‘West Facet Story’ can by no means be genuine, Spielberg or not

When Rita Moreno was filming the 1961 film “West Side Story,” her pores and skin shade — in addition to that of the quite a few white actors enjoying Puerto Rican characters — was darkened with make-up. Moreno, who’s Puerto Rican, questioned the make-up artist on set concerning the apply.

“We are many colors,” she recalled in a 2019 interview with the Related Press. That make-up 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.”

Fortunately, no actor is in brownface within the new model of the film musical, now enjoying in theaters. Twenty members of its solid are Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent; eight of those actors have been discovered at casting calls in San Juan. A notable portion of its dialogue is in Spanish, delivered with out subtitles showing on-screen. And a newly added second sees the Sharks singing the original version of “La Borinqueña,” which grew to become the official anthem of the U.S. territory after it was rewritten with much less confrontational lyrics.

Remaking “West Side Story” within the twenty first century required such adjustments, mentioned filmmaker Steven Spielberg. “It’s important that representation be authentic to return the piece to the integrity that I think it deserves,” he mentioned in a “20/20″ special. “I actually felt — we felt, all of us, collectively — that we wanted this to be a Latinx manufacturing.”

However is it potential to rework a textual content like that of “West Side Story,” as profoundly flawed as it’s groundbreaking and beloved, with such surface-level fixes? Irrespective of what number of Nuyorican actors are solid, what number of strains are recited in Spanish, what number of Puerto Rican consultants are employed and what number of panels with historic consultants are held, the collective effort doesn’t appropriate the problematic appropriation on which the musical was constructed.

“West Side Story” was initially conceived by director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who approached e book author Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein in 1949 a couple of up to date musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” He steered the star-crossed lovers hail from an Irish Catholic household and a Jewish household as they feuded in Manhattan’s Decrease East Facet throughout the Easter-Passover season. Nonetheless, the idea felt too much like Anne Nichols’ well-liked Nineteen Twenties play “Abie’s Irish Rose,” and the trio shelved the mission, then titled “East Side Story.”

Six years later, The Times published an article a couple of battle that broke out between Latino gangs in San Bernardino: Two younger males fought exterior a dance at Johnson Neighborhood Corridor, one died. It sparked the concept to inject their tragic love story with some topical racial battle.

“We decided to make the show about teenage gangs, to make it more timely,” Laurents informed The Occasions in 2009. Famous “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.”

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

In keeping with Craig Zadan’s e book “Sondheim & Co,” Stephen Sondheim, then a rookie lyricist, was hesitant to signal on for the mission as a result of “I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican!” However 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 unique manufacturing of “West Side Story,” which The Occasions described in 1957 as “the most serious and uncompromising musical yet to achieve success on the Broadway stage.”

(John Springer Assortment / Corbis by way of Getty Photos)

Although the 1957 Broadway manufacturing and its 1961 movie adaptation stay groundbreaking for Robbins’ trailblazing choreography, Bernstein’s complicated compositions and Sondheim’s formative writing expertise, it additionally stays a traditional 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 mentioned they did some analysis on the Nuyorican group: Robbins visited youth dances in Harlem to include strikes into choreography, and Bernstein added pan-Latin rhythms to the rating. However finally, “West Side Story” borrowed the aesthetics from what these 4 Jewish males perceived to be a Puerto Rican id — thick accents, darkish pores and skin, motivations for violent interactions — to inform a extremely theatrical Shakespeare story, not the opposite means round.

After all, “West Side Story” was written within the Nineteen Fifties, when cultural authenticity was not a first-rate concern. For instance, Sondheim famously balked at complaints about an authentic “America” lyric that inaccurately characterised Puerto Rico as an “island of tropic diseases.” As he wrote in his e 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 road was eventually changed for the 1961 movie.)

