Stephen Sondheim, who died Nov. 26 at 91, leaves us with a parting gift in the form of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, out Dec. 10. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for the landmark 1957 Broadway musical, which remain mostly untouched in the new adaptation, according to screenwriter Tony Kushner, a frequent Spielberg collaborator (Munich, Lincoln) who was tasked with updating West Side Story to contemporary sensibilities. Kushner, 65, spoke to THR two days before Sondheim’s passing about re-envisioning the classic musical — and why he anticipates Story will avoid the kinds of criticism leveled at In the Heights.
What were your initial thoughts when you heard Steven Spielberg wanted to remake West Side Story?
The first time I heard about it was when Steven and I had breakfast in New York around 2016. He said, “I have a project that I’d like to propose.” And he said he wanted to do West Side Story. And my first thought was, “You’re out of your mind.” And I came home and told [my husband, author] Mark [Harris]. I said, “Steven wants to redo West Side Story. I can’t think of anything harder, and I hope he drops it.” But he didn’t drop it. He kept bringing it up and talking about it. And I got very excited by some of the things he was telling me.
Steven has a real knack for figuring out where the fault lines in society are, what’s in the zeitgeist right now, what are people concerned about. And the inclusiveness that is at the heart of the American democratic experiment and willingness to expand the franchise and the enormous importance of multiculturalism to the American democratic experiment — these are all really near and dear to Steven’s heart and to mine.
The source material, Romeo and Juliet, is about hatred between two groups that are sort of two sides of the same coin. Nobody even knows why the Capulets and the Montagues hate each other. That’s given a misimpression about West Side Story, which is that the Jets and the Sharks are the Capulets and the Montagues. They’re not. The creators believed very deeply that race hatred and bigotry and oppression and discrimination are profoundly malevolent aberrations and can lead to cataclysmic consequences. And I think that is the tragedy of West Side Story. It is an anti-racist, democratic musical.
Your 2003 musical, Caroline, or Change, is currently enjoying a Broadway revival. I take it you are a fan of the genre.
I love musicals, and I’m basically a person of theater. So I started getting very excited about the idea. And we began talking about things that we wanted to do with it and what kind of film it wanted to be and why now and what the problems were and what was exciting about it.
I think the very first thing I said to Steven was, “It’s not only one of the greatest musicals ever written, it’s arguably the greatest dance musical ever. If we’re really going to do this, we have to immediately start to think of who the choreographer would be, because it has to be somebody, not only somebody who’s wonderful, but somebody that you can really work closely with. Because it’s got to be kind of a collaboration between you and the choreographer.” [New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck choreographed the 2021 film.] So that was sort of the beginning of it. By 2017, I had the first draft done.
You’ve mentioned that Arthur Laurents’ book is a classic and you wouldn’t change anything from the original film. So how do you go about taking something that you wouldn’t change and change it?
Arthur’s book is not the screenplay for the  movie, which made a number of changes from the original. I’ve never really wanted to write a book for a musical, because the really big, transformative moments in a musical tend to be the songs. [As] somebody who writes words, the lyrics are where it’s at. A great book writer, which Arthur was, has the ability to structure events. The dialogue in between the songs is important. But in general, I think there’s room for change in that.
I knew Arthur a little bit. The person in charge of Arthur’s estate, David Saint, was incredibly generous about saying, “Change anything you want to change.” It’s very substantially rewritten, though in some ways it’s closer to what Arthur envisioned in terms of the structure. The order of the songs is much closer to the 1957 musical than it is to the ’61 film.
What was your own association to West Side Story coming into this?
In 1961, I guess I was 5 years old or something. My parents were both classical musicians who revered [West Side Story composer Leonard] Bernstein. So we had the original Broadway cast album of West Side Story at home. And like any good little gay boy, I listened to every original cast album I could get my hands on. And I listened to it a lot. So that more than anything else was what West Side Story was for me, was that album.
And when I started working on the screenplay for this, I didn’t go back to the soundtrack album for the movie. I went to the ’57, the album that Sondheim produced, the original cast album. And I learned lots of things that I think are important to the heart of this musical from that.
There are things in the [new] screenplay that are true to what Arthur wrote, or actually lines that Arthur wrote. And then there’s an enormous amount that’s different. I was sort of surprised to find that there was a lot of room for expanding certain aspects of all the characters, changing certain things, like Tony’s backstory, Maria’s backstory for that matter, Bernardo’s backstory, Riff’s.
We changed one major character — my husband’s idea. I told him I was going to do West Side Story. He said, “What are you going to do about Doc?” Ned Glass is a wonderful actor, but we always found the Doc character in the movie a little Borscht Belt. So he said, “I have a great idea: Change Doc into a Puerto Rican woman and offer the part to Rita Moreno.”
The minute he said that I thought, “Oh my God, what a great idea.” So I called Steven and immediately and said, “Can we do that?” And Steven was like, “What a great idea.” So I created this new character who was the widow of Doc, but who was Puerto Rican. And we offered to Rita, the first person we offered a part to, because I met her several times before I started working in the movie and I revere her.
One of the great non-human characters of West Side Story is its urban landscape. How did that change in the new version?
I live in Lincoln Towers, right behind Lincoln Center. If you watch the ’61 film in the prologue, there’s a moment when I believe it’s the Jets running up an embankment. And right down below them, the Sharks are waiting, and they throw vegetables at the Jets. But if you look past the actors, and you look into the distance, you see what looks like Hiroshima after the bomb. It’s a completely devastated, what used to be obviously a big urban neighborhood, but nothing is still standing. And that’s where I live now, a neighborhood called Lincoln Towers.
