Steven Spielberg has long wanted to make a movie musical, and now, 50 years into his sparkling directorial career, he’s finally done so – with his superb new version of West Side Story finally arriving in cinemas this week.
Of course, this is not the first time that Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s beloved production has been adapted for the big screen – The Sound of Music director Robert Wise previously made an Oscar-winning version in 1961, which remains one of the best-loved movie musicals of all time.
Spielberg has been clear that he does not view his new version as a remake of that earlier movie, but rather a different adaptation of the original source material – but it’s still interesting to compare the two films and note where they differ from each other.
Read on for everything you need to know about the differences between Spielberg’s West Side Story and the 1961 version.
How are the musical numbers different in the new film?
While the film is telling the same story and includes the same songs, there are nonetheless some vital changes made for the new film – including playing about with the order of some of the musical numbers.
For example, I Feel Pretty, the song sung by Maria at the beginning of Act 2 in both the stage musical and the 1961 film, is moved significantly later in the new version, while the order of the numbers Tonight and America are also swapped around.
Meanwhile, there are also a few changes as to which characters actually performs certain songs: the number Cool, sung by Ice and the Jets in the original version, is now a duet with Riff and Tony and thus occurs earlier in the film, while Riff is no longer involved in the number Gee, Officer Krupke.
Perhaps the biggest change in this regard, however, concerns the climactic ballad Somewhere – which was famously sung by Tony and Maria in the 1961 version. Here, it falls to Valetina – a gender-swapped version of the original character Doc played by Rita Moreno – to sing the song. This arguably gives it added poignancy given that Moreno herself appeared in the previous film, playing Anita (and winning an Academy Award into the bargain).
The numbers themselves are also often staged in different ways – for example, America spills into the street rather than taking place on a rooftop – but some stagings will be more familiar than others, such as the iconic balcony rendition of Tonight.
Read more about the West Side Story soundtrack.
How are the characters different in the new film?
20th Century Studios
The biggest change when it comes to characters is the one alluded to above: whereas in the first film Tony worked at a drug store owned by a character named Doc, his employer in the new version is an elderly Latinx woman named Valentina. She is shown to be a widow, having been married to a white man, and dreams of racial harmony, while serving as a mentor to the boys and especially to Tony.
There are a couple of other minor changes to the characters: Anybodys (Iris Menas), who is portrayed as a tomboy in the first film, is shown to be overtly transgender in the new film, while a minor Black character called Abe (Curtiss Cook) has also been added for this version.
It’s also worth noting that whereas in the original film, several of the Latinx characters – including Maria and Bernardo – were played by white actors wearing skin-darkening make-up, this is not the case this time. The Puerto Rican characters often speak unsubtitled Spanish in this version, and in one early scene we see the Sharks singing a rendition of the Puerto Rican anthem La Borinqueña, ensuring a more authentic portrayal of this community.
Learn more about the West Side Story cast.
How is the script different in the new film?
While the new film tells the same story as the previous version, the script by Tony Kushner nonetheless adds a few details. For one, the issue of gentrification is given more prominence, with New York City’s ’50s-era slum-clearance projects acting as a backdrop to the feud between the Sharks and the Jets.
Some of the characters are also given slightly expanded backstories – for example, Tony has just been released from a short prison sentence in this version, while Bernardo is now shown to have ambitions to become a prizefighter.
Meanwhile, the romance between Tony and Maria is also given a little more time to develop in this film, with a new scene seeing the pair go on a date by catching a Subway train to a museum – where their wedding vows now take place, unfolding in a slightly different way to the original.