How Spielberg changed ‘West Side Story’

The original 1961 film won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. But for decades this retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” through the lens of white and Puerto Rican gangs in New York has been criticized by Puerto Ricans who felt insulted by the way the island’s characters were portrayed.

The songs are largely the same, but the story is different in several notable ways, especially when it comes to the film’s Puerto Rican characters.

Here’s how the new “West Side Story” responds to some of the missteps from the original film.

How Spielberg tried to solve Maria’s problem

Natalie Wood played Maria in the 1961 film, with Marni Nixon’s voice dubbed in all of the heroine’s songs. Neither of them was Puerto Rican, not even Latina; most of the cast of the film weren’t either.

Spielberg’s version features Colombian-American Rachel Zegler as Maria. And all the other Puerto Rican characters are also played by Latino actors.
“It’s very important that people like us see people like us on screen,” Zegler said. said in a recent “20/20” special about the movie, “To see people like us singing ‘I Feel Pretty’, to see people like us fall in love, feel joy and dance in beautiful dresses. It is very important for the next generation to see someone who looks like them.”

Zegler has received rave reviews for her performance. Still, not everyone is convinced of the casting choice.

“I have a problem with Hollywood once again fumbling for the easiest opportunities to elevate a Puerto Rican actress. They seem to think that as long as the actors are Hispanic, that’s enough,” Daily Beast assistant editor Mandy Velez wrote in a recent column. . “Except it’s not, not for me or for other Puerto Ricans so thirsty to see themselves represented on screen that they could collapse from dehydration.”

There is no one with a brown face in this movie.

In the original “West Side Story,” many of the actors playing Puerto Rican characters were forced to wear the same dark brown makeup, including Rita Moreno, who is Puerto Rican and played the character Anita.

“I remember one day I said to the makeup artist, because it was like putting mud on my face, it was very dark and I’m a fair enough Hispanic, and one day I said to the makeup artist ‘Oh my God! They all have to be the same color?” Moreno told Futuro Media’s “In the Thick” podcast in 2017. “Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish … ‘And it’s true, we are many different colors, we are Taino Indians, some of us are black.”

When he raised that point on set, Moreno said he received a surprising response.

“The makeup artist actually said to me, ‘What? Are you a racist?’ I was so stunned that I couldn’t come back with an answer. “

In the original & quot;  West Side Story & quot;  In the movie, Rita Moreno and other actors were forced to wear the brown face.  In Spielberg's version, Moreno is back in a new role, without the offensive makeup.

Fortunately, no one in the 2021 movie wears a brown face. A diverse cast of actors is playing Puerto Rican characters, including Ariana DeBose, who is Afro-Latina and plays Anita.

And this time, Moreno’s observations were not ruled out. She plays a new character written for this version, Valentina. She was an executive producer on the film. And she spoke regularly with the cast about what it was like to grow up as a Puerto Rican in the United States.

“She brought so many interesting stories and motivated the cast so much,” says Spielberg in a promotional video for the film. “And I thought she really needed to be the executive producer, plus a managerial role, not just to come in as an actress, but to really help us frame the messages that ‘West Side Story’ needs to spread to the people who see it. been very, very causal in all of that. “

The words of an iconic song have changed

For many fans, “America” ​​is one of the best-known and most loved songs on “West Side Story.” The gripping dance number is also a heated debate between Anita and her boyfriend Bernardo about the costs and benefits of migration to the continental United States.

But many of the lyrics sung by Anita painted Puerto Rico in a negative light, both in the 1957 musical (“Island of Tropical Diseases”) and in the 1961 film (“Let it sink into the ocean”).

That drew criticism when Spielberg and Kushner traveled to the University of Puerto Rico in 2018 to meet with students and faculty for information while they were making the new film.

In the 1961 film, Anita de Rita Moreno sang that she wanted Puerto Rico to
There, a theater and acting history teacher pointed out the song’s problematic lyrics while questioning how Spielberg and Kushner planned to portray Puerto Ricans in the film. Kushner told the audience that White’s Jewish team behind the original story likely assumed that Puerto Ricans’ immigration experience was the same as it had been for their ancestors, who looked at the Old Country with disdain.
The professor who had expressed his concern later told The Hollywood Reporter that it makes no sense for a Puerto Rican character to speak so disparagingly of the island, when most people emigrate out of financial need and desperation.

