Steven Spielberg on making West Side Story with Stephen Sondheim: ‘I called him SS1!’

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IIt’s winter afternoon and you’re about to start a video call with Steven Spielberg. Then, it’s the perfect opportunity to make a quick brew in your Gremlins mug (Spielberg produced that diabolical 1984 horror-comedy), then present it in front of a webcam to the director’s benefit. “Oh, I like that, thanks,” he says, smiling softly. Then he shakes the alert finger: “Don’t drink it after midnight!”

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The most famous and widely cherished filmmaker in history today has everyone’s twinkling eyes and passion. He is about to turn 75, but his first is the release of his muscular new role on West Side Story, marking his third collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner, who also wrote the screenplays for Munich and Lincoln. Spielberg is pained to report that this is not a remake of the Oscar-winning film, but a re-imagining of the original musical stage. “I would never dare to go near it if it were only a movie,” he says. “But, because it’s constantly being screened around the world, I didn’t feel like I was claiming my friend Robert Wise’s 1961 film.”


Spielberg and West Side Story go even further. He was 10 years old when he became obsessed with the Broadway cast album, which his father brought home in 1957. He even got in trouble for ousting the show’s comedy number G, Officer Kripke. “Right in front of my dad and next to my mom, I sang, ‘My dad is a bastard / my mom is a SOB…’ Oh my god, they got so mad. You don’t “bastard” at the dinner table Where did you learn it?’ I said, ‘It’s on your record!'”

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‘I have too many left feet’ … Spielberg on set. Photograph: album/alami

It was Jerome Robbins who had the idea to move Romeo and Juliet to New York’s Upper West Side. Leonard Bernstein provided the score, Arthur Laurents wrote the script and a young greenhorn named Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Tony and Maria, played in Spielberg’s version by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Ziegler, were star-crossed lovers, while the two warring gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, stood in for the Montagues and Capulets. What gang did the young filmmaker run with during his teen years in Arizona and California? “Am I in a gang?” He explodes. “Yeah right! No, I was in the Boy Scouts of America. And a movie club. My friends and I made movies on 8mm when we were 12 or 13, so I’m part of that naughty, geeky little club Was.”

However, he became known as one of the movie brats in the 1970s, so-called because he was the first generation of American filmmakers to absorb most of their education from the screen and electrify and transform. Hollywood. Of that quintet – Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were among others – Spielberg was the only one who did not make the leap into music. “Francis did it with Finian’s Rainbow, Brian did it with Phantom of the Paradise, Marty did it with New York, New York. I guess you have to think of American Graffiti as George’s music. Which means all Movie brats have done it now, and I was the last. I’m proud to be a caboose.”

He already had some healthy anxiety. “I work better that way,” he explains. “Fear is my fuel and confidence is my enemy. If I’m on my heels, I get better ideas than I get into a Jurassic Park sequel. It’s a lot better for me.” No To make a sequel to Jurassic Park. ,

Musical numbers, such as the dance competition in Spielberg’s wartime comedy 1941 or the dazzling Busby Berkeley tribute at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, are never put more than a toe in the water in his films without them. – Or rather, on the dancefloor. His 1991 fantasy hook, which starred Robin Williams as an older Peter Pan, even began life as a musical.

“Tony’s screenplay brings out the realities of what it was like for those communities”… Rachel Ziegler as Maria.
“Tony’s screenplay brings out the realities of what it was like for those communities”… Rachel Ziegler as Maria. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP

“I went out after the first week of shooting and took out all the songs,” he recalls. “It was the biggest change ever for me while directing a film. It didn’t seem right for some weird reason. Maybe I just wasn’t feeling ready to do music. I was doing those little numbers in 1941 or Temple of Doom, and later a kind of zero-gravity dance for the Bee Gees in Ready Player One. I had some false starts as well, with scripts that I began to develop into original music. At some point, I decided that I had to have the courage of my beliefs. ,

