More Representation and Authenticity: The New ‘West Side Story’


20th Century Studios

The 2021 ‘West Side Story,’ directed by Spielberg, brings more life to the Latino culture and language.

Legendary Maria actress Rita Moreno gave the new West Side Story, which she also stars, rave reviews. She tells USA Today, the original “was more song and dance and beautiful, extraordinary music. Here you have that plus all this other amazing stuff.”

The remake put a spin on so many aspects of the original, including authenticity and empowerment for the Latino community. Both the original and the remake tell an amazing story through the songs, plot, and actors. Below is a look at the similarities and differences between the two:


New Director, Same Music

West Side Story is inspired by the well renowned Shakespearean tragedy Romeo & Juliet, though it has its own style and essence. Set in 1957, there are two rival Upper West Side gangs: the Jets & the Sharks. With crime, drama, and romance, the musical appeals to everyone. 

The original West Side Story starred Natalie Wood & Richard Beymer and premiered in 1961, while the new 2021 West Side Story stars Rachel Zegler & Ansel Elgort. A quick IMDB search reveals that although the director of the new version is different, with the famous Steven Spielberg taking charge, the original Leonard Berstein and Stephen Sondeim lyrics and compositions were used. 


The Role of the Award Winning Anita

Anita is passionate in her dancing skills and character. Anita is a Puerto Rican immigrant working as a seamstress who is dating the Shark’s leader Bernardo. She lives in the same apartment as Bernardo and his younger sister, Maria (the female lead character).

In 1961, Anita was played by Rita Moreno. For her role as Anita, Moreno won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Throughout her seven decade career, she has appeared countless times in film, television, and theater, becoming one of 17 people in the industry to receive an EGOT status. With the 1961 version of West Side Story being hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time, it’s clear Moreno played a huge role in that accolade. 

Obviously, the 2021 version had huge heels to fill. In the modern remake, Anita is played by Ariana DeBose. DeBose has appeared in Hamilton and The Prom, and is rising up as a star in her own right, already receiving an Academy Award, a British Academy Film Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Golden Globe Award in her career. 

DeBose made sure to go justice to the role of Anita, which was clear in her winning an Oscar for her performance. According to Biography, she is the first Afro-Latina, openly queer actor of color and openly queer woman to win an Oscar. Ariana is the first openly queer woman of color to receive an acting nomination. 


The Tension of a Gang Rivalry

Generally, in the original movie, the racial difference between the Jets and Sharks lead to conflict. USA Today says Speilberg added to this by creating a “geographical conflict”: the gangs are surrounded by poverty in an over-crowded city where the wealthy are moving in. In the movie, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is being built; this leads to the Puerto Ricans being evicted from San Juan hill and much more tension throughout the film. 


Authenticity: Respect for Culture 

By casting all Latino actors and not including subtitles in the new version, there is a regard and respect for Latino that the original movie lacked. 

In the 1961 film, for example, instead of finding a Latina, makeup was worn by a white Natalie Wood to play the iconic role of Maria. In contrast, the 2021 cast includes all Latino actors for Latino roles.  

Likewise, in the original, the Sharks speak only a few lines in Spanish. For the new version, Spielberg ensured there would be more Spanish and no subtitles. In an interview with IGN, he explained, “If I subtitled the Spanish, I’d simply be… giving English the power over the Spanish… I needed to respect the language…”. 


Theatrical versus Realistic Fight Choreography

The original mostly had fighting through dance. The remake involves more true fighting. Of course, both versions are musicals, and some fighting is still through dance. But now, the new movie is more for everyone. 


Dubbed and Undubbed Voices

The original movie had not casted actors who had the ability to sing. Instead, they dubbed some original actors singing voices. According to Classic FM, Natalie Woods’ voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. Although this worked for the 1961 version, today movies cast actors who truly have it all. In the remake, everyone’s amazing voices are theirs. 


A Slight Change in Numbers 

“One Hand, One Heart” consists of Tony and Maria fantasizing about being together and getting married. In the original, the number takes place in the dress shop where Maria works. USA Today says in the remake, Tony and Maria go on a proper date. They then sing “One Hand, One Heart” at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. And, to live up to keeping the movie authentic to the Latino culture, Maria says her vows in Spanish. 

The number “America” also saw a change. Instead of being performed on the rooftops at night, as it is done in the 1961 version, the 2021 version is moved to the city streets in daylight. In the context of the number, an anthem for those who either love or hate the U.S., “America” on the streets made more sense. 

According to USA Today, Ariana DeBose was glad to hear they weren’t shooting the scene on a rooftop. This is due to her fear of heights.


The Characters and their Backstories

The last difference to highlight between the movies are the characters themselves (apart from the magnificent Anita, who gets a section all her own). 

To start, a few characters get a backstory in the new movie that were absent from the first. USA Today reports that Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, strives to be a “prize fighter.” This helps explain to audiences why he is so aggressive towards everyone. Additionally, Tony has a new history – he’s been to prison for assault. This backstory creates Tony’s motive for not wanting to fight the Jets after his release. 

Additionally, audiences will find a more risque Maria, not the innocent Juliet seen in the 1961 version. 

Lastly, audiences won’t find Doc, but his widow Valetina running Doc’s Drug Store. Played by the original Anita, the legendary Moreno, Valetina gives Tony a job and chance after his stint in jail, urging him to make something out of his life. This change from the original gives the remake a feministic flair and lends more support for the other female characters, including Anita after her assault. 


Whether you are pro-original or pro-remake, each version submerges audiences in a world of rivalry, love, song, and dance. Although the original 1961 movie will live on as a classic, it is great to see the remake bring representation to the Latino community and to more strong female leads.