It’s Almost Like Praying

West Side Story (2021)

West Side Story (2021) | art by Tom Ralston
illustration by Tom Ralston

When I think of love, I think of high school gymnasiums. Dont you remember? The staccato squeak of sneakers on polyurethane. Bodies packed into tiered, yellow-pine bleachers. Horns blaring after points scored. Eyes on faces and bodies, unrequited and fanatical. Youthful energy multiplied and contained in a cellophane balm—preserved there, in some state of permanence: raw, eager, ignorant. 

Said Romeo: 

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

But in a gym, love is exactly what it is: iridescent, feverish, foolish. And then, suddenly, unquenchable. We will never love like that again, with such resplendent abandon, such bald desire. It is gone.

I miss it. I miss everything. The carnal curiosity, the hunger of pursuit. I want to fall in love with someone but I don’t know how. Does anyone? I think of a piece of graffiti I recently saw. “Look at the shit we’re calling love these days,” it read. So is it age that’s really worn it out of me, or the uncomely, inescapable present? Daily reminders of our blunt, inherited ugliness: we are all locked in a misery competition with whichever generation precedes us, indebted to systems that bank on our collective, expected suffering. Or maybe it’s knowing—without doubt—that our neighbors would rather watch us die than sacrifice their spoon-fed mirage of liberty. 

But then, suddenly, by absolute coincidence, I’m back in a gym. I’ve wandered there by happy accident, forgetting the way along the way. It’s not a ball game or assembly but a nighttime dance. The whole neighborhood is here, and—actually, I realize—it’s quite long ago and rather faraway. There is a curious, variegated divide: blues on one side, reds on the others. It’s a dance and also a war, skirts bashing, teeth snarling. But familiar, too; bodies pressing in, the blinkering teeth of smiles and affection. So much, all at once, all together. Kaleidoscopic. Then, a parting of seas as a boy named Tony spots a girl named María. 

It’s a movie, not a dream—but what’s the difference, really? This isn’t reality but it also is. Its 1957 in New York City. San Juan Hill, to be precise; a Manhattan neighborhood on the verge of slum clearance. Two rival gangs—the territorial white Jets and the just-trying-to-survive Puerto Rican Sharks—are nearing a rumble, ready to fight for the scraps of their territory. Both are fueled by generational hate and mistrust, unaware or perhaps intentionally ignorant to the real villains: Robert Moses’ urban renewal project, and a city eager to displace the poor and marginalized for a conglomeration of higher culture.

But Tony, a former Jet, and María, sister of Shark leader Bernardo, are blissfully out to sea. So am I. Gone is the noise of social discontent. When Tony sees María, his life shifts to celluloid. Lights scatter like stars around the room—lens flares that evoke the cosmos they’ll soon sing about. (For here you are / And what was just a world is a star.) Dormant colors blossom into focus. Love is exactly this impenetrable; galaxies and heavens pervading every frame of storytelling—spilling even beyond Tony and María’s orbit, through the screen and into my seat. I am right there. Maybe it isn’t gone. 

Tony and María fall in love in a gymnasium. Steven Spielberg fell back in love there, too.


When I think of Spielberg, I think of dinner tables. Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, piling potatoes on his plate and forging a mock Devils Tower, his family weeping as they watch him succumb to the unknown. A suburban family—recently abandoned by dad—in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, laughing and bickering and aching in their own kitchen setup. A smiley-face mug in the center of the table, a relic of innocence tempering the loss of such a thing. The Freelings in Poltergeist (not purely Spielberg, but also maybe the purest Spielberg), eating breakfast in a sunny dining space when suddenly the spoons bend and a glass shatters—a supernatural perversion of the Reagan-era domesticity they cling to as other horrors encroach. Brody and Hooper in Jaws, pouring glasses of cheap wine as Brody’s wife asks about sharks. The mixed glassware, the sage green of the tablecloth, the icy flower arrangement sitting between all parties—details that convey the Brodys’ class and comfort; objects both immediate and unnoticeable, a familiar embroidering.

I mention these details because, to me, they are the distillation of Spielberg’s essential brilliance; what continues to make him vital and unrivaled. His best films—even the spectacle-driven and fantastical—are rooted in textural storytelling, where wallpaper has the same effect as dialogue, where set pieces are exposition. He is fascinated with tactile banality; in his tender care, a suburban living room is as enormous—or coquettish or formidable or lustrous or necromantic—as outer space. His camera moves like a chef’s spoon through all that delicious ordinariness.

He has a way with faces, too. You recognize Roy Scheider, Dee Wallace, Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Sam Neill—you might see them in the supermarket, pass them on the street, notice them at a PTA meeting. Even Tom Cruise looks boyishly working class when Spielberg wills it. His camera whittles actors to primal traits: dormant scars catch stripes of light, grey hairs pop, you can tell—for perhaps the first time—just how blue eyes can be. 

