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10 Films to Watch if You Like: West Side Story

As Steven Spielberg's version of West Side Story comes to DVD, Blu-ray and 4K, Cinema Paradiso recommends what to watch next if you enjoyed a musical that has been captivating and perplexing audiences for 65 years.

Most people will know that West Side Story is a variation on the tale told by William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Instead of 14th-century Verona, the scene is Manhattan in the 1950s, where the Montagues and the Capulets have been replaced by rival gangs known as the Jets and the Sharks. Romeo is now Tony and Juliet is Maria, who respectively come from Polish and Puerto Rican backgrounds. They fall in love at first sight, but are prevented from being together by the rivalry between their communities. However, the situation is exacerbated when Maria's brother, Bernardo, kills Tony's best friend, Riff (just as Tybalt killed Mercutio) and he exacts swift revenge.

A still from West Side Story (2021)
A still from West Side Story (2021)

Shakespeare concluded his tragedy by having the star-crossed sweethearts commit suicide. But West Side Story found another way to break audience hearts and it remains a constant of the 1957 stage show, the 1961 film and the 2021 reboot. In comparing the three, we are going to presume that readers are familiar with the plot twists. So, be warned about spoilers if you are not.

The Play's the Thing

It was 1949 when actor Montgomery Clift suggested that choreographer-director Jerome Robbins should create a musical around Romeo and Juliet (several versions of which are available from Cinema Paradiso - just type the title into the searchline). Intrigued by the idea, Robbins approached playwright Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein about collaborating on a story set on the Easter/Passover weekend involving a Holocaust survivor recently arrived from Israel and a Catholic boy caught up in a Lower East Side turf war between the Irish Jets and the Jewish Emeralds.

Deciding that the scenario bore too much of a resemblance to Anne Nichols's much-filmed 1922 stage play, Abie's Irish Rose, the trio abandoned East Side Story to focus on other projects. Six years later, they reunited on a proposed stage version of James M. Cain's novel, Serenade. However, Robbins felt they could use their time more usefully by revisiting the Romeo and Juliet idea.

While Laurents strove to tailor a remake of W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil for Ava Gardner (this wouldn't happen until 2006) and Robbins worked on the dance routines for Walter Lang's take on Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's musical, The King and I (1956), news broke about a feud between Mexican and white gangs in Los Angeles. Bernstein liked the idea of composing a score with a Latin influence, so Laurents proposed a switch to New York's Puerto Rican neighbourhood and neophyte lyricist Stephen Sondheim was invited to team with Bernstein on the songs for what was now to be called West Side Story.

Only four works by Latinx playwrights reached Broadway during the entire 20th century. However, Laurents and his collaborators were all Jewish and had limited knowledge of Puerto Rican culture. Consequently, they found themselves reinforcing stereotypes. Moreover, by leaving the ethnic make-up of the Jets vague, the quartet left themselves open to criticisms that would also be levelled at the two screen versions.

Despite being eager to shatter musical convention by depicting youths speaking in street argot, Laurents and Sondheim avoided both Spanish and slang, although they did borrow such Beatnik words as 'cool' and 'daddy-o', as well as coining new terms like 'cut the frabba-jabba'. The pair clashed over the lyrics to 'America' and 'I Feel Pretty', as Laurents felt they were too witty for characters with limited English and little education. While he was over-ruled on these songs, Sondheim did succeed in getting 'One Hand, One Heart' moved from the balcony scene to the bridal shop tryst and replaced by 'Tonight'. He also got his way over adding some comic relief to the second act, via the Jet mockery of the NYPD in 'Gee, Officer Krupke'.

Producer Hal Prince came up with the funding for the show and cast Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence as Tony and Maria, with Chita Rivera bringing some Puerto Rican authenticity to the role of the latter's friend, Anita. However, finding performers who could sing, dance and act proved as tricky for the Broadway team as it would for later film producers and there was dismay in Hispanic circles that whites were being browned-up for lead and supporting roles. There were also tensions backstage, as Robbins's temperament and perfectionism irritated his collaboraters and terrorised the cast.

Nevertheless, West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on 26 September 1957 to rave reviews. It closed 732 performances later on 27 June 1959 after winning two Tony Awards, including one for Robbins's choreography. Following a 10-month national tour, it returned to New York for a further 249 performances in 1960. The show ran even longer at Her Majesty's Theatre in the West End, racking up 1039 performances from December 1958 to June 1961. By which time, Hollywood had come calling.

