Jews were the creative forces behind “West Side Story” decades ago and today. Should they be?

(JTA) – In 1955, director Jerome Robbins approached writer Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein with a new idea for a Broadway musical: a contemporary tale of “Romeo and Juliet,” set among warring gangs of Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side of New York.

It would be called “East Side Story” and would take place around the turn of the 20th century during the Easter and Passover holidays.

But something was wrong. The writers wondered if all they were doing was adding music to “Abie’s Irish Rose,” an early 20th century play about an Irish Catholic girl and a Jewish boy falling in love. The story didn’t seem fresh enough.

In his memoir, Laurents recalled when “East Side Story” became “West Side Story”: when he read a headline in the news that screamed “No More Chaos From Chicano Gangs”.

So, Robbins’ original idea morphed into the story of a white gang – the Jets – and a Puerto Rican gang – the Sharks – clashing on the Upper West Side just a few years before the area is targeted for urban renewal. Bernstein, Robbins and Laurents remained the show’s creative leaders and later joined Stephen Sondheim to write the lyrics for the musical. All four were Jews, although they no longer wrote about Jews.

“West Side Story” has become one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time. And in 1961, the film, co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, cemented the show’s status as a classic in musical form – even as it cast ethnically white actors to play Latino characters, darkening their skin for the screen.

The Jewish creators of “West Side Story” Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents at the opening night of the original Broadway musical, September 26, 1957. (Ben Martin / Getty Images)

Sixty years after the release of the first film “West Side Story,” two other highly acclaimed Jewish creators – director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner – returned to the material to direct a much-anticipated remake. This new “West Side Story”, which comes out just a few weeks later Sondheim’s death, retains the overall arc of the original musical while making some notable changes to the story and presentation, including bringing in Latino actors to play the sharks and their loved ones.

Yet in today’s cultural climate, as audiences are highly sensitive to on-screen representations of under-represented groups, new questions have emerged: were Spielberg and Kushner the right people to attempt a remake of ” West Side Story ”, or would this task have been given to Puerto? Rican creatives? And there is also a deeper question: the spectacle, which some critics and academics have said it is fundamentally outdatedeven have been redone at all?

The original show’s transformation from a Jewish story to a Puerto Rican story reflected the American Jewish community’s own assimilation and abandonment of its alien status in the mid-20th century. By the 1950s, Jews were finding ways to assimilate into white America as new concerns about racial violence among new immigrant groups, especially Latin American communities, bubbled through the city.

“Suddenly all of these questionable white groups at the turn of the century sort of come together and become, in the case of the musical, a gang, a racial category,” said Warren Hoffman, executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies and author of the 2014 book “The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical”.

“Puerto Ricans, Black Americans, People of Color are becoming the ‘new enemy’ in the United States. This is how whiteness evolves and what happens in ‘West Side Story’,” Hoffman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

But rather than feeling seen by the portrayal of their community in the original show and film, many Puerto Ricans felt rather belittled.

“As a child, I found the music dazzling but the overall message racist,” Aurora Levins Morales, a Puerto Rican Jewish writer and activist, told JTA of her experience watching the 1961 film. “I had no idea that it was created and directed by Jews, and that certainly makes the racist aspects of the film even more painful for me as a Jew.”

Morales said her classmates would make fun of her when the film was released. “I used to be taunted at school with the lyrics ‘Puerto Rico, devotion from my heart, let it sink in the ocean’, and the fact that Rita Moreno was the only Puerto Rican actor chosen. in the movie has always appalled me, although I think she is fabulous and I have always admired her, ”she said.

The song that Morales refers to, “America,” is one of the most controversial of the 1961 film; Although the lyrics poke fun at the continental United States and Puerto Rico in equal measure, many listeners took offense at the way the Puerto Rican characters mock their homeland. Even Sondheim seemed to be hesitant about the project, at first refusing to do the show because, he would have said, he had “never been so poor and I never even knew a Puerto Rican”.

Puerto Rico has a large Jewish community: the island is home to around 1,500 to 2,500 Jews, according to a 2016 demographic survey conducted by the Hebrew University, making it the largest and richest Jewish community in the Caribbean. Most Puerto Rican Jews are descendants of Polish Jews who moved to the island of Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959; many Puerto Rican Jewish families also migrated to the continental United States during this time, reflecting the broader Latin American immigration patterns of the time.

There are also links between immigrant communities. In his book “Stories of Medicine”, Morales defines the Judeo-Puerto Rican relationship as a story “made in New York in garment factories filled first by Jews from Eastern Europe, then by Puerto Ricans. , in times of solidarity and betrayal, when the price of upward mobility for white Jews was the abandonment of people of color.

Steven Spielberg and Rita Moreno in a dinner set

Director Steven Spielberg and actress Rita Moreno as Valentina on the set of the new “West Side Story”. Spielberg made significant changes to the story and hired consultants to ensure cultural sensitivity. (Niko Tavernise / 20th century studios)

In 2018, when the remake of “West Side Story” was in its infancy, Kushner and Spielberg held a question / answer at the University of Puerto Rico to hear concerns about the direction of the new film. Kushner, in response to a question about “America,” said the song’s push reflected the creators’ Jewish roots. “They use the Jewish immigrant experience, the idea that you look back where you came from and become ‘yech’,” he said.

For the 2021 film, the song’s lyrics have been changed, its most offensive lines removed. Other changes include more conversations in Spanish, with no english subtitles, as well as hiring plenty of experts to guide authentic culture and slang. These changes seem to have paid off: early reviews, including from Latino critics, have been especially raves, and critics praise The adaptation choices of Spielberg and Kushner. Even a prominent film critic distinguished the new version of “America” as a highlight.

These reactions appear to live up to promises Spielberg made at the start of production on the film.

“The reason we have hired so many Puerto Rican singers, dancers and actors is that they can guide us to represent Puerto Rico in a way that will make you all proud,” Spielberg told the crowd in San Juan. . .

For his part, Spielberg – whose representatives have not returned a request for comment, but who frequently refers to his own happy childhood memories while watching the original film – maintained that whatever its problems, “West Side Story” is a “timeless” piece. This characterization worries some.

“When someone says something is timeless, I don’t know what they mean by that. Because I think the shows are very specific about what they’re trying to say, ”Hoffman says. “The policy of ‘West Side Story’ in 57 is not the policy of the United States in 2021.”

Rebecca Gleiberman, a 29-year-old woman who grew up Puerto Rican and Jewish in Florida, says she never felt fully integrated into either community. She didn’t think much of “West Side Story” when she saw it as a child, but “as an adult you certainly feel like it’s almost Puerto Rican cartoons that make up the story. most of the characters ”.

Gleiberman says she’s open to a new remake of two Jewish creators, as long as it’s done right. The biggest problem, for her, is watering down authenticity or playing on stereotypes to make a production “comfortable” for anyone sitting in a theater – issues, she says, plagued another 2021 musical in. a Latino community in New York, “In The Heights. “

“These sounded like Hispanic caricatures and stereotypes to me, and this was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda,” she said. “I felt like it was kind of written in a more digestible way for white audiences. So I don’t know if that necessarily matters who writes it.

“West Side Story” opens in theaters nationwide on December 10.

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