Spielberg’s oeuvre is multifarious but reasoned. He both harnesses the splendid human spirit and dissects it, however conspicuously. He is not the grandad optimist he is often accused of being, but a potent, even cynical observer. Roy Neary lusts for the stars, then arrogantly leaves for them. Indiana Jones is a hero and a child predator. David the boy robot’s happy ending is a phasm. Even his lesser-loved later work is doused in wariness. Munich, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post—tragedy and history shuffled and dealt.  

There is much to love and defend in all of Spielberg’s work; tenderness in even the most processed, conditioned titles. But when he’s firing from the deepest corner of soul and passion, something extra special happens. Rainbows erupt from cloudless skies. Dinosaurs step out of crystal water as if beckoned from Elysium. A young man—too bewitched by the woman he loves to merely speak—bursts into song so sweet, the lyrics cast a spell: Say it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.


When I think of happiness, I think of musicals. Dorothy Gale on a rusty bike dreaming of technicolor. Kathy, Cosmo, and Don in a tap-dance celebration for the new day. Green hills alive with the sound of you-know-what. Maudlin relics of Hays Code Hollywood though some of them may be, there is a doubtless emotional comprehensiveness to the genre. And a sneakiness, too; they can get away with a lot: utter saccharinity, bamboozling ridiculousness. I can think of at least two movie musicals where a car just up and flies into the sky without an ounce of supernatural pretense. Isn’t it wonderful? 

It is frankly shocking that it took Spielberg until 2021 to make a musical, because there is an essence of movie musicality in all of his work. Aside from the obvious examples—the soldier-and-zoot-suiter dance hall brawl in 1941 and the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—there are the aforementioned moments of random alien and dinosaur pageantry. E.T. is so indebted to John Williams’ score that Spielberg cut the last reel to highlight it. 

But his West Side Story is an island: a true musical, with brass-cracking orchestration; colors so anodyne they whisper, so blaring they shout; voices that soar and temporize and stay. Within seconds, it necessitates its own existence, because, within seconds, it emits enormity. A gorgeous crane shot introduces us to this fair Verona, where we lay our scene. The birdlike whistles of the Jets echo through the rubble of a San Juan Hill in transition. It will soon be Lincoln Square, home to Lincoln Center—where, ironically, this West Side Story had its world premiere; an uncomfortable, likely intentional bit of irony.

The Jets emerge from the decay of their home turf dripping in that loving Spielberg texture. The symbolic blue of their dress somehow emits a rainbow of depth; shades stand in contrast, conveying a history of these broken kids and their broken worldview, which will inform and radicalize generations of Proud Boys to come. When the Sharks appear, dressed in red and gold, we understand—without a single word of dialogue—the rivalry at hand. One of conflicting diasporas, of an America locked in a territorial war that will never dissolve, but will stitch itself into our stars and spangles.

West Side Story is a dutifully American tale, beautiful and imperfectly birthed, a 20th-century, Gotham-set Romeo and Juliet—updated and racially charged. The 1957 Broadway musical—brainchild of choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—became a beloved, Oscar-winning film in 1961, itself imperfect and timeless and conversation-starting for that dilemma. 

Spielberg grew up with the Broadway cast recording, listening along with his father, visualizing the numbers cinematically. Is it a remake or a retelling? Does it matter? A rose by any other name smells as sweet. Retellings are foundational, from Biblical myth to Greek tragedy to cinema itself—think George Méliès’ Une partie de cartes in 1896, a remake of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s Partie d’écarté from that very same year; or Arthur Marvin’s 1901 film The Chimney Sweep and the Miller, a remake of George Albert Smith’s The Miller and the Sweep from 1900. Vital cogs in the dramaturgical machine; necessary resuscitations. Even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a remake: the Montagues and Capulets derived from Dante; Luigi da Porto wrote Giulietta e Romeo in 1524.

This West Side Story is familiar but refurbished by Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner. The Lincoln Center is now a Hitchcockian time bomb; its ghostly illustrations practically tick. Street blocks cake with dust that never settles; alarm bells hum like ambient noise. Only one building stands intact: Doc’s, a pharmacy and candy store owned by Doc’s Puerto Rican widow, Valentina (Rita Moreno), who plays matriarch to street rat Tony (Ansel Elgort), an ex-con trying to distance himself from a violent past with the Jets. Tony lives in Doc’s basement and works in the shop, mopping floors and gazing out windows—wishing on stars for some other reason to live.

He’s at odds with his “womb to tomb, sperm to worm,” Riff (Mike Faist), who wants him back in the gang business so they can take down the Sharks for good. This Riff is no clean-cut, moony-faced street kid, but a spindly, stretched nerve of a young man—frenetic and dangerous, with tragedy in his two-step. The Jets gather ‘round him in Tony’s absence, dancing in the streets with abandon like little boys, and it’s enough to make you cry. In a later scene, they play cops and robbers after buying a gun, miming gunshots: pow, pow. Melancholy, petulant rage planting seeds for school shootings and Capitol riots. 

Around the corner and in utter contrast is María (Rachel Zegler), innocent and radiant, almost heavenly. She lives with her Shark brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), a boxer, and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose), a seamstress. They are a unit here, spooled together but fraying. Bernardo—sick of the gang life, desiring children—hopes to return to their native Puerto Rico, but María and Anita are content with life in Manhattan. María meets Tony and her world spins: sensitively, sensually; a future starts to form, though she regards it with suspicion—knowing the hurdles they’ll face but clinging to an errant hope that they could be happy somehow, somewhere.