A Flawed Film Masterpiece

A still from North by Northwest (1959) With Cary Grant And Eva Marie Saint
A still from North by Northwest (1959) With Cary Grant And Eva Marie Saint

Screenwriter-producer Ernest Lehman was nominated for six Oscars, but never won. His work on Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954) and Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959) garnered Academy recognition, while his equally accomplished contributions to The King and I and Alexander Mackenrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) didn't. However, he was regarded as a safe pair of hands to adapt Laurents's book for the screen.

Bernstein liked the idea of adding an overture over Saul Bass's chic skyline credits and extending the finger-clicking prologue from four to eight minutes, while Sondheim was grateful that Lehman reordered some of the songs so that 'Gee, Officer Krupke' and 'Cool' changed places either side of the rumble and 'I Feel Pretty' came before it. Moreover, he liked the idea that the lively 'America' was placed between the love songs, 'Maria' and 'Tonight'. He also enjoyed tweaking the lyrics so that it became a Nuyorican dialogue rather than just a female ensemble number.

Unfortunately, Robbins hated the revisions, as he was wedded to his theatrical staging. However, executive producers Harold and Walter Mirisch had anticipated trouble and paired Robbins with experienced director Robert Wise, who had started his career editing pictures like Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). The plan was for Robbins to supervise the musical passages, while Wise was to handle the dramatic sequences. However, things didn't go entirely to plan, with the result that the dream ballet was dropped from the film and the accompanying song, 'Somewhere', was confined to Tony and Maria's bedroom tryst.

As was often the case with Hollywood transfers, the stage show principals were overlooked in favour of established stars. In the early stages of casting, Elvis Presley was considered for Tony before his controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker, objected to his client being depicted as a knife-wielding delinquent, even though he had been sentenced for manslaughter in Richard Thorpe's Jailhouse Rock (1957).

Attention next switched to Marlon Brando. However, he was deemed too old at 34, while it was decided that his on-off relationship with Rita Moreno would have adverse effect on her performance as Anita (she would later attempt suicide over Brando's abusive treatment). Among the others in Wise's thoughts were Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Anthony Perkins, George Segal, Doug McClure, George Peppard, Burt Reynolds, Richard Chamberlain, Bobby Darin, Keir Dullea and George Hamilton. He was sufficiently impressed by Russ Tamblyn (who had excelled in Stanley Donen's Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, 1954) to cast him as Riff, while George Chakiris (who had played Riff in London) landed the role of Bernardo.

A still from Splendor in the Grass (1961)
A still from Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Warren Beatty had auditioned for the stage show, only for Bernstein to note, 'good voice - charming as hell - can't open jaw'. When he submitted a show reel, Wise was struck by a clip from Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961), which Beatty was shooting with new paramour, Natalie Wood. Wise passed on Beatty in favour of Richard Beymer, who had played Peter in George Stevens's Oscar-winning adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). But he decided that Wood was perfect for Maria, even though she wasn't a Latina. Audrey Hepburn had been his first choice before she became pregnant and he had also considered Barbara Luna, Ina Balin, Susan Kohner, Diane Baker, Anne Bancroft, Jill St. John, Elizabeth Ashley, Suzanne Pleshette, Angela Dorian and Mary Tyler Moore. However, any chance he had of picking Italian soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti were nixed when Robbins took against her and dubbed her 'Annamariaspaghetti'.

Robbins also disliked Wood, who loathed him as much as she did Beymer (perhaps because she resented him for landing a part coveted by her estranged husband, Robert Wagner). She would lobby to have Beymer fired, but knuckled down under Robbins to endure 16-hour rehearsal days in order to improve her dancing technique. Yet, while she also worked on her singing and recorded the songs used on the on-set playback system, Maria's vocals were ultimately provided (for all but the last reprise of 'Somewhere') by Marni Nixon, just as Tony's were supplied by Jimmy Bryant and Moreno's were supplemented on 'Quintet' by Nixon and on 'A Boy Like That' by Betty Wand.

