How would a “West Side Story” remake fare?

In August of 2014, Steven Spielberg expressed interest in directing a big screen remake of the 1961 classic West Side Story. Considering Spielberg’s upcoming schedule directing the The BFG and Ready Player One, it’s unlikely that such a project is in the near future. However, the box office potential of a Spielberg directed West Side Story is undeniable, so it’s reasonable to think that such a project might come to fruition. Spielberg served as an executive producer for the NBC musical drama Smash (2012) for its two season run, and has previously stated “I’d love to do an old-fashioned musical,” meaning that Spielberg has both a measure of experience in creating musicals and interest in a remake. While it’s obvious that such a remake could happen, the question that remains is: should it?

After a benefit screening of West Side Story for the CHARGE foundation, Susan Haskins (host of Theatre Talk) moderated a Q&A with George Chakiris who starred as Bernardo in the original film. When Chakiris mentioned Spielberg’s desire to direct a remake, the crowd booed the idea, while Haskins said “Leave it alone, Steven Spielberg,” asserting that a remake would be “a terrible idea.” Chakiris went on to claim that, “In the rape scene, if someone were to do that today….everything’s so different today, some things are sort of in our face…somebody’s clothes would have to come off, which is so unnecessary and distracting.” Chakiris is referring to the idealized aesthetic of the original, where the fight scenes are mostly stylized and bloodless, and the ‘rape scene’ is demure by modern standards. He’s skeptical that the change in tone and aesthetic style that would be necessary when remaking the film for a new generation would destroy what made the original great. However, gritty film reinventions have seen a measure of success in the previous decade. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy experienced huge critical and commercial success, and many longtime fans revered the reimagining of the formerly campy comic book character. And while there have been a number of disappointing gritty reimaginings (i.e. Man of Steel (2013)), Spielberg’s impressive filmography and directorial know-how should inspire a measure of confidence in a remake.

Haskins also claimed that “the naive, chaste romance between Maria and Tony would be impossible today - they’d have jumped in and had sex immediately.” Haskins is operating under an assumption which stems largely from a generational gap. It’s almost cliche now for older generations to claim that young adults are promiscuous and less serious about sex than previous generations, despite evidence to the contrary. Haskins is vocalizing a widely held belief that this generation can’t appreciate a love story that isn’t doused in sex, while also implying that a film whose emotional/romantic drama is tied to sex is cheap and pandering. However, good films and films that deal explicitly with sex are not mutually exclusive, as The Piano (1993) and Blue Velvet (1986) show. While the star-crossed element of the original romance might be implausible given the modes of communication and hyper-connectivity available to teens today, there’s no reason to believe that a more explicitly sexual reimagining of West Side Story would be vulgar and lacking in integrity.

Beyond concerns about increasingly explicity deptions of sex and violence in modern movies, some are opposed to a remake of West Side Story on the grounds that the original is a classic and, therefore, sacred territory. However this precious approach to the material ignores the origins of the film itself. Not only is it adapted from the stage (with major lyrical and structural changes occuring during the adaptation process), but the stage version itself is a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, whose origins lie in an old Italian tale called “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet”. To oppose the remake on those grounds means granting authorship of the most famous love story in history to a modern group of actors, songwriters, and producers (many of whom are dead) simply because they did a remarkable job making the film. The historical habit of reinventing this timeless love story for different eras has resulted in a string of classic stage and film productions; the success of the original West Side Story film only serves as proof that a remake has the potential to be an equally successful take on the story.

Concerns over the artistic integrity of a new cinematic interpretation of West Side Story are understandable. Remakes are more often than not opportunities for production companies to exercise minimal creativity and cash in on the established success of franchises, as is the case with the Avengers universe, The Karate Kid (2010), The Bad News Bears (2005), and countless other remakes. However, there is often misplaced fear over the impact of remakes upon the legacy of the original. A classic movie being remade poorly doesn’t undo the accomplishment of the original, while a successful remake could result in a film as beloved as the original, as is the case with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

While skepticism over remakes are always valid considering Hollywood’s history of butchering beloved franchises for a quick buck, a proven director like Spielberg just might make a new West Side Story’s sing.