On 3.5.14 Deadline‘s Michael Fleming reported that Steven Spielberg was pondering a remake of West Side Story for 20th Century Fox. Two days ago a West Side Story casting notice was posted on Twitter by casting director Cindy Tolan, announcing that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner were the principals, and that they’re looking for Caucasian actors to audition for Tony (i.e., Richard Beymer‘s part in the 1961 Robert Wise big-screen version) and Latino actors to play Maria, Anita and Bernardo (played by Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris way back when).
Remaking West Side Story for the screen is a bad enough idea on its own. It would have zero connection to any aspect of today’s culture, for one thing. There’s certainly no trace of gang culture in 2018 Manhattan. Maybe the angle behind the Spielberg-Kushner version is to shoot it in period (i.e., sometime in the early to mid ’50s)? If so that could work. But will Kushner dispense with phrases like “play it cool, daddy-o”? Some of the dialogue in the ’61 film made horses choke even back then.
Who except boomers and older GenXers would be interested in a reboot of (take your pick) the original 1957 stage musical or the ’61 screen version? In the case of those who were teenagers in the mid ’90s and are now pushing 40, who’s clamoring for a Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein musical version of Baz Luhrman‘s Romeo + Juliet (’96)?
True, Wise’s ’61 version seems stiff and inorganic and overly theatrical by today’s standards. The challenge, I suppose, would be to make a version that feels more “street” and set it against a real-life culture where gang warfare, turf battles and racial animosity are (or more precisely were) regular facts of life.
But this kind of thing seems way out of Spielberg’s wheelhouse. What does a suburban Jewish kid from Arizona know about mid 20th Century gang culture anyway? Of all the directors in all the world who could possibly pull this off, Spielberg would have to be at the bottom of the list. Helming a new West Side Story would arouse every treacly, gooey, sentimental impulse in his system.
Now that you mention it: One of the criticisms of the Wise version was that he made New York tenement neighborhoods look too clean and antiseptic. In some scenes buildings and back alleys were covered in fresh red paint. Then again Michelangelo Antonioni did the same thing when he shot Blow-Up in mid ’60s London, painting certain buildings red and even violet, and nobody said boo.