'West Side Story': Why a Steven Spielberg remake could work

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

Naya Rivera, get your agent on the phone.

Yesterday, we learned that Fox has unlocked West Side Story for a possible remake — because Steven Spielberg, of all people, has expressed interest in directing a new version.

Since making movies based on beloved stage shows like Les Misérables and Into The Woods is “in” again — something I wholeheartedly encourage — it makes sense tha Spielberg might want to try his hand at directing a musical. But it’s surprising to hear that he’s interested in something that already has such a prestigious history: The original West Side Story film is as close to a sacred cow as movie musicals get. The stage show debuted on Broadway in 1957; the legendary film, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, premiered in 1961. It went on to win 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. So, yeah, those are some big character shoes to fill.

Still, instead of groaning when the news broke yesterday, I surprised myself by feeling cautiously optimistic. With the right team in place, this enduring story of prejudice and forbidden love could be updated in an interesting way so that it doesn’t feel like total retread (read: no 1950s New York). Instead of copying the original, Spielberg and his team could take the show’s themes and music, then use them to explore another conflict. In this version, the lovers could be, say, set against the backdrop of the Middle East, or American immigrants circa right now.

Changing West Side Story‘s setting would allow all involved to make the story their own, particularly the new movie’s stars. As we all learned when Carrie Underwood played Maria Von Trapp, people don’t like when iconic roles are messed with. The “same songs, updated book” scenario isn’t unheard of in the world of musicals, especially recent ones: It’s what appears to be happening in the new Annie film, and, to a lesser extent, it’s what Cinderella did for its recent Broadway production.

I’m hesitant to dream cast Maria and Tony — wherever the story takes place — because I believe both parts should be played by unknown talents. A celeb-filled cast would take viewers out of the story (see: Russell Crowe in Les Misérables; actually, don’t), no matter how much Glee star Rivera may be ready to tackle “America.” “Spielberg Does West Side Story” is enough of a draw to get people in the seats — allow this to be the one musical that doesn’t feature miscast famous people singing for their Oscars.

I’m as in love with the original West Side Story as any other musical theater fan. But I think enough time has passed where it might be okay to try something a little bit new — especially if an A-list visionary is at the helm.

Just don’t mess with the choreography.

What do you think: Would Spielberg leading the ship make you interested in a remake of some kind, or should this project be deader than Bernardo and Riff?


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