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.
Zegler has received rave reviews for her performance. Still, not everyone is convinced of the casting choice.
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.
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. “
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
The team behind this movie tried to do their homework
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.
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.