Apartment buildings were built when [New York’s “master builder”] Robert Moses cleared the entire area. So I wanted to try and set up a slightly different premise — that this territory that’s being fought over is actually being taken away by a third party, by the Committee for Slum Clearance, using eminent domain. And that’s a big part of the look. And I think, ultimately, that worked beautifully.
Then I took the permission that I was given by the very generous rights-holders, and by Sondheim himself, to think about some of the songs slightly differently, and who sings them. And I can’t give away secrets, but there are some big, I hope agreeable and effective, surprises in that.
Did Sondheim contribute new lyrics?
No. We talked about it, and he tried a couple of things. I worked really, really closely to him. I think maybe the most thrilling thing for me is that whole process. I’ve known Steve for quite a while, but we never worked on anything together. When I finished the first and second draft of the screenplay, which he was very happy with, I got to go and sit with him for a couple of days in his home and go through it line by line. And he gave me tons of notes. He’s Stephen Sondheim. I mean, I was completely thrilled. And he’s so smart, and he so deeply understands musicals. We talked about maybe making some changes in a couple of songs. But in the long run, we didn’t feel that it was necessary. He came to the set several times and was very much involved in the movie. But ultimately, I wouldn’t let him change anything because I love the lyrics too much. I think they’re spectacularly great.
There are a couple of versions of some of the songs, like “America.” So we were able to do a kind of cherry-picking thing, working with him. I just followed the original cast album and gave Spielberg moment by moment what I thought was happening in each of the songs.
In 2019, you held a town hall with Steven in Puerto Rico, where locals expressed concern over remaking West Side Story.
The meeting in San Juan was genuinely a thrilling meeting. We got to meet a large number of Puerto Rican filmmakers, and we had some very meaningful conversations with them. My sense is that the feeling at the meeting was pretty great. One of the reasons that I work with Steven as often as I have, and one of the things that I admire about him, is Steven is an incredible listener and an incredibly collaborative person for all his immense fame and power and vast, almost infinite knowledge of the medium. Everything that I’ve done with him, from Munich until now, he’s been collaborative — not only with me but with his designers and his producers. The West Side Story castmembers will tell you he’s accessible. He draws a lot of what he films from his interactions with his cast. He loves actors, and he really is curious and open in a kind of thrilling way to the experiences that people have had that are not like his own. I think that was on display in San Juan. We knew we were going into a complicated situation. West Side Story is not meant to be, and was never at any point meant to be, a definitive statement of the Puerto Rican and Nuyorican experience.
Another thing I love about Steven is I think he’s a very brave guy. He doesn’t play it safe. I learned that when we made Munich. Obviously, if we thought that the musical that we were basing the movie on was inherently racist or offensive, we wouldn’t have gone near it. I read everything I could get my hands on, from the time and since, in terms of cultural criticism of West Side Story, including by a number of Puerto Rican scholars and activists. And I think we certainly worked very, very hard from the beginning, not to make sure that we didn’t offend anyone, but to make sure that we got it right. We really wanted every character to be as true to life and to be as coherent and fully rich and complicated and human as we could possibly make him, her or them.
Who specifically did you consult with to get the cultural details right?
One of the things that I love about being a playwright and a screenwriter is that I get to try and imagine whatever it is, it’s my job to imagine. And then I get to go into rooms with a lot of different people. And if I write a character whose life is very different from mine, it’s very likely that that character will be played by someone whose life is somewhat closer to the character.
One of the first things I did when I finished the screenplay, which has a lot of Spanish in it, I called a friend of mine, Julio Monge, who’s an actor and a choreographer and is Puerto Rican. And I asked him if he’d help me work on the Spanish. So we hired him to work on the Spanish, to make sure it was Puerto Rican inflected.
And then when we got into rehearsal with the cast, I asked Victor Cruz, who was one of our dialect coaches and is Puerto Rican, to pull together five Puerto Rican actors from the cast who would be willing to meet with me once a week for a stretch of time, to go through the script over and over and over again, and to try and figure out: In this line, is the Spanish correct? Is this the way a Puerto Rican would say it, or the way a Nuyorican would say it? Is this the way they would’ve said it in 1957? So, these are very young actors, and they were calling their grandmother, saying, “Would you say it this way? Or would you say that?”
And that kind of worked. We worked with Virginia Sánchez Korro, who is a CUNY scholar of Puerto Rican and Nuyorican history. And she was very deeply involved in the movie, on the set a lot, and she’s become a good friend. And Bobby Sanabria, who’s a great Puerto Rican musician who was involved.
In the Heights is a similarly themed musical — Latin cast and Latin themes. But it came under fire unexpectedly for not having more diversity in the casting. Did you and Steven discuss that?
Oh, absolutely. I began reading a ton of books about Puerto Rican and Nuyorican experience. And the first thing I ran into was the question of the color line and Afro-Puerto Ricans and those issues. I said to Steven, “I think we should really try to have either Maria or Anita played by a Black Latina actress.” And in walked Ariana DeBose, who is just a miracle of an actor. I think that was an important decision that we made. I would hope that when Nuyoricans or Puerto Ricans look at the community that we created in the movie, it will look to them like a 1957, Upper West Side, Nuyorican community and that the Sharks in general will feel authentic. I believe, to my non-Puerto Rican eyes, it looks very, very good. And I guess we’ll hear. That conversation will continue.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.