Commentary: Spielberg tried to save ‘West Side Story.’ But its history makes it unsalvageable

A man is flanked by two women in evening gowns at the New York premiere of "West Side Story."
Steven Spielberg, flanked by actors Ariana DeBose, left, and Rachel Zegler, has spoken widely of the attempts made to make a culturally authentic “West Side Story.”
(Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images for 20th Century Studios)

When Rita Moreno was filming the 1961 movie “West Side Story,” her skin color — as well as that of the numerous white actors playing Puerto Rican characters — was darkened with makeup. Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, questioned the makeup artist on set about the practice.

“We are many colors,” she recalled in a 2019 interview with the Associated Press. That makeup artist then accused her of being racist. “I was so stunned that I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. That’s really also how little people know about Puerto Ricans.”

Thankfully, no actor is in brownface in the new version of the movie musical, now playing in theaters. Twenty members of its cast are Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent; eight of these actors were found at casting calls in San Juan. A notable portion of dialogue is in Spanish, delivered without subtitles appearing on-screen. And a newly added moment sees the Sharks singing the original version of “La Borinqueña,” which became the official anthem of the U.S. territory after it was rewritten with less confrontational lyrics.


Remaking “West Side Story” in the 21st century required such changes, said filmmaker Steven Spielberg. “It’s important that representation be authentic to return the piece to the integrity that I think it deserves,” he said in a “20/20” special. “I really felt — we felt, all of us, together — that we needed this to be a Latinx production.”

But is it possible to transform a text like that of “West Side Story,” as profoundly flawed as it is groundbreaking and beloved, with such surface-level fixes? No matter how many Nuyorican actors are cast, how many lines are recited in Spanish, how many Puerto Rican consultants are hired and how many panels with historical experts are held, the collective effort does not correct the problematic appropriation on which the musical was built.

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“West Side Story” was conceived by director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who approached book writer Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein in 1949 about a contemporary musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” He suggested the star-crossed lovers hail from an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family as they feuded in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the Easter-Passover season. However, the concept felt too similar to Anne Nichols’ popular 1920s play “Abie’s Irish Rose,” and the trio shelved the project, then titled “East Side Story.”

Six years later, The Times published an article about a fight that broke out between Latino gangs in San Bernardino: Two young men fought outside a dance at Johnson Community Hall, one died. It sparked the idea to inject the tragic love story with some topical racial conflict.

“We decided to make the show about teenage gangs, to make it more timely,” Laurents told The Times in 2009. Noted “Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story” author Nigel Simeone, “If they hadn’t seen that newspaper story, I’m not even sure [the musical] would have gotten finished. It was more than a turning point. This was a mess that hadn’t been worked on in six years. It’s a seemingly insignificant moment that had a colossal impact.”


Because of the article, “Lennie wanted to set the action in Los Angeles, but I suggested New York,” Laurents recalled to The Times in 2009. “We had Puerto Rican gangs there, and the story would work well.”

According to Craig Zadan’s book “Sondheim & Co,” Stephen Sondheim, then a rookie lyricist, was hesitant to sign on for the project because “I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican!” But his agent “told him not to think in those terms. They are star-crossed lovers. They are underprivileged and the haves and have-nots have more to do with their psyches than their economics.”

Men and women dance on a stage.
A scene from the original production of “West Side Story,” which The Times described in 1957 as “the most serious and uncompromising musical yet to achieve success on the Broadway stage.”
(John Springer Collection / Corbis via Getty Images)

Though the 1957 Broadway production and its 1961 film adaptation remain groundbreaking for Robbins’ trailblazing choreography, Bernstein’s complex compositions and Sondheim’s formative writing experience, it also remains a classic case of cultural appropriation. Said Laurents himself in a 2008 interview with AARP: “Because of our own bias and the cultural conventions of 1957, it was almost impossible for the characters in ‘West Side Story’ to have authenticity.”

The creators said they did some research on the Nuyorican community: Robbins visited youth dances in Harlem to incorporate moves into choreography, and Bernstein added pan-Latin rhythms to the score. But ultimately, “West Side Story” borrowed the aesthetics from what these four Jewish men perceived to be a Puerto Rican identity — thick accents, dark skin, motivations for violent interactions — to tell a highly theatrical Shakespeare tale, not the other way around.


Of course, “West Side Story” was written in the 1950s, when cultural authenticity was not a prime concern. For example, Sondheim famously balked at complaints about an original “America” lyric that inaccurately characterized Puerto Rico as an “island of tropic diseases.” As he wrote in his book “Finishing the Hat”: “I’m sure his outrage was justified, but I wasn’t about to sacrifice the line that sets the tone for the whole lyric.” (The line was eventually changed for the 1961 movie.)

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The stage show was a critical and commercial hit — The Times’ Albert Goldberg described it in 1957 as “the most serious and uncompromising musical yet to achieve success on the Broadway stage” — and the subsequent film adaptation collected 10 Oscars and is considered one the greatest movie musicals of all time. It has been revived on Broadway multiple times and is often staged in high schools, aided by its ability to accommodate large teenage casts.

