‘West Side Story’: Gee, Officer Krupke, Why Was It a Flop?

Steven Spielberg’s remake had every reason to succeed — only it wasn’t ready to rumble

20th Century Studios

Ben Svetkey

Benjamin Svetkey

Veteran entertainment journalist Benjamin Svetkey shoots the breeze, raises a brow and sometimes wags a finger in his ruminations on the latest Hollywood news and controversies.

Steven Spielberg is arguably Hollywood’s greatest living film director. “West Side Story” is arguably Broadway’s greatest-ever musical. Put the two together and what could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, more than anyone ever imagined.

Of course, it’s conceivable that Spielberg’s $100 million remake of “West Side Story” will ultimately overcome its dismal $10.5 million opening weekend and grow into at least a modest hit — TheWrap’s Jeremy Fuster points the way here — but right now, at this moment, it’s looking very much like a big fat flop. Not exactly a “Cats”-sized fiasco (that Universal stinker grossed just $6.5 million its opening weekend two years ago), but near enough. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights did better when it opened in theaters last June, grossing $11.5 million, despite the fact that it was also streaming simultaneously on HBOMax. 

What went wrong? How did this seemingly perfect match turn out to be such a star-crossed box office tragedy? There’s no shortage of theories. Let’s look at several.

  1. Musicals are over

Once a Hollywood staple, musicals have a reputation as box office poison these days. Along with “Cats” and last summer’s “In the Heights,” the Broadway smash “Dear Evan Hansen” also tanked when it was adapted for the screen earlier this fall, grossing just $7.5 million on its opening weekend. According to this theory, “West Side Story” was simply too melodic for today’s tone-deaf audiences.

Except, that’s not entirely true. Song and dance numbers aren’t always deadly at the ticket booth, or at least just before the pandemic. 2018’s “Mary Poppins Returns” made $350 million globally, 2016’s “La La Land” grossed $448 million and 2012’s “Les Misérables” took home $442 million. Even “The Greatest Showman,” declared dead on arrival when it opened in 2017 to a mere $8.8 million, managed to turn its fortunes around, with Hugh Jackman’s PT Barnum tale slowly building a following and ultimately grossing $436 million worldwide.

Some musicals, it seems, are more poisonous than others.

Taylor Swift Cats 2019 Bombalurina
Taylor Swift in “Cats” (Universal)

2. Older people stayed home

Shockingly, most young people aren’t all that jazzed about mid-20th century musical theater dealing with white flight and inner-city gentrification. But a lot of older folks are. To many of them, the original 1961 film is hallowed pop culture ground. And that might have made the new “West Side Story” — a 60-year-old classic directed by a 74-year-old cinematic god — irresistible Boomer bait. Even if just out of curiosity, this film should have had older moviegoers pouring into theaters. 

But older people just aren’t going to the movies these days, for all too obvious reasons. The James Bond film “No Time to Die” had some success luring that demo back into theaters in October — 57% of the opening weekend audience was over 35, and the movie went on to gross $700 million worldwide — but that was before the pandemic’s latest plot twist. If “No Time to Die” had opened on Dec. 10, with Omicron swirling ominously in the headlines, the movie might not have performed quite as well even if Daniel Craig sprang from his Aston Martin, twirled in the street and belted out his own rendition of “I Feel Pretty.” 

3. Latinos were not amused

The original “West Side Story,” beloved though it may be, was hardly perfect. Casting the white actress Natalie Wood as Puerto Rican heroine Maria was, in historical hindsight, a huge blunder. Forcing Rita Moreno, an actual Puerto Rican, to wear brown makeup to make her Anita look “more” Puerto Rican was shockingly cringey even back then. 

Spielberg and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Tony Kushner, took pains to avoid making any similarly insensitive missteps — casting only Puerto Rican actors as the Sharks and attending a town hall at the University of Puerto Rico where Spielberg promised faculty and students that he’d “represent Puerto Rico in a way that will make all of you and all of us proud.” But, alas, it didn’t work out as hoped. For a lot of Latinos, the basic text itself — with Puerto Ricans portrayed as hot-headed gang-bangers — was so flawed and offensive as to be irredeemable, no matter how much nuanced backstory Kushner pumped into the script.

“I want it to flop so we can move on,” New York Times cultural critic Carina del Valle Schorske declared a few weeks before the film opened, all but comparing the musical to a Confederate monument. Rather than activating the Latino audience in a positive way — as the 2018 hit “Crazy Rich Asians” did with Asian moviegoers and the 2018 megablockbuster “Black Panther” did for Black audiences — “West Side Story” succeeded only in activating some Latinos into rooting for its failure.

ansel elgort
Ansel Elgort (Getty Images)

4. Ansel Elgort is no Richard Beymer

To be fair, Beymer was just as terrible in the role of Tony in the original film as Elgort is in the remake (“flat-footed” is how The Guardian rather generously described Elgort’s performance). But at least Beymer didn’t get ensnared in a #MeToo scandal with accusations of trolling for underage girls on the internet. 

The studio’s PR team did its best to contain the story when it broke last year (well after the film had been shot) by limiting Elgort’s press exposure to group interviews and friendly late-night talk shows. But, of course, not even Disney can make this sort of thing go away. At a screening shortly before the film’s release, the audience booed when Elgort appeared on screen. One viewer captured the moment on a phone camera, uploaded it online and in no time the clip went viral, amassing 100,000 views. No, not all publicity is good publicity.

Some in the media have speculated that the Elgort scandal (and, for the record, the 27-year-old “Baby Driver” actor has denied any wrongdoing) tanked the film’s box office, pushing younger moviegoers away. That’s certainly possible, but the fact that Elgort is pretty much the biggest name in the picture (not counting 90-year-old Rita Moreno, who returns for a new part as the proprietor of the neighborhood hangout) might have also contributed to the lackluster box office. Whatever else you can say about the film’s casting — critics have nothing but praise for newcomers Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita — there aren’t any stars in the picture. 

That, of course, makes it a tough sale for audiences of any age.

5. Timing is everything

When the original movie came out during the Kennedy administration, it was hailed as a bold and even shocking indictment of racial inequity in the American inner city — with singing and dancing.

In the 60 years since then, America’s inner cities haven’t improved all that much — in a lot of ways, they’re worse — and maybe that’s made it a little bit harder to watch actors pirouetting in slum rubble and crooning during rumbles.

After Kyle Rittenhouse and George Floyd and especially January 6, the country may not be in the mood for a riot musical, no matter how gorgeously shot or smartly written or brilliantly directed it may be (and Spielberg’s remake is, in fact, all of those things).

Somewhere there may indeed be a place for a movie like Spielberg’s West Side Story. Clearly, though, it was not Dec. 10, 2021.