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Why Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story Remake Is an Important Opportunity

If you love musical theater, it’s likely that West Side Story is a big part of that love. If you love musical theater and you’re Puerto Rican (like me!), West Side Story has a particular significance as one of the first times you ever heard anyone talking about Puerto Ricans that much outside your own home. So, I was thrilled to learn that the classic Broadway show, which became a classic film, is now being remade for the screen.

In a tweet posted yesterday, writer Mark Harris announced a casting call for the upcoming West Side Story remake, which will be adapted by Harris’ husband, acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner, and directed by Steven Spielberg for 20th Century Fox.

OK, let’s get the knee-jerk objections out of the way: We need more original stories, not remakes! Why remake this movie? It was perfect! 

To the first point, I will always redirect people to this, now and forever. Just replace the geeky sci-fi examples with equally geeky musical theater references, and the same points apply. To the second point…no. It was not perfect.

image: 20th Century Fox Rita Moreno as Anita in "West Side Story"

I love the original movie so much. I wore that soundtrack out as a kid. But the fact remains that Natalie Wood (Maria), a Russian/Ukranian American actress was playing a Puerto Rican lead. George Chakiris (Bernardo), a American of Greek descent, was playing a Puerto Rican role. Thank God for Rita Moreno as Anita! When I was a child watching this movie over and over, she provided the one shining bastion of authentic Puerto Ricanness for me to hold onto in the whole film. And let’s be real, Anita’s the cooler, more nuanced female role anyway.

Now, the original musical was created by Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheimall white, Jewish dudes. So, it’s not as if this is a “Puerto Rican story” in that sense. In fact, the musical was originally going to be East Side Story, and it was going to be an examination of anti-semitism through the conflict (and forbidden love story) between an Irish Catholic Family and a Jewish family during the Easter/Passover season on the Lower East Side of New York City.

However, once the team scrapped that version and met in Los Angeles several years later, when gangs and “juvenile delinquents” were all over the news in the 1950s, Bernstein brought up a recent news story about a Mexican gang engaged in a turf war and suggested that the conflict in their musical could be between a white gang and a Mexican gang, set in L.A. Laurents, being a New Yorker, felt more comfortable writing about New York, and felt more knowledgeable about the Puerto Rican community there than he did about the Mexican community in L.A. The rest is musical theater history.

What I appreciate about all of this, despite this group of non-Latinx writing a story about a community of which they are not a part, which today might seem appropriative, is that they were doing it at all. That they chose to write about Puerto Ricans at a time when very few, if any writers of musicals, film, or TV, were writing about Puerto Ricans. They certainly weren’t making Puerto Rican characters the leads of stories.

Which is in large part why, when the time came to cast, there were so few bankable Puerto Ricans to take on these lead roles. It’s the reason why, in the original musical on Broadway, Anita was played by Puerto Rican musical legend, Chita Rivera, but Maria was played by Carol Lawrence, an American actress of Italian descent. It’s why Moreno played Anita in the film, but Wood played Maria.

It’s the reason why there aren’t bankable stars from several marginalized groups today, and why a concerted effort needs to be made. Creating the material creates demand for those actors. Hiring those actors consistently creates bankable stars among them.

Not only did they write about Puerto Ricans, but they did so with respect and dignity. West Side Story isn’t designed so that you choose sides, and the Puerto Ricans aren’t slighted to make the white kids look good. Each side has good people and not-so-good people in it, and they are all kids just trying to get by while caught up in forces much, much bigger than themselves. The Puerto Rican characters were a part of that, and even Bernardo, who can seem like the most full-of-machismo-bullshit douchenozzle, is painted sympathetically. You might not agree with him all the time, but you understand. Racism and bigotry are real, kids, and Bernardo is keenly aware of it.

image: 20th Century Fox George Chakiris as Bernardo with the Sharks in "West Side Story"

Casting aside, there’s another element that stands out to me as not-perfect. The way in which the stage musical and the film frame Puerto Ricans as “immigrants.”

When I was a kid, the song “America” always confused me. I mean, I understood the back and forth between the boys and the girls (the boys missed home, the girls were ready to move on), but I remember asking myself, “But…isn’t Puerto Rico “America” too?”

My dad arrived in New York with his family when he was about nine circa 1944. My mother came later, in her early twenties, in the 1950s. My parents had come to New York from Puerto Rico the way the characters in West Side Story did, and I often lovingly say I was raised by “West Side Story Puerto Ricans” in that I was raised by people in that wave of arrivals.

Yet, even as a kid I understood that Puerto Rico was a commonwealth. The word “commonwealth” was one of the larger words in my vocabulary very early on. I knew that my parents had been U.S. citizens their whole lives. And so, whenever my school would host things like “multicultural day” to celebrate the contributions of “immigrants,” I’d always feel very confused.

Because yes, my parents speak Spanish and weren’t born in the mainland United States…but isn’t Puerto Rico “America” too?

When I look at the lyrics to “America” now, I can’t help but think that the “population growing” and the “money owing” that Anita sings about in the film was directly caused by Puerto Rico’s relationship to…”America.” It’s this relationship between colonizer and colony (because that’s really what a “commonwealth” is, it’s just that we don’t have a monarchy) that caused the very conditions that these people then wanted to flee. Only to be greeted by racism and bigotry when they got to the mainland. Only to be treated like foreigners, despite the fact that they held U.S. passports.

image: 20th Century Fox Rita Moreno as Anita and George Chakiris as Bernardo in "West Side Story"

And herein lies a huge blind spot that even the most well-intentioned white, Jewish creators might not be thinking about. And at a time when we have our current president throwing paper towels at Puerto Rican hurricane victims, who continue to be citizens and hold U.S. passports, it’s an increasingly important blind spot to address.

I am extremely heartened that the casting call advertised above has LATINA and LATINO in all-caps for the roles of Maria, Anita, and Bernardo. That leads me to believe that they’re already starting off in the right place. There’s very little other information available, so I have no idea who else might be contributing their vision to this.

Do I hope that a Puerto Rican writer is attached somewhere? Damn straight. Lin-Manuel Miranda might be busy, but what about Quiara Alegría Hudes, the librettist for Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical, In the Heights? She’s both Puerto Rican AND Jewish, Misters Spielberg and Kushner! The best of both worlds! AND she’s a woman! Hire her, and you’ve got yourself a three-fer!

In all seriousness, I love Kushner’s work, and if I trust anyone to get into political complexity, it’s that guy. I just hope that he, Spielberg, and the rest of the team take this opportunity to really involve Puerto Ricans in the making of this from the ground up. It would serve the story in so many beautiful and important ways.

Yes, this is musical theater, and musical theater is generally supposed to be “light” and “fun.” I’ll direct your attention again to elementary-school-age me who knew, even as a child, that something was up. That, even in this musical I loved, there was something that felt off.

Because isn’t Puerto Rico “America,” too?

(via IndieWire; image: 20th Century Fox)

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