West Side Story: 6 Great Ways Steven Spielberg's Remake Improves Upon The Original Movie

Tony and Maria in 1961 and 2021 West Side Story
(Image credit: United Artists/20th Century Studios)

There are SOME SPOILERS AHEAD for 2021’s West Side Story, now playing in theaters.  

Can you believe it? The last time a West Side Story movie came out it was 1961. And, obviously it was a much different world than it is now. There have been many presidents since JFK, gas prices are well over 31 cents a gallon, and this time Steven Spielberg is the director behind an adaptation of Leonard Bernstein and the late Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed musical. While the original has become a beloved part of movie history, and swept the Oscars with 10 trophies, a lot of time has passed and 2021’s West Side Story has changed for a new generation, with numerous improvements. 

Sometimes, no matter what a movie does, it cannot even touch its original. In the case of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, I believe he’s cracked the code and made a rare remake that steps up the existing material, whilst also delivering some nostalgia for the first version. Let’s talk about some of the improvements that make the 2021 version better than the original.

Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

The Musical Numbers Are Shot Rather Than Staged 

The difference I noticed right away about the new West Side Story that the original version didn’t have was how dynamic and three-dimensional each musical number is. In the 1961 movie, when you’re watching it you feel like you’re watching a musical on a stage much of the time. When characters dance and sing they remain in a specific framing and the sets feel more like a set of New York City rather than actual New York City. 

This isn’t to knock the original. The new movie reportedly cost $100 million to produce in contrast to the $6 million that it cost to make it in 1961 (give or take inflation). But, it’s really exciting to see West Side Story be given a massive scale. We’ve never seen many of these numbers this way before and Spielberg uses his incredible eye for filmmaking to create scope and an immersive experience around the musical in a way that's an absolute joy to witness. 

Ariana debose as Anita in America, West Side Story

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

A Diverse (And Spanish Speaking) Cast

If you go back to the original West Side Story, the most glaring issue that makes the movie nearly unwatchable is how the Puerto Rican parts are played by white actors who are given makeup to look like they have darker skin, along with faking heavy accents. This is one of the great Rita Moreno movies, but she's the only actor of Latin descent in the main cast, being Puerto Rican. 

In the new West Side Story, all the Sharks are portrayed by Latin actors, and Steven Spielberg called for those actors to be Spanish speaking. Within the movie itself, when Spanish dialogue is spoken there are no subtitles, adding to the authenticity of the movie as well. With these improvements, the story itself is more palpable. We can understand the cultural differences being placed in the spotlight, and while watching it, I personally felt like the story sung more than it ever has before. 

Rita Moreno as Valentina in West Side Story

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

The Store Owner Character Is Expanded Upon 

In the original West Side Story, Tony works at a store owned by a character named “Doc,” played by Kevin Young. He serves as the Friar Lawrence character in this Romeo & Juliet take, often attempting to give advice to the Jets throughout the movie. Doc's Drug Store is used as the meeting place and hangout spot for the Jets. However, in the new movie Doc has been replaced with his wife/widower Valentina, played by none other than Rita Moreno. 

That’s right. The actress behind Anita in the first adaptation is back to play another role. She is the confidant of Ansel Elgort’s Tony and she serves as an important figure in the musical as everything goes down between the Jets and Sharks. Valentina is a Puerto Rican who married a white man back in the day, serving as a bridge between the two groups of people. She gets to sing one of the songs, and her character nails down some important themes of the movie. 

Iris Menas as Anybodys with Jets in West Side Story

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Anybodys Is A Trans Character 

Anybodys has long been a minor but instrumental character in West Side Story. The character was played by Shelby Esler in the original movie, who has a short haircut, is a tomboy and a constant tag-a-long to the Jets. Because she is a girl, Riff and the gang constantly refuse her and send her away. Yet, later in the movie, Anybodys proves to be a helpful asset to the Jets. 

In the new movie, Anybodys is played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas, who plays a transgender version of the character. Anybodys dresses like the Jets and follows them, but they are not accepted because they are still considered a girl by everyone. It’s a great add to the existing character, and actually enriches a key moment later on. 

Ariana deBose in America number in West Side Story

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Anita’s Sexual Assault Scene Is Altered 

One key moment in the original West Side Story is when Anita goes to talk to Tony at Maria’s request and there’s a sequence that is suggestive of the Jets sexually assaulting her and getting ready to gang rape her before Doc comes in and sees them. It was definitely an important scene at the time, when sexual assault was not something that was regularly being depicted in major motion pictures. These days, it’s a topic that’s discussed more openly in movies and television and the 2021 West Side Story builds upon the conversation. 

In the new movie, while Ariana DeBose’s Anita is being sexually assaulted by the Jets, one of the girlfriends of the Jets shouts at them and tries to stop it from happening. And, ultimately it’s Valentina who steps in. It’s a great alteration to the moment because it shows another woman defending her, despite them acting like enemies just minutes prior. 

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria in West Side Story Tonight balcony scene

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Tony And Maria Are More Fleshed Out Characters

Tony and Maria have always been the Romeo and Juliet of West Side Story. They're the hopeless romantics and the center of all the drama that goes down, despite being on their own love cloud as the Jets and Sharks rumble. In the new movie, both Tony and Maria are given more distinct backstories that draw them toward each other and make their time on screen more meaningful. Tony is wrestling with his past with the Jets, and Maria is somewhat rebelling from being trapped under her brother Bernardo’s expectations. 

There’s a lot more to discover within the 2021 adaptation of West Side Story itself. The movie musical is now playing in theaters and you can check out what movies are coming up during the remainder of the year with CinemaBlend’s guide to 2021 new movie releases.  

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.