Sondheim and West Side Story

Written by Greg Tyrrell

On 26th November 2021, the world lost Stephen Sondheim, a titan of musical theatre and an influence and inspiration to many. What makes the sadness of his passing just that little bit extra sad is that he died only a fortnight before the release of the latest adaptation of West Side Story. Oft considered his magnum opus, this remake was originally supposed to land in December of 2020, but was pushed a full year due to reasons we are very much aware of by now.

The delay, however, means that the new West Side Story opens almost exactly 60 years to the day after the original (13th December 1961 vs 10th December 2021). It comes to us from a director of similar repute in the world of film as Sondheim had in the world of theatre – Steven Spielberg. In an interview from last summer, Spielberg spoke of how West Side Story was a big part of his childhood and something he always wanted to make. He described how it “…was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed in our home… West Side Story has been that one haunting temptation that I have finally given in to.” Unlike the original, which cast mostly white actors in brown makeup, he sought an accurate cast of performers with Hispanic backgrounds to play such characters. As for the mains, Hollywood heartthrob Ansel Elgort, best known for Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, is the film’s Tony, while Maria is bought to life by newcomer Rachel Zegler, who before West Side Story has even hit cinemas has already landed roles in the upcoming sequel to Shazam! and the reboot of Snow White, both pinned for release in 2023. All the way through the production, the cast and crew were close to Sondheim, though he and Spielberg ignited a friendship and a bond over their love of film. They would recommend movies to each other, talk about the golden age of cinema, and affectionally nicknamed each other SS1 and SS2 (Spielberg was adamant on being the latter).

There is an inherent sadness that comes with an artist or author just missing out on seeing the film adaptation of a work of theirs be delivered to the world at large. Stan Lee got to see Avengers: Infinity War, but died before Part 2, Endgame, was released the following year. Agatha Christie gave praise to the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express (something she rarely bestowed on adaptations of her work) but died before the follow up Death on the Nile released. Ian Fleming passed away a few months before the release of Goldfinger, only the 3rd of 25 films featuring his creation James Bond – did he have any idea just how much he impacted the cultural landscape?

Sondheim died just three days before the premiere of West Side Story. However, he and his husband Jeff did get to see an early version of the film back in February – the film’s choreographer, Justin Peck, spoke of how “He just gushed over the film… Stephen said to me, ‘On behalf of the original authors, we’re so proud of what this film is.’” If there’s a silver lining in the grey clouds that mark the period of his passing, that seems as good as any.

‘West Side Story’ is available in cinemas from 10th December, including Weston-super-Mare’s Cineworld and Odeon.