Cardella: The West Side Story Controversy

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I didn’t see a Broadway show until I was 26. That was in 1964, during my first year of marriage. South Philly guys weren’t supposed to be interested in such things back then, unless we wanted our masculinity challenged. But when the film version of WEST SIDE STORY was released in 1961, I ran to see it in town and dragged some of the guys on the corner with me.

The guys in our crowd were almost immediately turned off when the Sharks and Jets came on screen snapping their fingers to the jazz-influenced rhythms. “Hey, no fair,” they sneered. “You dragged us to a musical, Cardella??” Yeah, but it wasn’t just any musical. This was different. This was cool. This wasn’t crap like THE MUSIC MAN. This one was so cool that Stan Kenton would later record the score with a full orchestra. This was COOLIE COOL!

I’ve since seen lots of Broadway musicals “live” and in film, but none has had the impact of WEST SIDE STORY. I was right out of college. I also felt like “I had a rocket in my pocket.” No musical had ever spoken to musical genre I loved. It must be like that now for young audiences first seeing HAMILTON. Broadway finally got with it. WEST SIDE STORY was supposed to be about the Puerto Ricans living in America. It wasn’t supposed to be about me. But it was.

The story came right out of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Leonard Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics were rooted in American jazz. The actors were everything but Puerto Rican. The early ‘60s, needless to say, were different times. None of the show’s creators had consulted the Puerto Ricans about their outsider status as Americans. And for some in the Puerto Rican community, WEST SIDE STORY was anything but loved. To them, it was just a garish spectacle showing Puerto Ricans being excluded from the mainstream of American life.

This was the baggage that Steven Spielberg inherited as he tried to tell the story in an authentic way. Did he blow the opportunity? I’ve not had a chance to see his 2021 version of WEST SIDE STORY. He reportedly brought in a cast that is far removed from the original leads, Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. In some cases, lyrics were updated to more closely resemble events in Puerto Rican history — without subtitles, so the audience could understand the Spanish. But in essence, WEST SIDE STORY is still an American version about Puerto Rican experience in America. That’s not a knock on Spielberg. What else could HIS movie be?

It may seem unfair, but Spielberg has come under fire for his efforts to make the authentic film the Puerto Rican community had hoped for. One critic suggested that Spielberg and the rest of us who think like him should have gotten past WEST SIDE STORY by now. That maybe what Spielberg should’ve done is to donate some of his money to the Puerto Rican arts community to let them make their own story about life in America.

I confess those sentiments seemed harsh to me at first. Showed no appreciation for what Spielberg had tried to do. Why can’t we all just sit back and enjoy a reportedly well-done remake of a movie classic? Why all the nit-picking? Who really cares? The answer is that the Puerto Rican community – or at least a sizable portion – cares. The criticism is not nit-picking to them, but goes to the core of their complaint.

Some folks thought that the Spielberg remake would allow younger audiences to experience WEST SIDE STORY for the first time. Turns out not enough younger folks — Puerto Rican or not — cared enough to show up at the box office. The problem of youthful indifference to Broadway theater is not just tied to WEST SIDE STORY. Other than HAMILTON, Broadway by and large still speaks in the language of the 1950s as far as youth are concerned. The remake of WEST SIDE STORY is attracting an older audience. A small one. Box office receipts are way down. Young audiences seem more interested in whether Spiderman can find his way home than whether Tony survives to run off with Maria.

Perhaps critics are right. Perhaps we should stop trying to correct the past by creating remakes like WEST SIDE STORY. Perhaps we should view WEST SIDE STORY as right for its time. A time that has passed. I don’t agree. With all due respect to the Puerto Rican community, there are some universal truths that keep WEST SIDE STORY from becoming irrelevant. We might’ve gotten the ethnicity wrong in 1957, but we got some things right. There are still tragedies in our cities today that snuff out the Tonys of the world. Death – dealing weapons still destroys the lives of lovely Marias. There are still Jets and Sharks by other gang names at war with one another over trivial matters like a pair of Nikes or a parking spot.

What is the critics’ message to Spielberg? The only “authentic” film left for you to make is SCHINDLER’S LIST? Steven Spielberg remaking WEST SIDE STORY does not prohibit Puerto Ricans or any other ethnic group from telling their own story on film any more than Shakespeare writing ROMEO AND JULIET prohibited Spielberg from remaking WEST SIDE STORY.