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West Side Stories

by on December 22, 2021

This week I saw Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story.

America’s classic love story in the manner of a Romeo and Juliet, the original West Side Story won awards and led to a long-running Broadway production. The original West Side Story on the silver-screen (1961), which tells the story of New York’s white population fighting the Puerto Rican population over land that is being gentrified, wasn’t the original plan for the story-line. Richard Brody, in the New Yorker, reminds us that

The story of the original ‘West Side Story’ is that of white Jewish artists (Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins, later joined by Stephen Sondheim) who planned to make a musical play about Jewish and Irish gangs and then, worrying that they were heading for cliché, shifted their focus to people they knew nothing about.

The 1961 production had an mostly white cast – with the exception of Rita Moreno, who starred in both the 1991 and 2021 productions). Speilberg did what he was supposed to do by having Latinos play the roles of Puerto Ricans, and for having Spanish dialogue in the show. Rachel Zegler, the lead that plays Maria, has a mother from Columbia.

The praise for the remake ends there. If you avoid suspending disbelief and look at the performance, you’ll see that, as Richard Brody points out, Spielberg has Zegler “act like a Disney princess” with “oversimplified facial and vocal expressions.” In the 1961film Maria had “recently arrived from Puerto Rico for an arranged marriage to Chino.” In Spielberg’s version she had been in the city for years with no mention of an arranged marriage; Chino is in night school and working as a mechanic. Brody points out that “nothing comes of these new practical emphases; the characters have no richer inner lives, cultural substance, or range of experience than they do in the first film.”

There’s a big difference between an arranged marriage than the expectation of parents that a daughter would marry within culture, and Maria’s parents were pushing her to like – and perhaps marry Chino.

The best thing of Spielberg’s version, Brody says were “the songs, their acerbity, the view of racial discrimination and class privilege,” which were already in the original production. He left out the important things from the 1961 version, while trying to set the story in the 1950: “there is no police lieutenant’s open insulting of white kids, or openly racist and threatening rant against Puerto Ricans.”

If you want to see “West Side Story” you might as well see the original. Or maybe you should just read Romeo and Juliet, and imagine that it’s set in the 1950s during a period of gentrification and immigration.

From → Entertainment, Life

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