“Nobody leaves this island without sobbing,” said Isel Rodríguez. “Three hundred thousand people left the island after Maria and the scene at the airport was like a funeral.”

In the end, Spielberg’s version of “America” ​​cuts through the song’s most controversial lines. Nobody wants an island where millions of people live to sink into the ocean.

By reducing the lyrics, the new version sharpens the song’s focus on the debate over whether life on the American continent is good or bad for Puerto Ricans, rather than dragging Puerto Rico and its people through the mud.

Sharks finally get backstories

Broadway composer and lyricist Lin Manuel-Miranda, whose parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico, has said that for Latinos, “West Side Story” has been “our greatest blessing and our greatest curse.”

“As a work of art, I think it’s about as good as it gets,” Miranda told The Washington Post in 2009. “It also represented our foot in the door as an arts community on Broadway. … At the same time, because it is Almost the only representation of Latinos on Broadway and it’s about gangs, that’s where it gets tricky. “

In the original film, the Caucasian Jets also spend much more time in front of the screen than the Sharks, their Puerto Rican rivals. In this version, the sharks are still gang members, but we finally get a chance to learn more about some of them.

Little was written about George Chakiris 'Bernardo and the rest of the Sharks' lives in the 1961 film. In the 2021 remake, David Álvarez's Bernardo is a boxer, and more details are included about some of the other Puerto Rican characters in the film. film.

Tony Kushner’s script creates backstories for Puerto Rican characters that in the original were two-dimensional at best and stereotyped at worst.

In the 2021 movie, Chino will go to school to be an accountant. Bernardo is a boxer who came to New York more recently. Anita is a seamstress who is saving money because one day she wants to open her own clothing store. Maria and her friends work on a cleaning crew at the Gimbels department store.

Valentina, the new character written for this film, is a widow who runs her shop and tries to navigate life between two cultures. And everyone who lives in your neighborhood, sharks and jets alike, are about to be evicted so wrecking balls can topple their homes to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center.

Spanish is spoken much more and with a Puerto Rican accent

Some Spanish phrases were scattered throughout the original “West Side Story,” often spoken with accents that sounded more like Americans over-acting than the way Puerto Ricans living in New York actually speak.

The Spanish of Spielberg’s film is conveyed with distinctive Puerto Rican phrases and accents. It is spoken, without subtitles, in intimate scenes such as conversations between Maria and Anita at home.

In the 2021 version of & quot;  West Side Story & quot;  Maria and Anita speak Spanish in some of their most intimate conversations, like the scene where Anita puts Maria's new dress on.

And the only time it sounds forced makes sense in the story: when non-native speakers like Tony, Maria’s Polish-American love interest, are trying to say something in Spanish.

In fact, the first song with lyrics that we hear in the remake is sung in Spanish. It is the Sharks version of the Puerto Rican anthem “La Borinqueña”, performed after the police ordered them to leave the crime scene. And it was not in the original.

The team behind this movie tried to do their homework

Originally, the plot of “West Side Story” was conceived to focus on the tensions between Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
After they changed gears to make Puerto Ricans one of their rival bands, it is clear that the creators of the musical did little to investigate the Puerto Rican experience. Stephen Sondheim even admitted that he had never met a Puerto Rican when he took on the mission.
Director Steven Spielberg and Rita Moreno as Valentina on the set of 20th Century Studios' & quot;  West Side Story.  & quot;

Spielberg and Kushner took a different tack, spending time researching the Puerto Rican communities that lived in New York in 1957, when the musical was set. The visit to the University of Puerto Rico was one of many conversations.

Kushner has said that the team behind the film also met with history experts and worked with native speakers, including dancers and cast actors, to make sure the Spanish phrases were written and used correctly.

“We kept working on this, because there was such a huge feeling that, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh God, they’ll cancel us if someone says the wrong word,’ but this deep desire to get it right. And true,” Kushner told TIME this week.
So far, that attention to detail and plot changes seem to be winning over the critics, who have responded enthusiastically to the remake.

But the jury is still out on whether that will persuade Puerto Ricans who were uncomfortable with the original film, or outraged by it, to give this “West Side Story” a chance.


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