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Spielberg offers a more complete telling of musical theater classic 'West Side Story'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Steven Spielberg movies, from "E.T." to "Schindler's List" to "Jurassic Park," fall into a lot of different genres, but Spielberg's reimagining of "West Side Story" is the first musical he's directed. The award-winning stage and screen classic has a complicated history, including controversies about ethnic representation. But critic Bob Mondello says audiences can rest assured that in this new "West Side Story," something's coming; something good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "WEST SIDE STORY: ACT I: PROLOGUE")

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Where the old "West Side Story" opened with aerial shots of Manhattan skyscrapers, Steven Spielberg starts this one close to the ground. The year is 1957. And as the camera rises from slum-clearance bulldozers to a billboard promoting a soon-to-be-constructed Lincoln Center, the site where the opening of the original "West Side Story" was filmed, he's already blending wit with the grit.

Rival gangs, Jets and Sharks, will soon be charging through the rubble; Jets swinging stolen cans of paint, Sharks soaring over mounds of debris, their headlong rush a muscular ballet that owes a little something to Jerome Robbins, but not much. Male dancers are better trained than they were 60 years ago. And choreographer Justin Peck has his own agenda in this opening sequence; not just establishing that dance can be used as a language, but already telling a story with it about a neighborhood that's changing from Irish and Italian to Puerto Rican, where even a rumble will be no match for a wrecking ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "WEST SIDE STORY: ACT I: PROLOGUE")

MONDELLO: The story, a modern-day variation on Shakespeare's "Romeo And Juliet," is smarter in the telling this time. Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics still power the romance between Tony and Maria, who meet at a dance and, their warring clans notwithstanding, fall head over heels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TONIGHT")

ANSEL ELGORT AND RACHEL ZEGLER: (As Tony and Maria, singing) Tonight, tonight, the world is wild and bright.

MONDELLO: But the scenes between the songs have been rewritten by Pulitzer-winner Tony Kushner to put flesh on other characters and give their stories psychological heft. Is gang leader Riff always spoiling for a fight? Now there's a reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

MIKE FAIST: (As Riff) You know, I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don't like.

MONDELLO: Latino characters now have jobs, family, back story; including the guy Maria's brother wants her to marry, who's principled, smart and something of a catch, not just a not-Tony. Tony now has a reason to be an ex Jet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We need you if we're going to war.

MONDELLO: After almost killing a rival gang member with his fists, he's just back from a year in prison, on parole...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

FAIST: (As Riff) Who are you, friend or foe?

MONDELLO: ...And working at Doc's drug store, which is now run not by Doc, but by Doc's widow. She's played by the first film's Oscar-winning Anita, Rita Moreno, as walking proof that detente is possible between these communities. Every change an improvement - deepening characters, mitigating stereotypes and evening the scales a little. The Jets always had a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JET SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As unidentified Jets, singing) Here come the Jets like a bat out of hell.

MONDELLO: Now the Sharks do, too, led by David Alvarez's magnetic Bernardo - the Puerto Rican anthem "La Borinquena"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BORINQUENA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As unidentified Sharks, singing in Spanish).

MONDELLO: ...Un-subtitled as is all the Spanish in the film. The Sharks are forever being told to assimilate and speak English by cops, by girlfriends. And Kushner's made it work both ways, having Ansel Elgort's earnest Tony seek tutoring from Doc's widow. Because to woo Rachel Zegler's radiant Maria, he needs to bridge the language gap in the other direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

ANSEL ELGORT: (As Tony) What's forever? Like, I want to be with you forever.

RITA MORENO: (As Valentina) You don't want to start maybe with, I'd like to take you out to coffee?

ELGORT: (As Tony) This ain't casual like that.

MORENO: (As Valentina) Oh. I want to be with you forever - (speaking Spanish).

ELGORT: (As Tony, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: Spielberg and Kushner went back to the stage version to toughen up the show. They moved and repurposed songs. Wait till you see the harrowing game of keep away they've turned "Cool" into.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm open.

MONDELLO: And Spielberg's also made sure Ariana DeBose's fiery Anita and other performers of color get to hold the screen rather than being pushed to its margins...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

DAVID ALVAREZ: (As Bernardo) Everywhere grime in America. Organized crime in America. Terrible time in America.

ARIANA DEBOSE: (As Anita) You forget I'm in America.

MONDELLO: ...All while making every second Spielbergian (ph); the camera not so much capturing action as propelling it, the characters relatable, the dancers explosive. How has this man not made musicals before?

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #3: (As characters) Hey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.