West Side Story: why Spielberg took so long to realize his dream of comedy …

Released on Wednesday, December 8 on our screens, “West Side Story” is an event in more ways than one. Because this is the new movie directed by Steven Spielberg, and it makes his dream of directing a musical come true.

The release of a new Steven Spielberg film is an event in itself. Especially since, pandemic obliges, more than three years will have passed between Ready Player One and West Side Story, its last two opus to date.

For fans and connoisseurs of the work of ET’s dad, this new adaptation of the Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim show, already brought to the screen by Robert Wise in 1961, is more than just an additional line. in his filmography. It is indeed the realization of a very old dream of musical comedy.

In December 2011, when War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin were about to be released in quick succession in the United States, Steven Spielberg announced to CNN his desire to take the plunge. Of dance : “I would love to conduct an old school musical where the characters talk to each other and then sing”, he then declares. “I’m a huge fan of Hollywood musicals, but I haven’t found the right subject, the right booklet, or the right music to jump into one of them. But someday I will.”

This “One day” begins to take shape on March 5, 2014, when Deadline announces that Fox has acquired the rights to West Side Story for a new adaptation, and that Steven Spielberg is interested in directing it. Like Bernardo Bertolucci in 1996, when Disney was planning to produce a modernized version of the musical, the action of which would have been transposed during the 90s.

If the project fell through, it will only be postponed for Disney, which recovers the new West Side Story in its fold following its takeover of Fox, which became effective on March 20, 2019. A few weeks before the coup. sending the shots, which took place between July 1 and September 27 of the same year in New York.

Because if it is mentioned for the first time in 2014, the project does not give any sign of life until January 2018, when casting announcements appear. A sign that the film is on the right track and that the patience of moviegoers is about to be rewarded. That of Steven Spielberg too.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST SIDE

Lover of the genre since his childhood, the director has more than once flirted with it. And this from the end of the 70s. Having become the new darling of Hollywood thanks to the Teeth of the Sea and to Encounters of the 3rd Kind, he decides that his next project will be at the same time a comedy, a war film and a musical.

Released in American theaters on December 14, 1979, after an eventful and harrowing shoot, 1941 did not end up being “than” a comedy and a war film, a genre he gleefully parodies in addition to citing his own Sea Teeth in the opening scene. Very poorly received by the critics, the feature film is a relative failure in theaters, but Steven Spielberg does not take long to recover from it since he engages on Raiders of the Lost Ark.

During the filming of the first part of the Indiana Jones saga, his desire for a musical came back at a gallop and he contacted screenwriter Gary David Goldberg to write him the screenplay for Reel to Reel, which can be translated by “From reel to reel”. This is the semi-autobiographical story of a director called Stuart Moss, hired to direct the remake of the SF movie Invaders of the Red Planet.

The shots were to take place in 1983 … but under the direction of Michael Cimino. Before the project finally fell through and Steven Spielberg turned to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Where one can undoubtedly feel a trace of the abandonment of Reel to Reel through the opening scene in the cabaret. With the short excerpt from a performance in Hook (a tribute to the original play-nature of “Peter Pan”), the sequence has long been the filmmaker’s only foray into the musical.

And this while two of his films, The Color Purple and Catch Me If You Can, were successfully transposed onto the stage, and he produced the musical series Smash, behind the scenes of a dedicated Broadway show. to Marilyn Monroe. It was just necessary to be patient for this director in whom music has always played a central role.

Whether it is the iconic scores of John Williams which, associated with the images of Spielberg, increase tenfold strength and emotions. Or those few notes that allow aliens and humans to communicate in Encounters of the 3rd type. Especially since the filmmaker has had a specific idea in mind for many years.

When Steven Spielberg said in 2011 that he did not find THE right musical to jump into the deep end, it is not quite true. If we believe this featurette Released as part of the promotion of West Side Story, the director has always dreamed of directing an adaptation of the 1957 show. “The challenge was to find the musical that I could get hold of”, he explains. “And I couldn’t forget my childhood.”


The Walt Disney Pictures

Steven Spielberg and Rita Moreno on the set of “West Side Story”

“I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album. And it never left me. So I was able to fulfill this dream and the promise I made to myself: ‘You have to do West Side Story’ “ That the director of Teeth of the Sea finds himself directing a movie in which a gang called the Sharks shows that life is not lacking in humor. But the work of Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim fits perfectly with the humanism that has crossed his filmography for half a century, from one genre to another.

“The issue of divisions between unlike people is as old as the world. Those between the Sharks and the Jets, which inspired the 1957 musical, were deep. But not as deep as the divisions we face. today.”

“In the midst of the script’s development period, which took five years, things escalated. Which, unfortunately, made this story of racial – not just territorial – tensions more relevant to audiences today. than for that of 1957. “

FROM WEST SIDE TO WESTERN?

By taking his mother’s favorite musical in this way to make a film dedicated to his father, Steven Spielberg has not only fulfilled his dream at the same time as a nostalgic journey through time thanks to which he brings together his parents, whose divorce marked his childhood and his filmography.

As several critics have pointed out, his West Side Story at times echoes Munich (already co-written by screenwriter Tony Kushner) in his way of evoking the America of the present through this story of lost children (he there are no or few parental figures on the screen) in which the violence responds to the violence in a gradual, futile and uncontrollable way.

Struggles that we could easily see transposed into a western, and this is perhaps no coincidence. In an interview given during the promotion of West Side Story, Steven Spielberg revealed that this was the last classic genre he dreamed of trying his hand at, now that he had finally crossed the musical off his list. And that he had several projects in development in this register.

A way of closing the loop for the one whose first feature film is called Duel, before heading off towards the setting sun, like Indiana Jones at the end of his last crusade?

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