Substituting singing voices had been studio policy since dubbing was introduced in the early sound era. Indeed, it's still common in Bollywood, where playback singers like the late Lata Mangeshkar are revered. However, it was also not unusual for white performers to be made-up to play roles for which their skin colour would otherwise have been unsuited. Thankfully, this insultingly insensitive and politically hubristic practice has been abandoned. But it was still employed in the early 1960s and the all of the actors playing Puerto Ricans in West Side Story (even Rita Moreno) had the same shade of brown make-up applied to differentiate them from the white characters.

Budgeted at $6 million, West Side Story started shooting in August 1960. While the female cast rehearsed at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood, their male counterparts spent five weeks on location in the San Juan Hill area of Manhattan's Upper West Side. In fact, this was a largely Black and Puerto Rican neighbourhood, but it was the perfect setting for a turf war between embattled communities because it was about to be demolished to make way for the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts (as Steven Spielberg makes clear at the start of the 2021 film).

Initially, shooting around West 68th Street and 110th Street was hampered by youths throwing rocks from rooftops. But the situation calmed down after gang members were hired to supplement unit security. Nevertheless, with Robbins endlessly demanding retakes of scenes that Wise had approved and suggesting set-ups that his co-director knew would pose continuity problems during editing, the picture fell 24 days behind schedule after just 45 days. Moreover, it was $300,000 over budget. So, the Mirisch brothers fired Robbins and asked his assistants to help Wise complete the remaining musical numbers (everything bar 'Prologue', 'Something's Coming', 'America' and 'Cool'). Such was the complexity of the remaining action, however, that Wise proved only marginally quicker and he had to accept Robbins's presence during the editing. No wonder neither man mentioned the other during their acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards and Robbins kept his statuettes (he also got a special award for his choreography) in his basement.

Adding to Wise's problems was Natalie Wood's insecurity, which made her seem aloof from her castmates and difficult to direct. Aware of her limitations as a dancer, she lost confidence when routines were changed to hide her shortcomings. Moreover, she struggled to master the Puerto Rican accent, despite Rita Moreno's on-set coaching. But her strained relationship with Wise (which had prompted her to consider quitting when Robbins was dismissed) collapsed when she discovered that her songs were going to be dubbed.

A still from Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
A still from Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Bernstein was also unhappy with the music, as he felt that Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal (his collaborators on Broadway) had botched the orchestration - which he called 'overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety' - by using too many musicians. However, the pair won the Oscar for Best Score, along with Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green, as the film broke records for a musical by converting 10 of its 11 nominations. The only loss came in Best Adapted Screenplay, which went to Abby Mann for Stanley Kramer's film about the Nazi war crimes trial, Judgment At Nuremberg (1961).

Premiering at Broadway's Rivoli Theatre on 18 October 1961, West Side Story was only available at roadshow venues during its initial run, which meant that it didn't reach many provincial cinemas until 1963. It was re-released five years later to cash in on the rise of the counterculture, with the strapline: 'Unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger.' However, its socio-political assumptions soon began to show their age.

While promoting his 2008 stage revival, Arthur Laurents lamented: 'Because of our own bias and the cultural conventions of 1957, it was almost impossible for the characters in West Side Story to have authenticity.' Given the narrative's underlying plea for racial tolerance, the casting and make-up decisions seem grotesque to millennial sensibilities. According to Tony Kushner, who would write the Spielberg screenplay, 'I think it's absolutely, as all art is, a product of its time. There were certain kinds of articulations unavailable to the four gay Jews that wrote the thing originally. And there are mistakes that they made, absolutely.'

However, academic Frances Negrón-Muntaner was more forthright in her condemnation: 'Drawing on centuries-old stereotypes about Latinos, the women are virginal and childlike or sexual and fiery; the men are violent and clannish.' She averred that the film had had an enduringly deleterious effect, as it 'widely popularised racist and sexist stereotypes that continue to shape how the world sees Puerto Ricans and how they see themselves.'

By contrast, Henry Koster's adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song was markedly more enlightened in its casting, even though its depiction of life in San Francisco's Chinatown has its clumsy moments. But they largely avoid the crass caricature that makes Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Japanese neighbour, Mr Yunioshi, so unpardonable in Blake Edwards's take on Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's (both 1961).

A still from Moana (2016)
A still from Moana (2016)

As the son of Puerto Ricans who settled in New York, Lin-Manuel Miranda is better placed than most to judge the 1957 and 1961 versions of the story. Cinema Paradiso users will know him from Peter Hedges's The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012), Ron Clements's Moana (2016), Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns (2018), Jared Bush's Encanto and Jon M. Chu's In the Heights (2021).

