Sondheim and Spielberg together (Getty Images) / WEST SIDE STORY poster-work circa 1961.

With casting notices and agents’ missives suggesting the fingers are clicking already on this production and early reports that Ansel Elgort has been cast as Tony, the prospect of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is ever closer. As well as tentatively producing Bradley Cooper’s biography Bernstein about the man who wrote the music for the 1957 Broadway original, Spielberg is now purportedly circling Robert Wise’s 1961 Academy Award winning classic – and potentially a project he can complete before production starts at Pinewood Studios for the 2020-touted Indiana Jones V.

Ansel Elgort / GQ Magazine.

A few reasons why the phrase ‘A STEVEN SPIELBERG FILM – WEST SIDE STORY’ holds certain promise…

  • Spielberg has rarely done an all-out urban tale.
  • The immigration DNA of the piece is beyond prescient.
  • It will mark Spielberg’s second remake (after 1989’s Always).
  • Spielberg can turn a visual in the same way Sondheim can turn a lyric.
  • Spielberg’s oeuvre is often domesticity meets movie fantasy.
  • Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) is a brilliant writer and American mind.
  • Spielberg has yet to do a New York movie.
  • Neither Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim were purportedly happy with the sequencing and orchestrations of the Oscar winning 1961 original film so there is scope for addressing that.
  • Spielberg and Sondheim both received their Presidential Medals of Freedom (the highest honour any US civilian can receive) from Barack Obama at the same session in November 2015.
  • Spielberg’s sense of camera movement – vital for a musical – is possibly at its peak right now.
  • Spielberg has yet to direct an all-out musical.
  • The original thinking for West Side Story wanted to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor coming to New York to face anti-Semitic sentiments from rival factions.
  • In 1988, Spielberg’s key collaborator John Williams wrote ‘For New York’ – a celebratory piece to mark Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday.
  • Bearing in mind Spielberg has been circling a Bernstein biopic (as have others) this reworking might not be the standard musical some could be expecting.
  • West Side Story is part of the history of American cinema. So is Steven Spielberg.
  • The names ‘Leonard Bernstein’ and ‘Stephen Sondheim’ are as vital to 20th century culture as Steven Spielberg’.
  • Spielberg is finally doing Shakespeare.
  • Spielberg is no stranger to the musical form. Whilst he has not only weaved show and movie standards into his work (‘Anything Goes’, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’, ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, ‘In The Mood’, ‘Baby Mine’, ‘Miss Celie’s Blues’) . There is rarely a Spielberg directed movie that hasn’t incorporated at least one song or musical moment into its story. Besides, a musical is not just made up of songs and tap. It is about camera movement, a sense of pace, a sense of youth, a celebration and awareness of cinema, a controlled sense of production and an ability to marry up music to visuals – all traits we can safely say Mr Steven Allan Spielberg has somewhat mastered over the years.
  • Spielberg is due a new Shark movie!


John Williams celebratory piece for Leonard Bernstein, For New York (1988)


Mark O’Connell is the author of Watching Skies – Star Wars, Spielberg and Us, published now in the US and UK by The History Press.