Decades later, the cultural inauthenticity of the popular title continues to have real-life ramifications for the Puerto Rican community. “The movie was the first major — and still the most widely seen and exported — U.S. cultural product to recognize Puerto Ricans as a distinct Latino group in the United States with specific physical characteristics (brown, dark-haired, svelte) and personality traits (loud, sexy, colorful),” Frances Negrón-Muntaner, founding director of the Media and Idea Lab at Columbia University, wrote on the Women’s Media Center website.

“Drawing on centuries-old stereotypes about Latinos, the women are virginal and childlike or sexual and fiery; the men are violent and clannish. [It] widely popularized racist and sexist stereotypes that continue to shape how the world sees Puerto Ricans and how they see themselves.”

A cluster of men lean into a woman in a yellow dress in "West Side Story."
“It’s important that representation be authentic to return the piece to the integrity that I think it deserves,” Spielberg said of casting Puerto Rican actors to play Puerto Rican characters in “West Side Story.”
(Niko Tavernise)

The entertainment industry would be better off investing in homegrown Nuyorican theater rather than trying over and over again to fix this particular problematic piece. Still, like the makers of many previous “West Side Story” versions onstage, Spielberg and his collaborators have said they worked hard to try to repair the damage caused by the original productions.


“I think it’s absolutely, as all art is, a product of its time,” the new movie’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, told Time of the original. “There were certain kinds of articulations unavailable to the four gay Jews that wrote the thing originally. And there are mistakes that they made, absolutely.”

In creating the remake, which received strong reviews and is considered an Oscar contender despite its disappointing box office opening, the filmmakers did consult multiple Puerto Rican experts on its historical accuracy, translations, dialects and period-specific slang. “The reason we’ve hired so many Puerto Rican singers and dancers and actors is so they can help guide us to represent Puerto Rico in a way that will make all of you and all of us proud,” Spielberg told a group of University of Puerto Rico faculty members and students during an unannounced visit to San Juan in 2018.

Additionally, casting Latino actors as Latino characters “goes hand-in-hand with my reasoning for not subtitling the Spanish,” Spielberg told IGN. “If I subtitled the Spanish I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish. This was not going to happen in this film, I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it.” (The 2009 Broadway revival similarly featured Spanish-language lyrics translated by Lin-Manuel Miranda — a majority of which were reverted to English five months into its run.)

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The tweaks were no doubt made with serious intent. But beyond providing a showcase for Spielberg’s visually stunning craft, they still serve as coverups of the cultural appropriation of the original text, to which this version remains all too faithful. Although no movie can ever encompass the lived experience of a community, this “West Side Story” was remade by a filmmaker, screenwriter and key department heads who are not of Puerto Rican descent, with the guidance of many Puerto Rican experts.

“It continues the original’s tradition of advancing a dangerous narrative even as it offers Latinx people some important opportunities,” Latino Rebels film critic Cristina Escobar writes of the new movie. “In the end, it’s a film by and for white guys, and I’d rather watch something else.”

Although its characters are cast authentically and not wearing brownface — the bare minimum of moviemaking in 2021 — these performers, like Moreno in the original film, are inevitably put in the position of cultural watchdogs for the Puerto Rican diaspora as well as being skilled singers, dancers and actors in a big-budget release. For example, the set’s many dark blue Puerto Rican flags were swapped for the original light blue ones after dancer David Avilés wore a shirt to set with the original flag and shared his knowledge of its history. Avilés said he then became part of a committee Kushner formed with other Puerto Rican cast members who shared information about the Puerto Rican experience with him.

And regardless of the copious pages of nuanced, heavily researched backstory newly written by Kushner, these Puerto Rican actors are still playing the same reductive Puerto Rican characters. “These continuous revivals reinforce America’s colonizing power to determine who Puerto Ricans get to be,” critic Carina del Valle Schorske wrote in the New York Times last year.

A woman in a floral top and blue vest stands in a doorway in "West Side Story."
Rita Moreno plays a new character, Valentina, in Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”
(Niko Tavernise)


The new version does have transportive renditions of Bernstein’s legendary score, conducted by the L.A. Philharmonic‘s Gustavo Dudamel; gorgeously gritty sets by production designer Adam Stockhausen; and standout performances by Ariana DeBose, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist and Iris Menas. It even finally solved the problem of “I Feel Pretty,” a song that always bothered Sondheim. Like any other piece of artistic expression, this “West Side Story” is multifaceted, with dimensions of varying quality and legitimacy.

Ultimately, its headline-making attempts at cultural authenticity parallel a scene in the current movie that involves Valentina, a new Puerto Rican character played by Moreno. Hours after meeting María, Tony (Ansel Elgort) asks Valentina to translate the phrases “I’m happy to see you again” and “I want to be with you forever” into Spanish for him. He then recites them quite badly to María on their date; when she laughs it off as an endearing effort, he tells her to stop laughing and begins to tell her what the phrase means — as if she didn’t understand what he had just said.

But uttering “quiero estar contigo para siempre” in broken Spanish, after a brief consultation with Valentina, doesn’t mean that Tony can suddenly in any way speak María’s language. As he has no real comprehension of its linguistic complexities or the lived experience of the people who speak it, his words have no weight. It’s the definition of an empty gesture; it’s literally lip service.

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