The stage present was a crucial and industrial hit — The Occasions’ Albert Goldberg described it in 1957 as “the most serious and uncompromising musical yet to achieve success on the Broadway stage” — and the following movie adaptation collected 10 Oscars and is taken into account one the best film musicals of all time. It has been revived on Broadway a number of occasions and is usually staged in excessive faculties, aided by its skill to accommodate giant teenage casts.

Many years later, the cultural inauthenticity of the favored title continues to have real-life ramifications for the Puerto Rican group. “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 Thought Lab at Columbia College, wrote on the Girls’s Media Middle web site.

“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 mentioned of casting Puerto Rican actors to play Puerto Rican characters in “West Side Story.”

(Niko Tavernise)

The leisure trade could be higher off investing in homegrown Nuyorican theater relatively than making an attempt time and again to repair this explicit problematic piece. Nonetheless, just like the makers of many earlier “West Side Story” variations onstage, Spielberg and his collaborators have mentioned they labored onerous to attempt to restore the harm attributable to the unique productions.

“I think it’s absolutely, as all art is, a product of its time,” the brand new film’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 acquired robust opinions and is taken into account an Oscar contender regardless of its disappointing field workplace opening, the filmmakers did seek the advice of a number of Puerto Rican consultants on its historic 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 informed a bunch of College of Puerto Rico college members and college students during an unannounced visit to San Juan in 2018.

Moreover, 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 equally featured Spanish-language lyrics translated by Lin-Manuel Miranda — a majority of which were reverted to English 5 months into its run.)

The tweaks have been little question made with critical intent. However past offering a showcase for Spielberg’s visually gorgeous craft, they nonetheless function coverups of the cultural appropriation of the unique textual content, to which this model stays all too trustworthy. Though no film can ever embody the lived expertise of a group, this “West Side Story” was remade by a filmmaker, screenwriter and key division heads who are usually not of Puerto Rican descent, with the steering of many Puerto Rican consultants.

“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 brand new film. “In the end, it’s a film by and for white guys, and I’d rather watch something else.”

Though its characters are solid authentically and never carrying brownface — the naked minimal of moviemaking in 2021 — these performers, like Moreno within the authentic movie, are inevitably put within the place of cultural watchdogs for the Puerto Rican diaspora in addition to being expert singers, dancers and actors in a big-budget launch. For instance, the set’s many darkish blue Puerto Rican flags were swapped for the original light blue ones after dancer David Avilés wore a shirt to set with the unique flag and shared his data of its historical past. Avilés mentioned he then grew to become a part of a committee Kushner shaped with different Puerto Rican solid members who shared details about the Puerto Rican expertise with him.

And whatever the copious pages of nuanced, closely researched backstory newly written by Kushner, these Puerto Rican actors are nonetheless enjoying the identical 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 within the New York Occasions final yr.

A woman in a floral top and blue vest stands in a doorway in "West Side Story."

Rita Moreno performs a brand new character, Valentina, in Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”

(Niko Tavernise)

The brand new model does have transportive renditions of Bernstein’s legendary rating, carried out by the L.A. Philharmonic‘s Gustavo Dudamel; gorgeously gritty units by manufacturing 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 music that all the time bothered Sondheim. Like every other piece of creative expression, this “West Side Story” is multifaceted, with dimensions of various high quality and legitimacy.

In the end, its headline-making makes an attempt at cultural authenticity parallel a scene within the present film that includes Valentina, a brand new Puerto Rican character performed by Moreno. Hours after assembly 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 fairly badly to María on their date; when she laughs it off as an endearing effort, he tells her to cease laughing and begins to inform her what the phrase means — as if she didn’t perceive what he had simply mentioned.

However uttering “quiero estar contigo para siempre” in damaged Spanish, after a short session with Valentina, doesn’t imply that Tony can abruptly in any means converse María’s language. As he has no actual comprehension of its linguistic complexities or the lived expertise of the individuals who converse it, his phrases haven’t any weight. It’s the definition of an empty gesture; it’s actually lip service.

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