calculated and fits within the emotion of the story. Spielberg goes as far as reimagining “Cool” to be a tense confrontation between Tony and Riff as the former implores the latter to cancel the rumble.

Spielberg also gives Rita Moreno’s character “Somewhere,” which becomes a song for everyone rather than just a duet between Tony and María. Even going from “America”—a song describing the pros and cons for the Puerto Ricans’ lives in America—to “Officer Krupke”—a song of the Jets mocking the police officers in the police precinct—identifies the disadvantage and privilege of the respective groups. 

3. Diversity of the cast

I wouldn’t say casting is perfect for all the characters within this movie (I’m looking at you, Tony), but the diversity within the cast is very much improved compared to the 1961 film. Though about half of the characters are from Puerto Rico, Rita Moreno was the only Latino performer among the cast in 1961. Spielberg ensured to have as many Latinx performers as possible in 2021, with all Sharks being of Latin descent.

In this film, Rita Moreno is just one of 20 cast members that are Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent. Ariana DeBose (Anita) is Afro-Latina. Rachel Zegler (María) is of Colombian descent, which is a stark contrast to Natalie Wood (1961’s María), who was Russian. The character Anybodys is even portrayed by non-binary actor, iris menas, and is regarded as trans, not just a tomboy, in the 2021 script. 

Even the Academy agrees with me: West Side Story (2021) is nominated for seven Oscars this year, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (which means this movie really did match the talent of the stars in the original). 

I hope you take all these factors into consideration when debating on which version of West Side Story you’d like to cry to on your next movie night. 

Emily Mepham

Illinois State '25

Hi! My name is Emily and I am an English major at Illinois State University. Obviously, as an English major, I do a lot of writing and, thankfully, I love it! My entire personality consists of coffee, Disney, and Taylor Swift. I hope you enjoy my writing at least half as much as I enjoy writing it! <3 em