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Steven Spielberg's West Side Story

Spielberg’s West Side Story is a thrill to watch with its gritty realism and wonderfully creative dance numbers set against a decaying New York City in the late 50s.  But it is more sociological treatise than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  In the midst of a “slum clearance” project, loser white guys try to thwart the progress of aspirational newcomers with brown skin.  (Raise your hands if this sounds familiar.)  Jets’ leader Riff is a psychopath, not a teen who has yet to grow up, while Tony is a teen who has spent time in prison for almost killing an adversary in a fight.  One critic faults this backstory for positing prison as a positive experience (as if no one ever reforms in prison and, even if they do, we should never admit it).  But the real problem with Tony’s backstory is that, having almost killed someone in the past, his killing Bernardo in the rumble becomes inevitable rather than the result of a single, tragic moment of revenge.  All of which undermines the love story, which is the core of both Shakespeare’s play and the original West Side Story

            Tony and Maria’s “wedding night” lacks both romance and poignancy, knowing, as we do, that Tony, for all his efforts to reform, is still a killer.  The couple seems doomed less from the gang rivalry and hatred that surround them than from Tony’s inability to overcome his killer instinct.  It’s no accident that the song “There’s a Place for Us” has been taken from the lovers and given to Rita Moreno as the matriarchal widow of the original film’s Doc because there really is no place Tony can go to escape his crime, a fact driven home by the frequent police presence in the film.

            The love story is further eroded by the fact that Anita and Bernardo are not simply lovers but live together (along with Maria).  In the original play/movie they parallel Tony and Maria and act as a foil to the young lovers—the more carnal couple vs. the innocent, romantic one. This not only undermines Anita’s part of the four-part “Tonight,” in which she imagines hot sex with Bernardo after the rumble, but makes her “I Have a Love” duet with Maria unbelievable as well.  Her grief is that of a wife, not a girlfriend.  (We even see her in the morgue identifying Bernardo’s body.)  How can she forgive so easily?

            The two songs that should work to build up the love story, “I Feel Pretty” and  “One Hand, One Heart,” which in the original follow upon one another in the intimacy of the dress-making shop (which in Spielberg’s film has been moved to Anita’s apartment), have been separated, the “wedding” song to the Cloisters, a tourist destination, and “I Feel Pretty” to a large department store, where Maria is part of the night cleaning crew. Jarringly, the “I Feel Pretty” sequence occurs immediately after Riff and Bernardo have been killed in the rumble. 

            As I watched the film I kept thinking how artificial, on so many levels, the original movie seemed, but towards the end, as Shakespeare’s series of unlikely coincidences kicked in, I realized that Spielberg’s realism could not sustain the disbelief Shakespeare’s story requires.  His fable has a simple but universal moral: hate kills love and everything beautiful in this world.  Spielberg’s version tells us that gentrification, resentful white men, psychotic personalities, and the abuse of firearms screw things up for everyone.  Tragedy gives way to a complex of social problems.  (The original film acknowledges social problems but confines them to two humorous songs, “Officer Krupke” and “I Want to Be in America.”)

            For pure cinematic pleasure, see Spielberg’s West Side Story, but don’t expect a Shakespearean tragedy of thwarted love but rather a catalogue of social dysfunction that feels all too familiar—which is the point of this movie.  For Shakespeare’s story, see the old version and revel in its theatricality.  And don’t be too censorious of Natalie Wood and George Chakiris in brownface.  (Before being cast as Bernardo in the movie, Chakiris played Riff in the London stage production.)  Just remember, the very first Juliet was played by a man.  (Nobody’s perfect!) West Side Story














The Best of Sandy and Rocky

  • 035 King of the Universe
    Sandy was a year old when he came to us in 2013 as a scrawny stray with one misshapen eyelid. A few months of hearty eating transformed him into a sandy-haired beauty, extraordinarily gentle and extremely fond of cuddling and schmoozing. About that time we adopted three-month-old Rocky, mischief-maker and comedian-in-chief. Where Sandy never saw a lap he didn’t like, Rocky never passed up a box or a bag if he could possibly get in it. When, in 2015, our permanent move to Mill Brook House enabled the cats to go outside, Sandy proved himself a fearsome hunter while Rocky fell in love with wild turkeys and domestic chickens. Sadly, at the end of his first outdoor summer, Sandy disappeared. Days of calling, searching and alerting neighbors turned up nothing. Devastated at first, Rocky eventually recovered his moxie, and he continues to romance the chickens across the street, play pirates in the claw foot tub, and fall asleep on the hand-hewn beams in the attic. This album commemorates our “cat years.”

Charlemont at 250

  • 027 Balloon Rides
    This year marks Charlemont's 250th Anniversary (incorporated 1765). See photographs here and read more at: For permission to reproduce any of these photographs, please contact Steven Sternbach:

Shelburne Falls' Bridge of Flowers

  • C014
    The Shelburne Falls trolley bridge, connecting the villages of Buckland and Shelburne, was built in 1908 to carry freight and passengers on a 7.5 mile line to Colrain. With the advent of the automobile, however, trucks began hauling freight, and in 1927 the company that built the bridge went bankrupt. Turning the abandoned bridge into a flower garden was the brainchild of Antoinette and Walter Burnham, who, with the Shelburne Falls Women’s Club, raised $1000 for loam, fertilizer and plants, and made this unique, historic landmark a reality in 1929. Then, as now, all the labor to start the garden and keep it going was donated. This album is a month by month chronicle of the ever-changing spectacle the bridge presents to tourists and residents every year from April to September.

Western Mass.

  • 018 Charlemont Fairgrounds Grandstand
    Steve can be reached at


  • MassMoCA, Exterior
    The photographs in this album record exhibits at MassMoCA in North Adams, MA, on January 1, 2011. All of these photographs are copyrighted by Steven Sternbach; for permission to reproduce them, contact the photographer at
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