West Side Story’s Cast Explains The Importance Of Realistic Violence In Steven Spielberg’ New Version

2021 has been a great year for movie musicals, with titles like In The Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and Tick, Tick… BOOM! adapting beloved shows for the screen. But there’s one more coming before the end of the year: Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story. And the cast recently explained the importance of realistic violence in this new adaptation.

The incomparable Steven Spielberg is putting his own spin on West Side Story for his movie, featuring a new screenplay by Tony Kushner. As you can see in the video above, I had the privilege of speaking with the movie’s cast ahead of its release, where I asked about Spielberg’s realistic take on violence-- particularly during the rumble. Bernardo actor David Alvarez opened up about the approach to movie’s violence, saying:

In the rumble I just remember we wanted the audience to feel the fear of what it’s like to be in a knife fight, you know? That was the most important thing. These are, you know Riff and Bernardo, they’re too young kids pretty much. They’re just two young kids who are in way over their head. And then they’re faced with the realization of ‘Oh we’re in this now. And this is scary, and I don’t know how to get out of it at this point.’ So it was very important, I talked with Mike Faist about this. And we both agreed that this should be something where we’re just terrified. And Steven also really wanted to show that fear.

The man’s got a point. The Jets and Sharks of West Side Story are ultimately a group of young kids aka Juvenile Delinquents. And while they talk tough and are happy to brawl in the streets, the brandishing of knives in the rumble definitely raises the stakes. And Steven Spielberg wanted to make sure that the characters’ fear ultimately read in the theatrical cut of his movie.

Adding gritty violence to West Side Story is a major departure from the source material. On stage (as well as the 1961 original film), the gangs fight via iconic jazz choreography. But in Steven Spielberg’s movie the dancing comes to a halt at the rumble. And once knives are brandished and eventually used, the tone becomes extremely serious.

The cast of West Side Story is rounded out by actor Corey Stoll (House of Cards, Ant-Man) who plays Lieutenant Shrank in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation. He also weighed in on the seriousness of the movie’s violence, and how that influenced his performance as the not-so-friendly police officer. In his words,

Lieutenant Shrank is not a good guy, we didn’t change him in that way. But he has a job to do. And for all his biases, and blindspots and problematic world views, he is trying to stop the violence from happening. That is his job and that’s what he’s trying to do. He sees that these groups are going at it over and over and over again. He’s just trying to stop the blood shed on his streets.

Another way that Steven Spielberg puts a new twist on West Side Story is highlighting how the gang violence is actually effecting the community. The opening number shows the Jets and Sharks brawling on the streets and destroying property. This change makes them feel like real street gangs, while still honoring the source material and including dance numbers.

Reviews for West Side Story have started rolling in, and critics seem pleased with Steven Spielberg's take on the beloved Broadway musical. Luckily for moviegoers, they won’t have to wait much longer to judge themselves. 

West Side Story will hit theaters exclusively on December 10th. In the meantime, check out the 2021 movie release dates to plan your next movie experience. 

Corey Chichizola
Movies Editor

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated with degrees theater and literature from Ramapo College of New Jersey. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBlend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his favorite actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid. He's particularly proud of covering horror franchises like Scream and Halloween, as well as movie musicals like West Side Story. Favorite interviews include Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more.