From Stage to Page to Screen: Inside the West Side Story Script: Tony Kushner Explains the Process of Adapting a Classic

Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg and Rita Moreno on the set of West Side Story (Image courtesy of 20th Century Films)

The adaptations call on Tony Kusnher. Although he made a name for himself with his groundbreaking and epic theatrical landmark of the AIDS era, Angels in America, throughout his career he repeatedly immersed himself in the works of others. “If you love a text,” he said, “there’s no way to get more intimate with it than to adapt it.”

The theatre, by its very nature, is a place for adaptations and translations to flourish, and so Kushner embraced new versions of classic plays (including two Brechts, The good person from Szechuan and Mother Courage and her children), lesser-known texts (such as The Illusion, his rereading of Pierre Corneille The comic illusion) and literary adaptations (his 1991 play by Ariel Dorfman widows, co-authored with the author).

It’s a particular set of challenges, often text- and time-specific. As a case study, he cited his 2006 translation and production of Mother Courage at the Public Theater in New York. “There’s a great British translation by John Willett and Ralph Manheim that’s very very playable and playable, but it’s done in some sort of Lancastrian, Mancunian, ‘nowt’ dialect, and it’s useless in America. It doesn’t there was no good American English version of Mother Courage, and I really wanted Meryl Streep to do it, so I told her if she did, I would do the translation, so we did.”

He’s also no stranger to film conversions, having adapted George Jonas Revenge in Munich and Doris Kearns Goodwin Rivals team in lincoln for Steven Spielberg. So when the Schindler’s list the director approached him to write the screenplay for a new film version of the 1957 Broadway phenomenon West Side Story, it entered like any other project, unaware that there would be backlash to the very idea of ​​a second film version after the Oscar-winning 1961 adaptation, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. “I had no idea how universal skepticism was, and I’m glad I didn’t know that when we wrote it.”

Lesson learned: Nothing lifts the eye of film culture more than the concept of a remake. It wasn’t until the reviews came out that he understood the urge not to see this version on sight. He recalled, “[Even] the most favorable started with a version of ‘I couldn’t imagine this would have anything to add, or that it would work, or I couldn’t imagine why they were doing this – but now I see why.'”

“It felt like there was a way to get back to the original source material, the Broadway musical, the original score and the original book.” -Tony Kushner

Not that Kushner didn’t have questions himself. Any adapter is going to ask why they should review a work and Spielberg’s answer, according to Kushner, was simple: “‘You’re telling me’.” Spielberg had his own reasons, including some technical ideas about what could be done with the cameras now that cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp couldn’t get away with it in the sixties. But regarding the story, Kushner said, ‘It felt like there was a way to get back to the original source material, the Broadway musical, the original score and the original book.'”

The reality is that there is no sacrosanct singular version of West Side Story. Even the stage version itself is not set in stone: for example, in its 2009 revival, the original writer Arthur Laurents himself worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda for a bilingual translation. There were also major structural and narrative differences between the play and the 1961 film. Even though it was only released four years after the original musical rocked Broadway forever, screenwriter Ernest Lehman made changes radicals to Laurents’ book, adding characters, changing the order of songs, even swapping musical numbers between parts. Kushner’s theory was that Robbins wanted to prove that the musical, which opened to lukewarm reviews and lost the Tony to The music man, was a masterpiece and every change was made to reinforce that point. Example: adding an opening. In the stage version, he said, “It just started with the ‘dah-dah-DUM’ and then straight into the prologue. If you don’t have an overture, the audience doesn’t hear the songs, the melodies. But before hearing “Some Enchanted Evening” in South Pacific, you’ve already heard it twice in the opening. There was nothing to prepare the audience for hearing these incredible melodies.”

