In the role of Anita, Hollywood newcomer Ariana DeBose (center) leads the Hispanic chorus of the new film version of ‘West Side Story’ in a spirited dance choreographed by Justin Peck (Image courtesy of Disney Studios).

LOGAN – In case you haven’t heard, West Side Story is playing at multi-screen movie theaters here.

No, I’m not talking about the acclaimed 1961 film jointly directed by Robert Wise and Broadway giant Jerome Robbins.

I’m talking about the 2021 remake of that legendary movie directed by Steven Spielberg.

They say that Hollywood is out of fresh ideas and that’s why much of what we see on the big screen nowadays is sequels and remakes of movies that were forgettable in the first place.

After all, did the world really need a remake of sci-fi action flick Total Recall (1990) in 2012?

But it would take a film-making genius to dare to try to improve on the original version of West Side Story. Inexplicably, the new film is going to go down in Hollywood history as one of Spielberg’s rare flops and a financial loss for Walt Disney Studios.

I say “inexplicably” because Spielberg’s version West Side Story is arguably a better film than the original 1961 movie.

Comparing the two movies side-by-side reveals that Spielberg made a number of very wise decisions when he undertook the artistic challenge of recreating a film that is widely recognized as a masterpiece on a par with Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind.

First of all, he resisted the temptation to modernize the story, which could easily have resulted in the new film running afoul of racial, ethnic or political correctness sensitivities.

Secondly, Spielberg cast his new film with an eye to finding actors who could really sing, dance and act, with no regard to whether they were known to audiences. That’s how young Rachel Zegler ended up starring as Maria in her first feature film role; her co-stars (Ariana DeBose, Ansel Egort, David Alvarez and Mike Faist) were equally unknown to movie audiences.

The 1961 film was full of up-and-coming young Hollywood stars, but most of them never sang a note on the movie’s soundtrack. Vocalist Marnie Nixon substituted for Natalie Wood. The songs assigned to Richard Beymer were sung by Jimmy Bryant. Two female vocalists substituted for Rita Moreno, who was a gifted dancer but not a trained singer. To add to the confusion, Tucker Smith (who played the Jet gang member Ice) also sang for Russ Tamblyn. Only George Chakiris did his own singing in the earlier film version of West Side Story.

The only recognizable name in the cast list of Spielberg’s new movie is that of Rita Moreno, who plays a supporting role written specifically for her and served in a more or less honorary capacity as an executive producer for the film.

Another strength of Spielberg’s adaptation of the musical is the addition of more in-depth backgrounds for several characters including the love-struck Tony, the vengeful Chino and the racist cop Lt. Schrank. That material comes from an updated screenplay by Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who penned “Angels in America” in the 1990s.

Finally, Spielberg deserves credit for the realistically gritty setting of his vision of West Side Story.

In the earlier film, Wise and Robbins made the urban setting appropriately run-down but still attractive. In Spielberg’s film, however, the Sharks and Jets are fighting for dominance of a New York City neighborhood that looks like a third-world war zone.

But Spielberg’s vision of the musical is not without its flaws.

One of the most jarring of those missteps was replacing the Jerome Robbins’ choreography that made the original stage production and the 1961 movie so striking. Instead, Spielberg commissioned Tony Award winning choreographer Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet to create new dances for his movie. Unfortunately, Peck’s dances don’t pack the same punch as Robbins’ stylized choreography.

Another slip-up in the Spielberg film is reassigning the song “A Place for Us” to be sung by Rita Moreno. That tune was originally intended to be a duet for the star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony, so having a minor character sing it makes little sense. But, when you have a renowned actress from the original cast of West Side Story on the payroll, you’ve got to give her something to do.

In a recent Broadway revival of West Side Story, the producers translated all the songs performed by Hispanic characters into Spanish, allegedly for the sake of cultural authenticity. The same was true of a touring production of the musical that played in Logan a few years ago. Those productions were hailed by politically correct critics, but were not greeted with open arms by audiences.

In Spielberg’s movie, the original music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is thankfully untouched. But Kushner’s script instead translated portions of the dialogue spoken by Hispanic characters into Spanish.

That change may have lent the movie an air of authenticity, but it also made the film’s plot hard to follow for non-Spanish speakers in the audience.

Ultimately, of course, it is the audience who decides the fate of risky projects like Spielberg’s vision of West Side Story.

Critics have praised the new film as one of the top ten movies of 2021. It has been nominated for Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards in multiple categories.

After its Dec. 10 premiere in the United States, however, Spielberg’s version of West Side Story only grossed $10.6 million in domestic ticket sales and $55.6 million worldwide.

When weighed against production costs of $100 million, that’s a box office disaster.

Despite the many strengths of Spielberg’s film, members of its potential audience seem to be asking themselves “Do we really need to see a remake of West Side Story?”

Unfortunately for Spielberg and Disney Studios, the answer to that question seems to be “No.”

Meanwhile, the original West Side Story film appears to be firmly rooted in the consciousness of movie-goers as the definitive version of that musical.

And that opinion is well-deserved.

The original West Side Story was the highest grossing film of 1961, the first time that a movie musical had achieved that status.

The film was nominated for Oscars in 11 categories and won in 10 of them.

Since then, the film has been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry in 1997.

That’s a hard reputation to beat.

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