Three days after the death of Stephen Sondheim and 60 years after its first film debut, “West Side Story,” Stephen Spielberg’s expansive remake of the classic movie musical, premiered in New York City. A momentous occasion for the revival of a beatified American film, the premiere, attended by Spielberg, executive producer Rita Moreno, and the movie’s cast — including Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist — took place in the shadow of Sondheim’s profound loss.
“This can’t be the night we’ve long anticipated, because of the absence of Stephen Sondheim,” Spielberg said to the audience before the screening. “His amazing lyrics for ‘West Side Story’ first put him on the map and launched a career that would completely redraw that map, reinvent the musical and theater, and create a body of work that beyond any doubt is as immortal as anything made by a mortal could be.”
“Like everyone else on the planet who cares about words and music, I’m heartbroken at this sudden loss,” Spielberg continued, with the colossal title of “West Side Story” rising on the screen behind him. “But Steve is here with us tonight, in the form of his great, abiding genius in the glorious musical he helped to bring into the world 64 years ago, and he’s also here in our gratitude for all the art and culture he left behind.”
Sondheim, who passed away last Friday at 91, was closely tied to the film’s remaking, despite his longtime criticism of his lyrical work in the musical. He attended recording sessions and filming days, advised Spielberg and worked closely with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner on adapting the musical into a new screenplay.
“For years, he and I argued about the musical,” Kushner told Variety at the premiere. “He was always a little down on it. He always felt the lyrics weren’t his best, and I violently disagreed.”
With Sondheim’s blessing, Kushner endeavored on a significant expansion of “West Side Story,” wrapped in Spielberg’s desire for an adaptation that honored the original film and eschewed the modernist impulse for a jolting contemporary treatment. While Kushner would argue that his work realized the full foundation of Arthur Laurents’ and Sondheim’s characters, the film remake evolves the musical’s economical structure to fill out the world of the Jets and Sharks. It offers new, meaningful backstories to characters, rearranges scenes and songs to better stage the stakes of the ethnic and economic bloodbath among street kids, and fills out the real racial politics of 1950s New York to create a truer, more honest “West Side Story.”
“About two or three drafts in, I went to his brownstone, and we sat for a couple of days and went through the screenplay line by line,” Kushner described of his collaboration with the lyricist. “He gave me notes, and we worked together. His understanding of the form was absolutely prodigious, and in the end, he loved the film.”
For cast members like Zegler, who makes her professional debut in “West Side Story” as Maria, Sondheim’s presence — as well as the on and off-camera guidance of Moreno, who plays a new character in the film — was reassuring, proof that the bold, even foolhardy desire to remake the movie was still, 60 years later, bridged by its creators.
“I avoided him at one point because I was so scared to speak to him,” Zegler told Variety at the premiere about Sondheim. “But I was very blessed to be able to tell him what he’s meant to me my whole life, and that’s something no one can take away from me.”
“He said that I sound like a nightingale when I sing,” she said, just before heading into the screening to join her cast for the second film premiere of “West Side Story” in the lifetime of a defining American musical. “And I’ll never forget that until the day I die.”