A question on Google flashes up asking whether West Side Story, recently remade by Steven Spielberg and on general release is ‘based on a real story’. Nearly so; it reworks Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – the tale of star-crossed lovers from rival families – and transplants it from Verona to New York, the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The 1961 film followed a 732-performance run on Broadway and then tour of the 1957 musical (and 1958 British production that opened first in Manchester), with the rival families now configured as gangs, the White ‘Jets’ and Puerto Rican ‘Sharks’ clashing after the thrilling finger-snapping prologue orchestral number.
Rita Moreno played Anita, and was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar; the film was a smash hit and was followed by scores of stage revivals. The dance format for these productions was strictly controlled by the rights holders for the musical, though relaxed, with permission, for the performances in the round at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in 2019.
The story has been reworked countless times in other productions, including the zippy 1996 Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet that reset Shakespeare on Verona Beach, though most of the film was set in Mexico City. Natalie Portman was ditched from the role of Juliet because she looked too young – she was 14 at the time – and the part was taken by Claire Danes, and Leonardo DiCaprio made his film career from it, as Romeo.
Now, in the 2021 Spielberg version we have new choreography, with Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria, and Anita’s part is now taken by Ariana DeBose. But, a reminder of time passing perhaps and the updating of the film, Rita Moreno is back, now as ‘Valentina’ and replacing the 1961 film character of ‘Doc’, mentor to the two lovers. Black and Irish New Yorkers, who supply the gun, are clichéd parts, as are the tenement buildings with washing hanging to dry.
Does this work? The 1961 film riffed on racism, displayed it, commented on it and challenged it. It could still be accused of reducing gang warfare to poignant and then tragic dance sets, turning systemic racism and the colonisation and emigration of Puerto Ricans into tear-jerker sentimentality, wiping away real struggle and leaving liberal audiences with a feel-bad experience they could then easily process into hummable tunes on the way home.
Sixty years later, in the context of sustained anti-racist critique of material oppression and ideological denigration, Spielberg really had to add something to the mix. He did, but made it worse. The ratio of songs to script was reduced, and we were subject to long passages in which characters from different backgrounds talked about how they were brought up to dislike people who were ‘different’, while there was a knowing wink to the audience at the beginning with a reference to property developers benefitting from the conflict between communities as they tore down the neighbourhood.
One of the most horrible narrative additions was where Tony, who had been in prison for a year, said he had used the time well to look deep inside himself and come to realise that he should not hate others who were different from him. So, the message is that the law is benign and prison has good effects.
Woven into the liberal representation of racism – which had nothing about institutional racism and plenty about irrational dislike and conflict between groups abstracted from context – were themes of sexism, more so than in the original. Anita in this version is sexually harassed by the Jets, but almost raped. Poor Rita Moreno – who has the function of reminding us by her presence that this is a pattern repeated over generations – calls the Jets ‘rapists’. And we have a gratuitous transformation of the Anybody’s character, from tomboy to trans. Ok, but why?
I confess, I was really looking forward to this film. My mum and step-dad, who was a jazz musician, used to play the soundtrack and sing the songs, I knew the words. But I was disappointed. Yes, there were some nice moments; the cleaners in the department store singing ‘I’m so pretty’ while posing with obviously white dress manikins made a point. But the point was focused on the identity of Puerto Ricans as victim immigrants with not a whisper about the colonial relationship with Puerto Rico.
The film was supposed to be more grounded in reality but actually looked more artificial. A Brazilian friend watching the film with us said he was surprised at the end that there were real actors named because he had assumed that it was all done with CGI. Along with the glossy CGI images was an apparently computer-generated script, a sad output from Tony Kushner.
The Globe Theatre in London recently had a trigger warning for its performance of Romeo and Juliet, that the production ‘contains depictions of suicide, moments of violence and reference to drug use’, and that it contains ‘gunshot sound effects and the use of stage blood’. This West Side Story might have told us that it was lathered with more well-meaning messages but, warning, infused with ideology, ‘an unnecessary remake, avoid’.
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