In 2009, he told the Washington Post: 'As a piece of art, I think it's just about as good as it gets. It also represented our foot in the door as an artistic community on Broadway...At the same time, because it's just about the only representation of Latinos on Broadway and it's about gangs, that's where it gets tricky.' Miranda declared West Side Story, 'our greatest blessing and our greatest curse'. The time was right for a rethink.

Woke on the Wild Side

Lin-Manuel Miranda had tried to right wrongs by translating dialogue passages and song lyrics into Spanish for Arthur Laurents's 2008 revival. The show ran for 748 performances, but only the Shark sections of 'Quintet' remained in Spanish after August 2009. A decade later, Ivo van Hove attempted a more radical revision that trimmed the action, cut songs and cast African Americans among the Jets. Many critics disliked the use of multi-media screens as backdrops, while the New York Times noted that the casting of Black actors in the rumble and rape scenes 'shifts our focus away from the enduring problem of white supremacist violence'.

Covid restricted the show to just 24 performances after its preview run. But it demonstrated the difficulty of updating West Side Story without causing offence. Some critics suggested that the time had come to consign the show to history. But Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner had other ideas, even though they risked being considered two more well-intentioned, but ageing Jewish men venturing into a territory and culture that was outside their immediate experience.

As a boy, Spielberg had loved the cast album of the 1957 Broadway show and he dedicated his 2021 film to his 103 year-old father, who had once told him off for singing the risqué lyrics at the dinner table. Indeed, Arnold watched some of the shooting via a video link, as his son made his musical debut at the age of 74. He had included musical sequences in 1941 (1979) and ndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). When it came to making Hook (1991) as a musical, however, 'I chickened out after the first week of shooting and took all the songs out.'

A still from Lincoln (2012)
A still from Lincoln (2012)

Following a 2014 discussion with Kevin McCollum, who had produced the 2009 stage revival, Spielberg met with Stephen Sondheim and representatives of the estates of Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins. Insistent that he wanted to revisit the original book not the 1961 film, he approached Tony Kushner, who had scripted Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012).

Keen to put an historical socio-economic and political spin on the action, Kushner and Spielberg decided to place more emphasis on the neighbourhood clearance. They also defined the motivations of the rival gangs, with a view to exploring the growing racial divide in America during Donald Trump's presidency. 'Our idea,' Kushner told one interviewer, 'was the Jets are a gang of homeless, racist, xenophobic street rats. The Sharks are a neighbourhood protection organisation that formed in reaction.'

Kushner consulted Sondheim over the changes, while he and Spielberg recruited a Puerto Rican brains trust to help ensure that every detail of the context, narrative and characterisation rang true. Crucially, they cast Rita Moreno as Valentina, the widowed owner of the local drugstore, whose Jewish husband, Doc, had assumed the Friar Lawrence role in previous versions of the story. While helping to legitimise their approach, Moreno was also able to offer insights into the problems that had faced Wise and Robbins, while her character acted as an on-screen bridge between the two communities. To this end, she was asked to duet on 'Something's Coming' and take over 'Somewhere', which had traditionally been sung by Tony and Maria before their final parting.

These roles went to Ansel Elgort, a former student of the School of American Ballet, and newcomer Rachel Zegler, who was selected from over 30,000 applicants. However, her casting would cause controversy, as her mother was of Colombian descent and her father Polish. Despite her father being Puerto Rican, some also objected to Ariana DeBose being chosen to play Anita. However, she hoped that the fact she is Afro-Latina would 'start a conversation around colourism and how it affects Latinx culture'. Non-binary actor iris menas had similar hopes after Kushner decided to make Anybodys (who had previously been a tomboy) transgender.

Kushner also provided the ensemble with detailed background information about their characters. Tony became an ex-con, who had become averse to violence after nearly killing somebody in a rumble. Maria and Bernardo acquired the surname Vasquez, while the latter's best friend, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), is revealed to have quit the Sharks to become an accountancy student.

Armed with these bio details, the cast embarked upon an exhausting 10-week rehearsal period. By the time shooting commenced in July 2019, they had been put through their paces by Justin Peck, a former student of Jerome Robbins, who had incorporated some of his signature moves into the otherwise new choreography. In addition to location stints in Harlem and Flatlands, there was also a 10-day sojourn in Paterson, New Jersey, where scenes were filmed on a specially constructed outdoor set that had been designed to highlight the urbicide that had presaged the process of gentrification in the Upper West Side. The other sets used during the 79-day shoot were housed in a warehouse at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn.

