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If Spielberg waited his whole life to do a musical, he shows all that pent up dexterity here. Nearly every scene reveals a kinetic virtuosity for blocking and camera placement. This is probably most notable in the “Tonight” sequence, the first duet between Tony and María. In the original film, the pair largely sit next to each other on a fire escape in a two-shot, proclaiming their love for each other. It’s sweet and a great movie moment, but Spielberg’s camera rarely ever stops save for extreme close-ups on both Zegler and Elgort’s faces in states of complete longing. Otherwise, the filmmaker is always moving and capturing the unbreakable barriers between the pair, such as when he places the actual grating of the fire escape between their faces like a wall, or later the stairs.
But that is just one example of how Spielberg has reimagined and revitalized musical sequences. Robert Wise, a brilliant director in his own right, was able to create many an iconic image in the ’61 film. They’ve lived on in the public imagination for six decades and almost as many generations. However, one aspect of the classic film which never quite worked for me was the emphasis on transporting all (or most) of the elaborate dance choreography from the stage show to the screen. This is likely due to Robbins, the director and choreographer of the Broadway show, being the choreographer and credited co-director of the 1961 movie. Although he might’ve been most focused on just photographing his elaborate choreography on-screen.
There is no denying much of the dancing in the original film is beautiful, but there are times where it frequently appears to overreach and be “extra,” to use modern youth lingo. To put it nicely, seeing gang members so insistent on doing ballet during the film’s opening moments on an outdoor basketball court, or later bring the movie to a screeching halt for an extended freestyle jazz number after the Rumble where their leader, Riff, has been killed, has always been kitschy.
The latter sequence, “Cool,” was also inexplicably moved in ‘61 from its first act placement in the stage show to appearing on-screen after Riff and Bernardo have died in the second act of the film—and yes, given the original film included an overture and intermission, it was divided like a two-act play. Spielberg wisely returns the song closely to the beginning of the film, so audiences are not impatient about getting back to the plight of Tony and María, and he and Kushner also light on the idea that the song is about Tony trying to prevent Riff from bringing a gun he bought to the Rumble. So the entire sequence keeps much of the jazzy movements but recontextualizes them as a fight between two old friends over a weapon that will eventually get one of them killed later that night. It’s just a much more engaging scene, daddio!
Similarly, Spielberg returns “I Feel Pretty” to immediately after the Rumble, with María’s happiness having an added air of tragedy since we know it’s already been damned. It also allows the film to bring back the original lyric of “I feel pretty, and witty, and bright, and I pity any girl who isn’t me tonight!” Which, for reasons beyond the film’s control, has aged better than the new lyric invented for the ‘61 movie: “I feel pretty, and witty, and gay, and I pity any girl who isn’t me today!”
The actual dynamics between María and the other characters are largely heightened by the new film as well. María and Tony’s wordless courtship at the dance in the new film occurs in private, behind the gym’s bleachers, allowing the pair to share an enchanted moment and an actual flirtatious conversation, as opposed to it happening in front of everyone, a la the ’61 film, and being immediately interrupted by Bernardo. And, in fact, Bernardo’s fly-off-the-handle rage in this regard is much more understandable, and not only because he discovered his little sister coming out from behind the bleachers with a white boy.
Source: Den of Geek