At the end of the new film adaptation of West Side Story, we see a dedication in sunflower-tinged lettering: “For Dad.” It’s a message from director Steven Spielberg to his father Arnold, who passed away in August 2020. But there aren’t any dads in the film itself. The warring gangs on the Upper West Side of the late 1950s, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, are furiously figuring out where they belong (and who doesn’t belong) amidst such absences. The complicated legacy of the original stage musical is contoured by the ease with which it is blended into pop culture and the seriousness with which we consider its ideas about gender and identity. This new adaptation, written by Tony Kushner, is suffused with the tension between the dearth of father figures and the long shadow of patriarchal masculinity.
In its various stagings as well as its famous 1961 film adaptation, West Side Story has always contained studies of gender. It’s in numbers like “Jet Song” (When you’re a Jet / You’re the top cat in town / You’re the gold-medal kid / With the heavyweight crown!) and “I Feel Pretty” (See the pretty girl in that mirror there / Who can that attractive girl be?). Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics imperfectly articulate how different groups draw their lines around what it is to be a man or woman. The character Anybodys explicitly demonstrates the limitations of white American definitions of masculinity. Anybodys admires and often follows the Jets, but they’re barred from joining due to their assigned sex — that is, until near the end, when they “prove” their toughness by acting as an effective spy on the Sharks. You too can be a man, as long as you understand the rules and act the part. Driving the point home, Anybodys was originally imagined as a “tomboy,” but in the new film is transmasculine (and played by a nonbinary actor).
In this iteration, the characters are more concretely and pointedly delinquent teens, not the quaint greasers of so many high school productions. The Jets take as they please, stop traffic when they cross the street, and punctuate the wordless opening musical sequence with a vandalism hate crime. Ignorant of the policies of city planner Robert Moses (in a way, an unseen “bad dad” of all New York City; the film’s opening and closing crane shots are like the eyes of the state looking down on the characters), they blame Puerto Rican immigrants for threatening to displace them from their neighborhood. Local police officers are all too happy to perpetuate this fear, and to mock their familial troubles. These are the only consistent male authority figures in the story, but they don’t make for good role models, alternately encouraging the Jets to harass immigrants and punishing them for their domestic dislocation.
And the Jets aren’t entirely unaware of this dynamic. “Gee, Officer Krupke” explicitly details the cycle of how institutions are vaguely sympathetic to their plight but provide them with nothing but material apathy. When Jets leader Riff buys a gun from a bartender, the older man looks right through him, as if he’s a ghost. He tests the boy’s grit by pointing the gun at his head; Riff gazes unwaveringly into the barrel. The bartender says (with dark approval) that Riff is just like his father. Unearthed from the show’s subtext is the Jets’ envy of how the Sharks are part of a community built on mutual support instead of external intimidation. The homes and families the Jets want are within the Sharks’ reach.
The sins of the father, abandonment, the search for wholeness, what we learn from the role models we do have — all these themes are almost obsessions for Spielberg, a child of divorce who’s described the workaholic electrical engineer Arnold as being “much more terrestrial” than him. In nearly every one of Spielberg’s films, if there is not an absent father, there is an impulse to rework the pain of an unfulfilled familial role. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (obsessed, absent father), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (workaholic, cold father), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (indifferent father), and many more titles, there are intense juxtapositions and studies of homes in shambles and what (if anything) can be salvaged from their remains.
The recently departed Sondheim, also a child of divorce, had his own fixation on dubious dads, evident in shows like Into the Woods (absent), Sunday in the Park with George (absent, workaholic), and Sweeney Todd (absent, obsessive, vengeful). Perhaps it then makes sense that Spielberg would be drawn to West Side Story, a show that invites revision. His parents bought the original cast recording when he was ten, before they divorced. (More recently, this was the first time his father was unable to visit one of his film’s sets during production.)
Spielberg’s understanding of West Side Story and the role of inheritance in it (the love he’s inherited for the show, the love or hate the characters inherit for one another) is not uncomplicated. He doesn’t find a satisfying, saccharine answer around resilience the way he usually does in his characters, even though that idea easily could have manifested here in the form of María and Tony’s romance. Nor does he lean into the sentimentality of working on such a beloved title. His approach is dynamic, as shown by how he deepens (without “solving”) the story. Though evincing a classical Hollywood sensibility, he makes the personal and political violence more harrowing, their cyclical nature more tragic. The aesthetic in-betweenness — both breathtakingly old-fashioned and sharply modern — feels like his way of situating West Side Story within both his filmography and broader cinematic and political history. “Somewhere” is a utopian song, but finding a “new way of forgiving” doesn’t seem possible without grappling with the past. María and Tony ultimately can’t escape it, but can the show? Can Spielberg himself? Maybe “tonight” …
West Side Story is now playing in theaters.