A still from 42nd Street (1933)
A still from 42nd Street (1933)

Spielberg's staging of the musical numbers demonstrated the influence of Busby Berkeley, whose work as choreographer and director can be enjoyed by Cinema Paradiso users via Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street (1933) and Robert Z. Leonard's Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and For Me and My Gal (1942) and The Gang's All Here (1943). Buzz would have envied Spielberg's access to cameras that were able to glide and swoop, although he would have been reluctant to let 'One Hand, One Heart', 'Somewhere, 'A Boy like That/I Have a Love' and parts of 'Maria' be sung live on the studio floor.

Beside the shifts of narrative focus and changes in cast composition, there were numerous other differences between the two films. For example, not only do the Puerto Rican characters occasionally speak in unsubtitled Spanish, but the Sharks also sing the original revolutionary lyrics of the commonwealth's national anthem, 'La Borinqueña'. They are just as vocal in sticking up for their homeland during 'America', which moves down from a nocturnal rooftop to street level, so that the residents of San Juan Hill can spill out of their houses and join in a daytime block party. This exuberant routine (which was so demanding on baking-hot streets that it burned holes in Ariana DeBose's dance shoes) took 10 days to film across locations in Harlem, Washington Heights and Patterson.

Unlike its predecessors, the 2021 film allows Tony and Maria to go on a date. Indeed, they sing 'One Hand, One Heart' in the Cloisters at the Church of the Intercession rather than in the bridal shop because Maria now works as a night cleaner at the Gimbels department store. During her shift following the rumble, she sings 'I'm So Pretty' without realising that Tony has stabbed her brother.

This violence is made to seem more shocking because Tony had used 'Cool' to convince the Jets not to use weapons at the showdown after Riff (Mike Faist) had acquired a gun. In previous versions, Riff had taken this song to urge his gangmates to avoid provocation during the war council at Doc's drugstore. Riff also loses his part in 'Gee, Officer Krupke', which is now staged inside the NYPD's 21st Precinct, in order to give the Jets the chance to let off some steam after the rumble (which had taken place in a salt warehouse rather than under an overpass).

They are still in a toxically aggressive frame of mind when they confront Anita at the drugstore. In 1961, Doc had intervened to protect her from attack. But the 2021 scene has Anybodys and Jet girls Graziella (Paloma Garcia-Lee) and Velma (Maddie Ziegler) trying unsuccessfully to intervene before Valentina prevents Anita from being raped. Given Rita Moreno's real-life experience of sexual violence, this scene becomes unprecedentedly traumatic, while her rendition of 'Somewhere' feels all the more poignant.

Sondheim approved the repurposing of this song and joined cast members at a special preview screening at the Daniel Koch Theater in Lincoln Center on 17 November 2021. He died nine days later and a pall was cast over the world premiere in the neighbouring Rose Theater on 29 November. This was almost a year after the planned release, as the pandemic had persuaded Disney to await the re-opening of cinemas rather than take the streaming option. The gambit backfired, however, as the film bombed at the box office, grossing just $75.7 million when analysts estimated that it needed to make around $300 million to break even.

Mixed reviews and a disappointing Oscar showing didn't help matters. In denouncing 'a film by and for white guys', some critics accused Spielberg of repeating earlier acts of cultural appropriation and perpetuating dangerous colonialist myths and stereotypes. Others pointed to the film's technical mastery and the commitment of the actors. Much was made of DeBose becoming the first queer woman of colour to win an Academy Award. But she was the picture's sole winner, even though Spielberg broke the record for the number of Best Director nominations (with 11) and became the first director to have been nominated in six consecutive decades.

But what do you think of the variations on this landmark show that are available to rent from Cinema Paradiso? Let us know on Instagram or Twitter. And don't forget to check out our recommendations for what to watch if you liked West Side Story.

A still from The Gang's All Here (1943)
A still from The Gang's All Here (1943)
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  • The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

    1h 10min

    The 1961 version of West Side Story wasn't Robert Wise's first experience of co-directing. For his debut feature, fabled horror producer, Val Lewton, had paired the onetime editor with Gunther von Fritsch on a loose sequel to Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942). Filled with moments of psychological unease, the story centres on a father (Kent Smith), who fears that his introverted six year-old daughter (Ann Carter) has befriended the ghost of his late wife (Simone Simon).

