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Why the ‘West Side Story’ remake changed these 5 key musical numbers

Ansel Elgort looks down at Rachel Zegler in a scene from "West Side Story."
Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria in “West Side Story.”
(Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios)
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A neighborhood crime spree. A stolen smooch behind the bleacher. A game of gun keep-away involving a gun. Hundreds of people dancing in the street.

The new version of “West Side Story” has no shortage of scenes that are pointedly different from the beloved 1961 film version, which has been criticized over time for its inauthentic casting and cultural shortcomings.

Critics’ reactions, comparisons to the 1961 movie and more to know about the new “West Side Story” starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler.

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Producer-director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and choreographer Justin Peck pay homage to the original film in several moments, but filmgoers likely will have lively debates over many of the changes in the remake.

Much of those animated discussions will center on the vibrant musical production numbers, which were choreographed in the original film by Jerome Robbins. Those sequences are among the best dance numbers ever put onscreen.

A vibrant new screen adaptation of the enduring Broadway classic will remind you of the power of the big screen movie musical.

Here are five key differences between the two “West Side Story” films:

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THE PROLOGUE

1961: The introduction of the Jets street gang takes place in several rundown blocks on New York’s West Side scheduled for demolition to make way for Lincoln Center. Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and his comrades prance and dance through the streets until they are confronted by the rival Sharks led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). The focus moves back and forth between the Jets and the Sharks, spotlighting the fierce battles between the two gangs battling for the territory.

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2021: The opening scene takes place mostly around buildings that have been demolished, and centers primarily on the Jets and their mayhem, ranging from stealing paint cans to removing a sign from a Puerto Rican business that used to be an Irish pub. Their fight with the Sharks comes into focus when the gang defaces a wall mural of the flag of Puerto Rico.

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THE DANCE AT THE GYM

A woman in a white dress looking over her shoulder
Rachel Zegler as Maria in a scene from “West Side Story.”
(20th Century Studios / AP)

1961: Tony (Richard Beymer), the founder of the Jets, and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Natalie Wood) first spot each other on the opposite ends of the dance floor, and are so captivated by each other that the other dancers on the crowded floor fade from view. The two engage in a simple dance that shows them perfectly in sync, while the other dancers move around them, present but distant. When they start to kiss, they are quickly interrupted by Bernardo, who yanks Maria away from Tony.

2021: Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) still first spot each other on the dance floor but later move behind the bleacher where they are alone. They dance, and Maria surprises Tony with a quick smooch, demonstrating how this Maria is less demure than her 1961 counterpart.

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‘AMERICA’

Women in colorful dresses dance on a New York City street.
Ariana DeBose as Anita in “West Side Story.”
(Niko Tavernise)

1961: The iconic dance number takes place on the rooftop of an apartment where Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Rita Moreno), and other members of the Sharks and their girlfriends live. The number begins as a feisty debate between Anita and Bernardo about the opportunities offered by America versus its oppressive racism. The argument escalates into a full-blown, celebratory dance number.

2021: The argument between Bernardo and Anita begins in her apartment and eventually moves outside into the street, where hundreds of residents join in. The sequence is reminiscent of several dance numbers in the film version of “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s love letter to Washington Heights released last summer.

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‘COOL’

1961: This explosive dance number, which comes close to equaling “America” with its precision, brilliance and intensity, takes place in an large empty garage following the rumble where Riff and Bernardo are killed. Distraught and grieving, the Jets want to retaliate against the Sharks, but new leader Ice (Tucker Smith) advises his mates and their girlfriends to calm down and play it “cool.” Their dance is both explosive and healing.

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2021: The number, which occurs before the rumble, takes place on a dock and is staged as a debate between Tony and Riff (Mike Feist), who plans to bring a gun to the battle. Tony takes the gun from Riff, and the two play a tense game of keep-away.

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‘SOMEWHERE’

An older woman stands looking out a window.
Rita Moreno as Valentina in Steven Spielberg’s new screen adaptation of “West Side Story.”
(Niko Tavernise)

1961: Taking refuge in Maria’s room after the deadly rumble, Tony and Maria realize they can never really live in peace in New York, and decide to run away to a place where they can be free “with peace and quiet and open air.” The two sing the song as they fall into bed and make love.

2021: In perhaps the most radical departure from the original movie, the beautiful ballad is sung by Valentina (Moreno), a character reconceived from the original movie’s Doc, who runs the small shop where Tony works. Eyeing a picture of her with her dead husband, who was white, the widow sings the song as a plea for racial harmony.

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