This meant returning to the music that had scolded him at the dinner table. “It never left my life,” he says. “I’ve played the cast album for my kids. Growing up, he memorized the songs. I have videos where I am playing Officer Krupke and all the jets. Those videos prove how West Side Story has permeated my entire life and the lives of my children and grandchildren. This is madness!” Is that too much of a dancer? “I’m a good faller,” he smiles. “I have multiple left legs. I have been cable tripping on my sets since I was a television director at the age of 22. It’s hard now at around 75. You don’t want to do that much. ,

His feelings for West Side Story are undeniable, but love alone isn’t reason enough to create a new version of the existing material. So much was proved by the negative reaction to his 1989 update of Victor Fleming’s 1943 romantic fantasy A Guy Named Joe, Always. “It was a great love story that really touched me and I’ve never made a love story before,” he says. “I used to show girlfriends a 1943 movie when they were dating, and if they didn’t like it I wouldn’t go out with them again. Two that were the litmus test of whether there was going to be another date, a Guy Named Joe and Stanley Donne’s Two for the Road. If they didn’t like those movies, that’s it!

Fortunately, his West Side Story has the urgency as well as the affection behind it, introducing a racial and socioeconomic specificity that earlier versions were poorly placed to provide. “What’s not in the play or the 1961 movie is San Juan Hill being razed by a ball of rubble,” he says, referring to the redevelopment, which demolished entire blocks in Manhattan, mainly of color. Displaced low-income families.

As Ziegler told me later: “Tony’s screenplay brought out the realities of what it was like for those communities. Lt. Schrank says it in the first scene, ‘You’re on the way.'” Many dance numbers now take place among piles of torn metal and rubble, or on broken piers. Spielberg says, “Jets on top of piles of garbage.” Climb.” “It’s like, ‘he is What are they fighting for?’”

There’s also a new weight and dignity in West Side Story’s Latinx characters, whose culture — and the racism they face — has been drawn more sharply. When I speak to Ariana DeBos, who plays Maria’s friend Anita, she admits to having mixed feelings about the 1961 film. “It’s a product of its time,” she says. “You feel like, ‘Oh they’re in’ brown face, ie No My favorite thing about the film. But I still think it’s a classic.”

When she auditioned for Spielberg & Kushner she made it clear that her ethnicity would need to be addressed if she was hired. “I told them, ‘If you’re not interested in discovering the fact that I’m Afro-Latina, that I’m a black woman, I don’t think you should consider me.’ And they weren’t too afraid of it. My presence in this film isn’t stunt casting. It’s allowed us to start a conversation about colorism and how it affects Latinx culture.”

West Side Story Review – Spielberg’s Triumphant Hyperreal Remake

Young viewers, who may have never heard of West Side Story, let alone any of the previous edition’s shortcomings, will expect nothing less. It is to them that the new picture primarily exists. “Most young people don’t know what West Side Story is,” says Spielberg. “This will be his introduction.” He built it – and dedicated it to his father, who died last year at the age of 103. “I didn’t have time to finish watching it. But when I was on set in New York, my assistant was running around with FaceTime on the iPad, and my dad would be sitting home in L.A. and watching us film a lot. Will be watching while we shoot, so he felt a part of our company.

Another absentee is Sondheim, who died last month at the age of 91. On set, he was known as “SS1”, while Spielberg was “SS2″, a ranking set by the filmmaker. They had known each other since the mid-1980s. As well as appearing for some filming, which was completed before the pandemic, the musician attended every recording session. “Then, during Covid, I found out that he was as much of a synaste as Scorsese or himself, and the most obscure movies he has seen. So we started this tremendous back-end over email for about 18 months and he became a great friend. We’d recommend movies to each other, then we’d watch them and email them over the phone or about.”

Did Sondheim Pass the Guy Named Joe/Two for the Road Test? “No, he didn’t,” he laughs. “He didn’t like any of those movies.” I wish there was no other date. Just a beautiful friendship.

  • West Side Story is releasing on December 10.

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