What’s New in the New West Side Story?

As I sat through a screening of West Side Story at a Lincoln Square movie theater—literally in the same neighborhood portrayed in the film—I couldn’t escape a growing realization. These days, we are trapped in a cycle of repetition, one in which the gnarled conflicts and perhaps small triumphs of the postwar era repeat themselves over and over again, sometimes with profound new expression and sometimes just as shiny objects of entertainment consumption. In Steven Spielberg’s new “reimagining” of West Side Story, we get a film that offers a far more inclusive vision of postwar America, but one that still retains its flawed view of working-class tribalism. 

The original West Side Story was itself born out of the repetition of a repetition. Conceived by Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents in the 1950s, the musical was originally going to be a a tale of an ill-fated Catholic/Jewish romance based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But worried that this would repeat the story of Abie’s Irish Rose, and becoming interested in Los Angeles’s Mexican American gangs, the quartet had a change of heart: They would make the musical about New York City’s West Side gangs, specifically downwardly mobile whites and recently migrated Puerto Ricans. The story, for the most part, would remain the same: It would tell the tale of star-crossed lovers—Tony, a Polish-Irish boy, and Maria, a Puerto Rican girl—who meet a tragic end, but now the lovers would be caught up in a world of street violence.

The product—first a Broadway play, then a wildly successful film—was at once an all-time mainstream crowd-pleaser and a dismayingly sordid representation of Puerto Ricans. For New York Puerto Ricans, West Side Story stung particularly deep. For me, this sting was also close to home: I grew up on these streets with Puerto Rican migrant parents who shuddered at the mere mention of the film and wanted to shield me from its distorted portrayal of our presence here.

But watching the film, I always sensed an underlying tale being told. The structuring principle of West Side Story is the conflict between European ethnic groups recently assimilated after an earlier era of being othered but still unable to escape the creeping gentrification of the city planners, and a Latinx group that was arriving in great numbers as the only escape from a US program to restructure Puerto Rico’s economy. The 1961 film relayed a story of the binary oppositions that ran through American society: There is an “us” and a “them,” natives and aliens, those who have made it in and those have not, those who are “American” and those who are not. By doing so, it also solidified the notion in me and my peers that as racial others and colonized citizens, Puerto Ricans were a threat to American identity.

The new production tries to avoid many of the worst features of the original. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner hired language and accent experts. They enlisted the involvement of City University of New York professor Virginia Sánchez Korroll and the archives of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies to get detailed insight into the lives of New York Puerto Ricans in the 1950s and ’60s. The pair even went to the island territory itself to speak to and poll the residents, even though many of them had little to do with the migrants of the postwar period.

The results of this effort are for the most part welcome and satisfying, giving new life to a narrative that once felt awkward and superficial. Gone are the clumsy accents of Natalie Wood’s Maria and most of the rest of the Sharks, who were mainly played by non-Latinx actors. Even more gratifying is the extensive use of untranslated dialogue, perhaps intended to allow the characters to speak more fully for themselves without an English filter and to defy the constant demands from the Jets and the police to speak English. For the first time I was able to hear, in a Hollywood movie, one of my favorite disparaging epithets—zángano—as well as La Jara, a code word for New York’s then mostly Irish police force (many with the surname O’Hara), immortalized by the salsa singer Héctor Lavoe in concert with the Fania All Stars.

Yet some of the amendments, although well-intentioned, seem off. Having the Sharks sing the patriotic hymn “La Borinqueña” before their first battle with the Jets didn’t ring true; likewise for the constant display of Puerto Rican flags hanging from windows and fire escapes, something that became more common in the late ’60s/early ’70s era of the Young Lords. More importantly, the true colonial nature of the US relationship with Puerto Rico, which was a direct cause of the migration in the first place, is not at all acknowledged. Kushner’s earnest attempt at authenticity and inclusion doesn’t entirely (or even adequately) address the deeper colonial wound. 

The character of Anita, played by Rita Moreno in the 1961 version, is reconceived here as an Afro-Latina played by Ariana DeBose, who was in the stage version of Hamilton, as an effort to address the unseemliness of having the light-skinned Moreno wear dark makeup in the original. The new Anita even calls out light-skinned Latinx racism directly in Spanish when she admonishes her boyfriend, the Sharks’ leader Bernardo, for implying that she is not a member of the family because she is Black.

Still, the presence of Afro-Latinos in the rest of the cast is muted, and neither version of West Side Storymakes reference to the fact that San Juan Hill, the neighborhood that was condemned for slum clearance to make possible the construction of Lincoln Center, was one of New York’s most significant African American neighborhoods, home to Thelonious Monk. The erasure of African Americans in the new film echoes the failings of both Hamilton and In the Heights, musicals that ignore the founding role of African Americans in the United States in favor of a drama about assimilation, which was denied to African Americans almost by definition. The narrative of how natives define who is American and who is not is also a feature of classic American films like Gangs of New York and Saturday Night Fever.

Looking more closely at the different immigration experiences of the families of the play’s creators and its subjects is another way to understand some of the missteps of the original West Side Story. In the original version of the signature song “America,” Anita asserts that she would be happy to see Puerto Rico sink into the ocean—an attitude that better fits a Jewish immigrant fleeing persecution and racism in Europe than a Puerto Rican who had reluctantly fled their island home as a result of a colonized, underdeveloped economy.

The new version corrects much of this, and it offers a more complex reading of the Jets as well: Once a rowdy group of miscreants trying to assert their own gang’s dominance, they are now drawn as the prototypes for white nationalists, often vocalizing a “they will replace us” trope. They are also presented as the losers of the New Deal, defined largely by social pathologies that make them the predecessors of a certain strand of downtown punks. The original version’s tomboy, Anybodys, is reinvented here as an assertive nonbinary character. As the victims, along with the Puerto Rican migrants, of the collapse of New York City as an industrial manufacturing center, they are faced with annihilation.

This reimagined version of West Side Story certainly brims with technical brilliance, from the blue and gray hues bathing the Jets as they perform the quirky “Cool” on West Side docks to the dreamlike Gimbels set populated by Maria and her coworkers for the repurposed “I Feel Pretty,” to the claustrophobic salt shed fight scene, eerily reminiscent of Kara Walker’s 2014 installation at the old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. The cast, particularly Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Ziegler as Maria, and DeBose as Anita, are winning, and the songs still pack some potency despite their familiarity. The recasting of Moreno as the widow of the original Doc, the candy store owner who gives the final moralizing speech in the 1961 film, is the screenplay’s intended masterstroke: Her “Somewhere” redux, delivered after we have to sit through yet another sexual assault against Anita, is about the limits of this reimagining. Now, all she can offer is a plea to “find a way of forgiving”—despite the contention of Chino, the zángano who avenges Bernardo’s death, that “sooner or later gringos kill everything”—while Anita concludes that she is not an American but a Puerto Rican.

The overwhelming power of forgiveness and love are frequently proffered in the new West Side Story as a solution for tribal conflict, but in the end, despite all of the film’s gestures toward inclusion and liberal reconciliation, we also realize they might not be enough: For Maria, while still not losing her cool, finally understands the hate as something that is not going away—a fitting, if bleak, end for a film made in the Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene era. Hollywood may seek to offer a more inclusive vision, but ultimately West Side Story leaves us with a vision of perpetual conflict, not reconciliation.

[This story was originally published in The Nation on December 20, 2021]

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