The girls’ dreams of beauty and joy are both lustrous and solemn. “I like to be in America,” Anita sings in the streets—in perhaps the most viscerally stunning, beautiful musical sequence ever put to film—but you can’t help it. You think, with guilt, Just you wait.


When I think of Spielberg’s West Side Story, I think of “America” and the dance in the gym and “Gee, Officer Krupke!” and the rumble—those grand, indelible moments of pure wonder, of utter and irresistible movie magic that only a maestro might improve from the original.

But really, I remember it in fragments. Tony’s basement bedroom, cement walls papered with cutouts from Collier’s, of moon phases and telescopes and planetary satellites. The cosmos of Sondheim’s lyrics again made literal. (Tonight, tonight, the world is full of light / With suns and moons all over the place.) Riff tending to an injured Baby John, the youngest Jet; gently cradling his face, slipping a flask between his lips—an ardent calming before cleaning his wound. Anita, helping María get ready for their night out, taking a quiet moment to herself before Bernardo arrives. “I want to dance,” she says into the mirror, twirling around—the swish of her skirt a harmony of fabric, desire, reverie. Tony singing “Tonight” to María on her ironed bannister, the sound of his hands moving over the rails as he approaches, like rope on leather. María in her room—buoyant music pantomiming her heartbeat—untidying her bed and hair and dress so her family won’t read into her dreamy, sleepless night. Tony and María waiting for a train, a small moment of togetherness made euphoric when he reaches for her hand. A hardened bartender staring Riff in the eye and saying, “You remind me of your dad.” Words of poison and foreboding and unapproachable tenderness.

And the colors. María’s dresses shifting from soft pinks—closely aligned, at least in spirit, to the Shark’s red—to periwinkle blues, to a dark navy as her devotion to Tony strengthens from infatuation to matrimony. When they sing “One Hand, One Heart” in the Cloisters, stained-glass windows wash them in blues and reds before warming into incandescent purple. The blue of the Jets and the red of the Sharks are also the shifting colors of police alarms, both gangs unwitting and functional arms of the authority they mean to escape but are forever indebted to. And then there’s Anita in her yellow dress, a neutral flame keeping light for her Puerto Rican community, which she’ll need more than ever when the tide begins to turn. Spielberg—with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński—uses these simple, primary colors as a painter might: blurring them with white, washing them with blood—the filmstrip their easel.

There are changes, too—songs repositioned to brilliant effect, like “Cool” preceding the rumble, becoming a duet of longing between Tony and Riff. The two tousle and twirl atop a pier peppered with jagged holes that evoke the bullet and knife wounds that will shortly seal their fates. This is Shakespeare, after all; Bernardo, our Tybalt, fatally stabs Riff’s Mercutio, before Tony kills Bernardo as revenge. And then, boom—another change: María, a Gimbels cleaner here, singing “I Feel Pretty” and dancing about mannequin displays, dousing herself in liquid scarves, dreaming of a wealthy future with Tony. It’s a jarring tonal shift and forms like a bruise. Now, the most frivolous moment of the original show is cast in daggers—every upbeat, lyrical longing a knife to the heart.

But the biggest song change comes near the end, when Rita Moreno—who played Anita in the 1961 film—sings “Somewhere.” Once a sonic daydream for Tony and María, it is now Valentina’s plea for a world that has never been. Will likely never be. “There’s a place for us / Somewhere a place for us / Peace and quiet and open air / Wait for us, somewhere.” 

The ballad ends with a melodic ellipsis. With a maybe. Notes twinkling higher and higher before fading. Only a musical might end with an astral dot dot dot. Only a Spielberg musical might know hope is lost but let it linger anyway.


When I think of movies, I think of Steven Spielberg. They are the same thing. I forget this, sometimes, but then I’m in a gym—with suns and moons all over the place—and suddenly I am in love and I remember. I remember what his reverence for detail and his charitable interrogation can render in an audience. It’s like nothing else, really. It’s almost like praying. 

I know this story: that Tony will die, that María will live—but for what? I know that beyond the auditorium door is everything West Side Story hoped would change 60 years ago, but that has not and will not. I will watch Spielberg’s version wrestle with this intangibility, watch it pray over the ashes, and then I will leave the safe firmament of theater and come back days later; I will rinse and repeat. Rewatching Spielberg’s West Side Story will become my winter balm and consolation. I will dream of love for the first time in a long time, and I will weep thinking of how I am ready for it once again, really and truly now. 

Again, Romeo: 

Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d, a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears:
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.

The bomb of social disorder goes off, but at least we still have movies, right? And when they’re made like this—with uxorious sentiment, with pliable idolatry, with a cast of mostly unknowns, who—in their ubiquitousness—become a part of me, somehow; with a choking gall and a preserving sweet…well, maybe we’ve found that place for us, after all. Maybe it’s right here.