Iconic filmmaker Steven Spielberg revealed which classic song he originally wanted to cut from his adaptation of West Side Story.
“The thing I was wrong about and [screenwriter Tony Kushner was] right about, and the only one on my side was Stephen Sondheim, [was] we both wanted to cut ‘I Feel Pretty,'” said Spielberg in a joint interview alongside the cast and Kushner. “The reason was that in the original Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins film, ‘I Feel Pretty’ presages the rumble. It happens when Tony and Maria know they’re existent in the world together and she’s celebrating the happiest moment of her life.”
However, “I Feel Pretty” comes at a different part of the narrative in the stage musical. In the original version of the script, Maria, unaware Tony killed her brother, sings of her love for him. According to Spielberg, Sondheim, the lyricist for the show, was unhappy with the song from the start.
“The reason as Sondheim explained to me that it came to be, is because they came to him and said, ‘You need to write an upbeat number because at the end of the Second Act, Bernardo and Riff are dead,” explained the West Side Story director. “The audience is sobbing out by the concessions area. We come back with more tragedy after they’ve had their break. So we need to pick them up again.’ So Sondheim under protest wrote ‘I Feel Pretty’ with Lenny [Bernstein] and it works. It brought the audience back on their feet.”
Why Spielberg Included the iconic West Side Story Song
Spielberg then said that Kushner challenged him on the song’s merits.
“Well in our movie, it also follows the rumble, and I didn’t know without that 15-minute or 20-minute interval whether the audience could recover [and accept] that she would even be having this moment,” said Spielberg. “Then Tony explained to me, and then I explained to Stephen. He paused for a long time on the phone. This is the first time in our story that the entire audience is ahead of Maria’s story. And the audience will feel very protective of her because we know she’s about to find out. So it went back in.”
The writer and the director also clashed over another song: “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
Another more lighthearted number, this song sees the Jets lamenting the way the world perceives them. They make fun of the adults in their lives, ranging from social workers to judges and of course, local cop Officer Krupke.
“We only disagreed about one song, which is I wanted to put ‘Krupke’ in the second act, where it originally was intended to be,” said Kushner. “And [Spielberg] had the most violent reaction to anything I’ve ever done!”
He then addressed the director: Do you remember at one point in the long process of doing Lincoln, I wrote a scene where there was this fantasy character, an old lady who visits Lincoln and then falls out a window or something? You were very polite about that. ‘Oh yeah, that’s interesting but maybe not.’ But [on this] you said, ‘I love the screenplay until I got to ‘Krupke,’ and then it ruined it for me! Never! It’s never, ever going to be there, get it out of there! Rewrite the whole thing, I can’t show it to anybody unless you get it out!’ So it got shoved in the first act.”
Ultimately, Kushner agreed with Spielberg after watching the final film. West Side Story is now up for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress for Ariana Debose, who played Anita. Additionally, the film will stream on both HBOMax and Disney+ on March 2.