Book Review: ‘West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film’

(C) 2021 Harry N. Abrams (Abrams Books) and 20th Century Studios

West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film

Author: Laurent Bouzerau

Illustrations: 20th Century Studios

Pages: 256

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams

Publication Date: November 16, 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

TONY KUSHNER (screenwriter executive producer): Steven is an artist, first and foremost. Everything he makes comes from a deeply personal place; there’s great heart in his work, along with the technical brilliance; there’s an enormous imagination, curiosity about other people’s lives, and an abiding passion for democracy and justice. And he knows what artists know: that he needs to set himself new challenges with every film; he’s always eager to try something new, something difficult, something he’s never done before, something that scares him. – West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film

A sample page from “West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film.” (C) 2021 Harry N. Abrams (Abrams Books) and 20th Century Studios

 If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that I am a fan of the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story, a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transposed to the gritty streets of Manhattan’s West Side, with two youth gangs (the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks) standing in for the Bard’s feuding Capulets and Montagues. Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the original stage play also featured a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

West Side Story was a phenomenal success after it opened at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway on September 26, 1957; it closed its original run on June 27, 1959 after 732 performances. The Tony Award-winning show also had successful runs in London and on a U.S. national tour, and over the past six decades, it has been revived on Broadway several times.

West Side Story has also been adapted for the silver screen twice. In 1961, United Artists and the Mirisch Company released a version co-directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. It won 10 of the 11 Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno).

And, of course, on December 10, 2021 – after a one-year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – 20th Century Studios released Steven Spielberg’s “reimagined” film, featuring a screenplay by Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich, and Lincoln). Though COVID-19’s Omicron variant kept many filmgoers away from theaters, Spielberg’s loving tribute to the original stage version earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

STEVEN SPIELBERG (director/producer): I’ve never directed a film musical, though there are musical numbers in some of my films – for example, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or in a comedy like 1941….

Opening Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with a musical number was George Lucas’s idea. He said, “Hey, Steven, you always say you want to shoot musicals. You’re a frustrated musical director!” So we put together this crazy number based on Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” and Danny Daniels choreographed it.” – West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film

(C) 2021 Harry N. Abrams & 20th Century Studios

From the Back Cover Blurb:

(C) 2021 Harry N. Abrams (Abrams Books) and 20th Century Studios

Featuring never-before-seen unit photography, storyboards, costume and concept designs, and behind-the-scenes photos from Academy Award–winning director Steven Spielberg’s first musical, West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film is a loving chronicle of the years of effort that went into bringing a beloved story back to the screen for a new generation. Author Laurent Bouzereau was embedded with the film’s cast and crew and conducted original interviews with director and producer Steven Spielberg, screenwriter and executive producer Tony Kushner, Tony Award–winning choreographer Justin Peck, and the cast of Sharks and Jets, among many others, to bring together a firsthand oral history documenting every stage of the film’s production.

As relevant today as when it first debuted on Broadway, West Side Story has been reimagined by Spielberg, Kushner, and their cast of young stars, including Ansel Elgort (Tony), Rachel Zegler (María), Ariana DeBose (Anita), and David Alvarez (Bernardo), fully embracing historical accuracy in its vibrant depiction of mid-1950s New York City and the forbid­den love of the teenagers caught between familial allegiances and passion. West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film provides exclusive in-depth commentary on these themes, bringing together a chorus of diverse voices to explore what it means to find a place for yourself in America.

(C) 2021 Harry N. Abrams (Abrams Books) & 20th Century Studios

As with many of Spielberg’s film projects, documentarian and film historian Laurent Bouzerau chronicled the making of West Side Story in two formats – on film as the behind-the-scenes documentaries, and in book form as Abrams Books’ West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film.

ARIANA DeBOSE (Anita): Rita Moreno came in and spoke to us all, told stories about Jerry Robbins, the experience of the original film, and working with George Chakiris….And then she stopped and she said, “Where is the girl playing Anita?” Everyone turned and looked at me, and then there was like a whoo-hoo, clap-clap-clap. I felt awkward, so I stood up. And Rita went, “You and me got some talking to do.” – West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film

Published on November 16, 2021 (less than a month before the movie’s premiere), West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Movie is a 256-page coffee table format (trim size:  9 316 x 11 78). Featuring interviews with Spielberg, Kushner, Rita Moreno (one of the movie’s executive producers as well as a cast member), actors Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose, and other cast and crew members, including Music Consultant John Williams, the lavishly illustrated book gives readers insights into the creative processes that brought the beloved Broadway classic back to the big screen a half-century after the release of the first (and equally beloved) 1961 adaptation that starred Richard Beymer, Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, and Russ Tamblyn.

The “Art Edition” variant of West Side Story is a Target exclusive. (C) 2022 20th Century Studios via Target

In West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film – an oral history based on the interviews for the various behind-the-scenes documentaries made for the upcoming home media release of the 2021 West Side Story – Bouzerau covers every stage of the creation of this remarkable new version of the world-famous musical that gave us such classic songs as Maria, Tonight, Gee, Officer Krupke, America, I Feel Pretty, Tonight (Quintet), and Somewhere.

ANSEL ELGORT (Tony): ”Maria” is a hard song. Leonard Bernstein wrote it like an opera, and I hadn’t sung opera in a long time. I started working with an opera coach; we did hours of vocal exercises and sang “Maria” phrase by phrase, for months. During the long period of the audition process, I was able to continue working on it until I could convince Steven that I could do it.  – West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film

 West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film is even organized so that each major number – from the Prologue to the Finale – has its own chapter. Each song is given its “behind-the-scenes” story, and readers will learn about how one new song – La Borinqueña (Sharks Version) – was added to the film’s song list – and others (Gee, Officer Krupke and I Feel Pretty) were reimagined or changed from the 1961 film version.

(C) 2021 Harry N. Abrams (Abrams Books) and 20th Century Studios

20th Century Studios, the Walt Disney-owned successor to 20th Century Fox, provided hundreds of photographs, costume designs, and storyboards to illustrate this hardcover book. The photos are in color and black-and-white, and they were taken by various still photographers embedded, like author Laurent Bouzerau, with Spielberg, his cast, and production crew to document the making of one of the best modern musical films yet made.

I bought West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film in February, partly because I was frustrated that I had no easy way to go to a nearby theater to see West Side Story, but mostly because I like Bouzerau’s work, both as a documentary filmmaker and a film historian. He knows Steven Spielberg and his filmography well, and his credibility as a respected documentarian is unsurpassed. Even if I had seen the movie during its theatrical release, I still would have bought a copy of West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film as a keepsake, just like I would have done with the soundtrack from Walt Disney Records.

If you have not yet seen West Side Story – it’s currently streaming on Disney+ and HBO, and the Blu-ray (both 4K and 2K) and DVD versions drop on Tuesday, March 15 – I recommend you watch it. And if you want to get into the details – cinematic, choreographic, musical, and dramatic – of how this reimagined film adaptation of a classic and beloved Broadway musical came to be, West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film is a well-written and accessible resource, especially for fans who do not necessarily want to buy the disc version because they already subscribe to Disney+ and don’t need the physical media version.

Speaking as a fan of Steven Spielberg, West Side Story, and the various works of Laurent Bouzerau, I strongly recommend West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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