  • Rope (1948)

    Play trailer
    1h 17min

    Working from a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton (who had also written the twice-filmed Gaslight; 1940 & 1944), Arthur Laurents created a screenplay that allowed Alfred Hitchcock to experiment with shooting in long, Technicolor takes. John Dall and Farley Granger play the killers based on the notorious 1920s duo, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, while James Stewart makes the first of his four appearances for Hitchcock, as the former teacher seeking to expose their perfect murder.

  • On the Town (1949)

    Play trailer
    1h 34min

    Jerome Robbins had come up with the idea of making a musical about three sailors enjoying shore leave in New York and Leonard Bernstein had so enjoyed collaborating with writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green that he had asked them to do the lyrics for West Side Story. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's film differs greatly from the show, but set the trend for filming musicals on location. Moreover, this remains among the great city symphonies.

  • Flower Drum Song (1961)

    2h 6min

    Coming between Joshua Logan's South Pacific (1958) and Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965), Henry Koster's adaptation of the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein's show inspired by C.Y. Lee's novel demonstrates that the concept of culturally appropriate representation wasn't entirely alien to Hollywood at the start of the 1960s. That said, three decades would pass before Wayne Wang's The Joy Luck Club (1993) would become the second major studio feature to boast a majority Asian American cast.

  • Gypsy (1962)

    Play trailer
    2h 23min

    Shortly after being denied the chance to sing Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, Natalie Wood rose to the occasion in Mervyn LeRoy's adaptation of the 1959 stage musical that had been written by Arthur Laurents and composed by Jule Styne. The show was based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, who performs one of her famed stripteases in Frank Borzage's Stage Door Canteen (1943). Rosalind Russell won a Golden Globe for playing the nominated Wood's domineering mother.

  • Hester Street (1974)

    1h 30min

    The Lower East Side provides the setting for Joan Micklin Silver's adaptation of Abraham Cahan's 1896 novella, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. Switching between English and Yiddish, it shows how playboy Yaakov (Steven Keats) has to rethink his relationship with the glamorous Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh) when his wife, Gitl (the Oscar-nominated Carol Kane), arrives from Europe with their son. Presenting assimilation as a mixed blessing, this is an East Side story worthy of rediscovery.

  • Romeo and Juliet (1996) aka: Romeo + Juliet

    Play trailer
    1h 55min

    Cinema Paradiso has many versions of the Verona saga, including Paul Czinner's Romeo and Juliet (1966), with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and John Todd's Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), with music by Elton John. However, Baz Luhrmann's retelling with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes dragged the scenario into modern-day Venice Beach and added new levels of danger, chic and meaning. The influence of both its visuals and its attitude on the 2021 WSS is readily evident.

  • Gangs of New York (2002)

    Play trailer
    2h 40min

    The attack on the World Trade Center delayed the release of Martin Scorsese's account of the 1840s turf war in the Five Points district of Lower Manhattan between the Protestant Confederation of American Natives, led by 'Bill the Butcher' Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the Irish Catholic immigrant Dead Rabbits, led by 'Priest' Vallon (Liam Neeson). The influence of poverty and prejudice on gangland crime provides a ready connection to the tensions between the Jets and the Sharks.

  • Save the Last Dance (2001)

    Play trailer
    1h 48min

    The Romeo and Juliet scenario crosses the racial divide in South Side Chicago in Thomas Carter's hip hop musical drama. Guilt-stricken after her mother's death, 17 year-old aspiring ballerina Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) moves in with her estranged father and struggles to settle into a mostly Black high school. However, she's befriended by classmate Chenille Reynolds (Kerry Washington), whose brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), offers to help Sara prepare for her audition for the prestigious Juilliard School.

  • In the Heights (2021)

    Play trailer
    2h 17min

    Another title temporarily shelved because of Covid, Jon M. Chu's film takes us to the predominantly Dominican district of Upper Manhattan that was the setting for the 2007 Off-Broadway musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda. A decade passed after plans for a Kenny Ortega adaptation fell through, but the lure of the bodega and the beauty salon in Washington Heights remained strong. Despite positive reviews, however, the musical somehow suffered the same box-office fate as the WSS reboot.