Tony Kushner, screenwriter of the 2021 version of West Side Story (Photo by Angela C Brown)

However, his main decisions were to return to the original version, such as moving “Gee, Officer Krupke” from the second act (where Lehman had moved it, to fit all the comedy into the first half of the film). If he pulled anything solid from the Robbins and Wise version, it was a license to make some of his own changes, even with instantly identifiable songs. He explained: “In the stage version, ‘Somewhere’ is sung by a fantasy character in a dreamy ballet. So I felt I had the right to take it away from Tony and Maria, who grabbed it for the first movie, and giving our new character, Valentina, for Rita Morena to sing.”

It’s not like Kushner is the first person to do a new adaptation of a classic work for the stage that’s already been filmed. “There are one or two versions of Hamlet“, he said deadpan, “and one of them is very good.” Plus, a little secret that not many people may know. West Side Story is itself a loose reworking of Romeo and Juliet. “I’m sure some people were like ‘why do a musical when the play is so great?'”

Still, what appealed to Kushner and Spielberg was that the original musical is a landmark and a classic, and so they didn’t want to mess with what drew them in the first place. However, they also had somewhat unique approval of their choices, with “great encouragement” from the families and estates of Laurents, Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, and most notably Stephen Sondheim. The original musical’s lyricist was present during the filming and recording process, and even made some changes to the lyrics himself. Kushner recalled, “I think he would have made bigger changes if I had let him.”

On the contrary, the Kushner/Spielberg version is closer to what opened in 1957 at the Winter Garden Theater than the early film versions: but Kushner’s role was not simply to be a stenographer. He first went back to the original cast recording, listening to it over and over and re-reading Laurents’ book, “thinking about the things that had been changed for the [1961] movie that we might want to go back.” In the process, he came up with “very exciting ideas, character attributes, etc., that were latent and hinted at in the 1961 musical and film, but for some reason they weren’t really created. explicit in any way.” The more he read, he added, “the more I felt there was plenty of room to develop our own ideas, without in any way betraying or violating or interfering with a way foreign to the original intentions.”

“I think [Stephen Sondheim] would have made bigger changes if I had let him. -Tony Kushner

This confidence was reinforced by the writing process, which Kushner described as “in dialogue” with previous releases. “Beat after beat, as I came to Steven with new ideas and structure, new character ideas, major character changes, we became more and more excited about the possibilities. [and] the original film started to feel a little less intimidating.”

The process allowed him to delve deeper into the original work – one of his passions (“Sometimes when I read a book and like it, I just type a passage from the book, just to feel like I’m writing the words .”) It also meant addressing one of his longstanding issues with the story, until Romeo and Juliet. “I don’t believe people really fall in love at first sight. I think people have intense feelings of lust for each other at first sight, and then it can – if they’re lucky or bad luck – turn into an incredible feeling of love or a deep attachment But I can’t understand how that can happen, how you can really fall in love with someone you saw for a moment at a dance in a gym.

So, as always, he returned to the source material. In this case, Romeo and Juliet, and more precisely the 1968 version by Franco Zeffirelli. “The balcony scene in this movie is phenomenal, and you realize that Romeo and Juliet they don’t fall in love with each other at first sight. They tease each other, and they’re obviously hot for each other when they meet at the party, then the balcony scene, they realize they’re as amazing as they look at first, and they’re starting to really play with the themes of being crazy loving. It’s kind of a comedy, and it doesn’t really turn into love until they’re together again.”

With that background, he was able to go back to the scripts and make those scenes work — only to find that Sondheim had already hidden all that wisdom in plain sight, in the words of “Tonight.” Kushner said, “That he writes words like, ‘Today the world was just an address / A place to live / No better than good. Later he would laugh at these lyrics, but there’s something incredibly daring about these two teenagers singing one of the all-time great melodies, and he wrote lyrics showing them striving to fill the space that Bernstein created – that’s what you do when you first fall in love. You’re trying to live up to all the fantasies of what being in love should be like, and part of you is always aware that you’re faking it a bit, and you hope the other person doesn’t notice. And then something changes, and you don’t fall in love anymore. You’re in love.


West Side Story is currently in theaters. Read our review and find timetables here.

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