Tony Kushner (65), the Angels in America playwright who writes highbrow historical movies for Steven Spielberg (Munich, Lincoln), thought that the famed director (74) was crazy when he proposed a remake of West Side Story. Who knew that the auteur of E.T. and Schindler’s List could direct musicals, too? But Kushner discovered the cinematic method in Spielberg’s madness and helped him pull it off. And, yes, there’s a place for them — on the Oscar red carpet. Critics rave that Spielberg and Kushner make the 1957 teen-angst tragedy feel both new and immortal, wild and bright, shooting sparks into space. See if AARP resident critic Tim Appelo’s conversation with Tony Kushner doesn’t have you humming the score and getting excited to see the film, which opens nationwide Dec. 10.
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Why, after 40,000 productions of West Side Story since 1957, were there suddenly four big productions onstage internationally in one year and now a new movie? Why is it still relevant, especially to folks over 50, who remember the original?
Kushner: What makes art great is its depth and complexity, its power to reveal truths about the human condition and the struggles we’re all engaged in, communally and individually, personally and politically. Great art is always relevant, and the score and book of West Side Story are very great! It doesn’t age; it doesn’t get dated. West Side Story is of its time and about its time — 1957, the west side of New York City — but its beauty and passion and the awesome abilities of its creators made that moment in history speak powerfully to successive generations. None of us ever felt for a moment that we were dealing with anything dated or old. West Side Story was a radical experiment in the musical form in 1957; its radical spirit remains palpably, discernibly alive, and all you have to do is listen to the score to know that that’s so.
Is it better to have actual Puerto Ricans and Spanish speakers in the film? The original was criticized for inauthenticity.
Kushner: Our film has a cast that’s as diverse as the characters in the story, and these amazing actors-singers-dancers brought their lives and their histories to the project. We hope that the film will do Puerto Rico proud!
West Side Story was originally the inspired idea of the actor Montgomery Clift, the lover of choreographer-director Jerome Robbins. In 1948, Clift suggested an update of Romeo and Juliet, like Cole Porter’s reboot of The Taming of the Shrew as Kiss Me, Kate. It was going to be about feuding modern Catholic and Jewish families, but a 1955 Los Angeles street-gang riot made them change it to Puerto Rican and white gangs. But Clift felt Richard Beymer [cast as Tony in the 1961 film version] was way too passive as Maria’s swain, and even Beymer thought he was wrong for the part. What would Clift think about your Tony, Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars, Baby Driver)?
Kushner: I feel very sure that Montgomery Clift would have been absolutely wild about Ansel Elgort’s Tony.
Rita Moreno, the standout in the original West Side Story, plays Valentina — an updated, reconceived version of Doc, owner of the candy store where the Jets and Sharks mingle. She’s Doc’s widow. Another big change: Instead of the teen lovers singing “There’s a Place for Us,” Moreno sings it solo, transforming it into an anthem for Puerto Ricans and immigrants in America. What does Moreno bring to the party? She turns 90 the day after West Side Story opens. Does a genius actor get better with age? Frankly, we worship her.
Kushner: Everyone worships Rita, who doesn’t want to be worshipped. She wants to work, and she wants to do work that might make the world a better, more welcoming, more understanding place. And that’s why, in addition to her astounding talents, she’s made such an immense contribution to the world, as an actress and an activist. Rita has lived through a lot of history, and, as our talented lyricist [Stephen Sondheim] once wrote, she’s “still here!” It’s hard to talk about her age, since she seems sort of immortal. But as actors get older, something fierce and pure and essential starts to blaze forth from deep within — the soul, maybe? I think they become incandescent. You’ll see that when you see Rita in the film. We created the role of Valentina for her, and she’s made Valentina a blazing torch of a human being — small, quiet, smart, witty, ferociously loving, immensely strong, heartbroken and hopeful, in some ways the true moral center of Steven’s film.