Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas

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I was at the original production of "West Side Story."

I can't say that I saw it.

It opened on Broadway Sept. 26, 1957, and I was born eight months later on June 14, 1958. I therefore experienced it in utero — absorbing Leonard Bernstein's nervy music and Jerome Robbins' explosive choreography through the abdominal wall.

It certainly made an impression on my mother. In later years, she talked about how she had never seen anything like it. Nobody had. And the moment she really remembered — the moment that made her cry — was not the tragic finale, where the hero Tony lies dead in the city streets, victim of gang violence. It was not the song "Somewhere," or the shock of the knife fight.

It was a moment late in the first act, when the two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, sing contrapuntally about how they are going to prevail in the coming rumble, while Tony and Maria sing about their newfound love, and Anita sings about the romantic evening ahead.

The feeling of onrushing, tragic destiny was overwhelming, my mother said. The much-lauded 1961 film version, which won 10 Oscars, never came near it, for her.

I wonder what my mother, who died last year, would have thought of Steven Spielberg's new version of "West Side Story," which opened this past weekend — after several years of anticipation — to excellent reviews and pretty dismal box office numbers ($10.5 million).

"West Side Story," 2021: Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll, far left) breaks up a fight between the Jets and Sharks.
"West Side Story," 2021: Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll, far left) breaks up a fight between the Jets and Sharks.

Several things could explain this poor showing — starting with the key fact that COVID has disrupted our moviegoing habits, and made a lot of us nervous about being in a theater. "West Side Story" will probably fare better in living rooms than it did in the multiplexes.

But there is another thing. The show "West Side Story," created in 1957 by Bernstein, Robbins, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents, may in 2021 be a victim of its own success.

Job well done

For the record: The lackluster ticket sales are not due to the quality of Spielberg's film. He turned out an excellent movie. In many ways, an improvement on the 1961 original, which had its problems.

The two leading roles, 60 years ago, were grossly miscast: wimpy Richard Beymer, as the former gang member Tony, looks like he could have barely handled a butter knife, let alone a switchblade. As Maria, Natalie Wood — putting aside the fact that she was not Latina, an issue not on the Hollywood radar in 1961 — was pretty but plastic. Neither did their own singing. Rachel Zegler (originally from Clifton) and Ansel Elgort are a vast improvement.

In general, Spielberg has done a better job of integrating the naturalistic world of the city streets with the stylized world of dance. The choreography of Justin Peck, mostly dazzling, falls short on a couple of occasions — "Cool," a high point of the 1961 film, is a disappointment here — but there are also none of those embarrassing moments in the old film where the gang members pirouette like ballerinas before sticking their knives into someone.

The original dialogue, pretty awful in spots ("cut the frabbajabba!"), is greatly improved by screenwriter Tony Kushner — even if his teen gang-bangers do sound at times like sociologists, walking us through the racial and economic changes in their city.

Opening up

The two films feel very different. The 1961 version — shot on location in west side tenements, soon to be demolished to build Lincoln Center — had a dark, claustrophobic feel. The new version, partly shot in Paterson and Newark, and actually incorporating the building of Lincoln Center into the plot, is more airy and open. The city streets feel inhabited. The two lovers are not prisoners of the slums: At one point, they take a subway to The Cloisters.

"West Side Story" 2021: more life in the streets
"West Side Story" 2021: more life in the streets

Possibly, this was a mistake. In the original show and film, the feeling of the walls closing in, of the characters trapped in a grim environment they can't get out of, was part of the urgency. On the upside, Spielberg's take allows for a more vibrant picture of the city, and in particular of the Puerto Rican culture that is starting to add flavor and color to the drab streets.

So why isn't this new "West Side Story" resonating with audiences?

It may simply be that "West Side Story" — so shocking and groundbreaking in 1957, and to movie audiences in 1961 — no longer seems new.

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It cannot be stressed enough how innovative, how stunning, the show seemed to the first audiences — to people like my mother. It was Broadway's Big Bang.

There had been one or two previous Broadway musicals where characters died — considered a daring innovation — but either they were villains ("Oklahoma!") or they were poignant secondary characters ("South Pacific"), and in any case the shows had happy endings. Tragic endings were for opera.

But Act 1 of "West Side Story" ends with two corpses on stage. And the final curtain comes down with the hero dead, and his buddies carrying away his lifeless body. Apart from two songs, "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke," there is no humor.

Turning point

People sometimes refer to "Sgt. Pepper" as the album in which rock-and-roll became Rock. "West Side Story" was the show that turned "musical comedy" into The Musical.

It's ironic, by the way, that Steven Spielberg directed the new "West Side Story." In many ways, he owes his career to the old one.

Because of the enormous success of the 1961 film, Hollywood rushed a whole bunch of mammoth, big-budgeted musicals into production.

A couple, like "My Fair Lady" (1964) and "The Sound of Music" (1965), were hits. Most were expensive flops ("Camelot," 1967; "Doctor Dolittle," 1967; "Star!" 1968; "Paint Your Wagon," 1969; "Hello, Dolly!" 1969) that came near to bankrupting their studios. In desperation, Hollywood turned to outsiders, young directors who were "in touch." Among them were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas — founding fathers of the New Hollywood.

Second opinion

Amid the critical raves for the 1961 film, there was one famous dissenting opinion.

Pauline Kael, then an unknown West Coast film critic, eviscerated "West Side Story," in a review that helped launch her career. She lit into not only Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, but also the "derivative" Leonard Bernstein music, and the arrogance of the screenwriters who removed "all that cumbersome poetry" from Shakespeare ("West Side Story," it seems obvious, isn't trying to "improve" on "Romeo and Juliet," just echo it).

"How can so many critics have fallen for all this frenzied hokum?" Kael asked.

Surprisingly, she saved her most vicious barbs for Jerome Robbins' "calisthenic" choreography. "It's trying so hard to be great it isn't even good." Within a few years, she predicted, the dances in "West Side Story" would look like "hilariously limited, dated period pieces."

That part, at any rate, she got amazingly wrong. The "West Side Story" brand of choreography was quickly absorbed into the cultural bloodstream.

Today, that athletic, tense, edgy style of dance is everywhere: in musicals, in award shows, in almost every video Michael Jackson ever made. The new "West Side Story" has a new choreographer, but even he doesn't stray too far from the original.

So maybe that's the problem: "West Side Story," once innovative, is now familiar.

As late as 1972, when the film made its debut on network TV, it still had some of its original impact. I remember the next morning, in school, many of the kids came in snapping their fingers.

Changing times

But musicals with serious themes are now par for the course. Stephen Sondheim, who did the "West Side Story" lyrics (he died in November at age 91, the last surviving "West Side Story" collaborator), went on to do shows about assassins, French impressionist painters and a barber who cuts the throats of his victims. There have been plenty of musicals about restless young people ("Rent," "Spring Awakening") and mean streets ("In the Heights," "Capeman," "A Bronx Tale").

As for the violence that so shocked audiences in 1957: In a world of "Saw" and "Kill Bill: Vol. 2," it barely registers. A switchblade fight? Quaint.

It would be hard, in short, for anyone today to come to "West Side Story" with the clean slate that our parents and grandparents brought to it. When the curtain came down on opening night, 1957, the story goes, the audience was silent. The show's creators, waiting anxiously in the wings, thought they had hatched a turkey.

Then the wild applause began. The standing ovations. The audience, for a moment, had simply been too stunned to clap.

For its earliest audiences, "West Side Story" was a revelation.

I guess you had to be there. As I was. Sort of.

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Steven Spielberg's West Side Story remake is good, but not a hit. Why?