There are concerns among Puerto Rican artists and activists about Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner‘s forthcoming remake of West Side Story. Chief among these is that the 1950s period musical (a) might not feel culturally authentic enough in its portrayal of Puerto Rican immigrants in Eisenhower-era Manhattan and (b) that it might present an offensively negative portrait of Puerto Rico.
The beloved Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents-Leonard Bernstein musical conveys negative views of Puerto Rico in “America”, an ensemble tune that is chiefly sung by Bernardo’s sexy g.f. Anita (respectively played by Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno in the 1957 stage and 1961 film version). The sassy lyrics weigh the pros and cons of life in New York City vs. San Juan.
But in all fairness one also has to apply basic logic in this matter. Why did Puerto Ricans immigrate to America if things weren’t a tiny bit problematic in their native country in the first place? Spielberg’s film can present a culturally sensitive, politically correct view of Puerto Rico, fine — but why resuscitate West Side Story at all if you’re worried about dated views and impressions that are built into the narrative? Why re-tell a story of racial prejudice that is grounded in the fact that Puerto Ricans left their native land, presumably for pressing reasons?
Answer: Spielberg, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, wants to remake West Side Story because he wants to remake West Side Story. Because he was stirred in his mid teens by the Robert Wise-directed Oscar winner. Because he wants to stretch himself creatively, having never directed a musical. And because he feels he can update the show in a way that will not only revitalize the material but feel “correct” to the cultural commissars.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Seth Abramovitch reported yesterday that these issues were discussed in a secret mid-December meeting on the San Juan campus of the University of Puerto Rico.
The small gathering was mostly composed of university students and faculty, but a San Juan film critic, Mario Alegre, also attended.
“Why West Side Story? And why now?” Alegre says to Abramovitch. “That was my first reaction. It’s a very sensitive film for Puerto Ricans because of their portrayal in it. It’s like doing Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Abramovitch: “That 1961 Audrey Hepburn film, with its racist caricature of an Asian landlord played by Mickey Rooney, would never fly in the current climate. So why, Alegre reasons, should the late-1950s Puerto Rican immigrants of West Side Story — stereotypically fiery Latinas and greasy-haired, switchblade-wielding gang members — be viewed any differently?
Abramovitch reports that Isel Rodriguez, a theater history and acting professor at UPR, “timidly stood up and asked Spielberg and Kushner point-blank how they planned to ‘represent Puerto Ricans in the remake. (Here’s a video of Rodriguez’s question and Kushner and Spielberg’s answer.)
Abramavotich: “Rodriguez was concerned about a line in ‘America,’ in which Anita sings, ‘Puerto Rico / My heart’s devotion / Let it sink back in the ocean.’ Rodriguez, who knows the material by heart and teaches it to her students, will never forget the first time she heard that line. ‘I was hurt.’
“Kushner, 62, fielded the question first, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. ‘[That line] is from the musical,’ he replied. ‘[Lyricist Stephen] Sondheim changed that because there was a lot of unhappiness about the negativity towards the island in America. So we’re using the lyrics from the film.”
“In fact, Kushner had it reversed. The original Broadway version referred to an ‘island of tropical breezes,’ but the 1961 film version changed that lyric to ‘let it sink back in the ocean.”
“Spielberg seemed more prepared than Kushner to tackle the issue. ‘One of the reasons we are here,’ he told Rodriguez, ‘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.’
“Authenticity might not be enough. ‘Spielberg did what he could with his answer,” Alegre says. ‘He tried to amend the situation. But the general feeling over here was neither of them got to the point of the question.’ Adds Rodriguez, ‘I don’t know if they’ll be able to fix the problem with just Latino actors and good accents.'”
But again, “the problem”? Many thousands of Puerto Ricans immigrated to the New York City in the ’50s. Presumably they were strongly motivated to do so. And yet Spielberg and Kushner are essentially being told to ignore those motivations and to emphasize what a good and nourishing place Puerto Rico was 60-plus years ago.