The Great ‘West Side Story’ Debate

Since its Broadway premiere in 1957, “West Side Story” — a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” and created by four white men — has been at once beloved and vexing.

The score, featuring such Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim classics as “Somewhere” and “Maria,” is considered one of the best in Broadway history. The cast album was a No. 1 smash. The 1961 movie won best picture and nine other Oscars. The show has been regularly revived, most recently on Broadway last year in a short-lived radical rethinking by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove. And now, this month, a movie remake by none other than Steven Spielberg.

And yet, from the beginning, the show (directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents) has discomfited some audience members and critics — for its violence, its mix of tones and, especially, for the way it underscores stereotypes of Puerto Ricans as gang members. Not to mention that the 1961 movie featured the white actress Natalie Wood playing the Latina role of Maria.

Why does “West Side Story” continue to have such a large cultural footprint? Should it? Is it possible to be true to such richly emotional material and still be responsive to our moment?

The dance-at-the-gym sequence in the new “West Side Story” film.Credit…20th Century Studios

We asked five experts to weigh in: Jesse Green, the chief theater critic at The New York Times; Isabelia Herrera, a Times critic fellow; Carina del Valle Schorske, a contributing writer at the Times Magazine and the author of a 2020 Times Opinion piece challenging the show’s place in the culture; the Tony Award-winning playwright Matthew López (“The Inheritance”); and Misha Berson, the author of “Something’s Coming, Something Good: ‘West Side Story’ and the American Imagination.”

They gathered before seeing the new film and just before news broke that Sondheim, the show’s lyricist and the last survivor from its creative team, had died at 91. Scott Heller, the interim editor of Arts & Leisure, kicked off the conversation, and it got going quickly from there.

SCOTT HELLER What stays with you about the first time you saw “West Side Story”? Or the most memorable time?

JESSE GREEN The first time I saw it was in a high school production featuring extremely clumsy dancing, warbly singing and an all-white (non-Latinx) cast. Memorable, but not in a good way. Luckily, I had already gotten to know it by then — from the music.

MATTHEW LÓPEZ My relationship to “West Side Story” is a bit unusual in that my father was in the film as an extra. He’s clearly visible in the opening scene on the playground, just after the prologue. When I was perhaps 7, my parents showed it to me, and it was incredibly exciting to see my father at 14 years old. And it was the first time I’d ever seen any kind of popular entertainment with Puerto Rican characters. It was not until later that my relationship to the show changed. I saw the revival in 2009 (my first time seeing it onstage), and I was shocked at how thinly the Puerto Rican characters were drawn.

MISHA BERSON I’m probably the one person here who saw the original — actually a Broadway tour that came through Detroit when I was 9 years old. I went with my dance class, and though it was something of a blur and I didn’t understand it much, I was captivated by the dancing, the music, the energy and excitement of the show. I became obsessed with it, but as an adult didn’t see another vibrant, fully realized production until the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle did an excellent revival in 2007.

ISABELIA HERRERA Unfortunately, my memories are wrapped up in a microaggression that has stayed with me since high school. My family is Dominican, from the city of Santiago de los Caballeros, and I am likely one of the only kids of Dominican descent who attended my high school. I remember when, in English class, a white classmate reprimanded me for not having seen “West Side Story” at the time, saying, “But aren’t you Puerto Rican?!”

A scene from “West Side Story” on Broadway, starring Chita Rivera, foreground, as Anita.Credit…John Springer Collection/Corbis, via Getty Images

CARINA DEL VALLE SCHORSKE Ugh, Isabelia, that’s such a familiar story! In a messed-up way, your classmate’s confusion makes sense, because the musical itself might just as well be about Dominicans — it’s that general. I first saw “West Side Story” on a VHS tape my mom and I rented from the public library when I was maybe 9 or 10. I grew up in California, away from my Puerto Rican family in Washington Heights, so I thought I might find something out about my culture that I didn’t know before. But nothing onscreen — beyond the latticework of fire escapes — reminded me of the people or neighborhood I knew from frequent visits to New York. I finished the movie feeling even more confused than I was before about what being Puerto Rican was supposed to mean — to me, and to the “average” American.

“I finished the movie feeling even more confused than I was before about what being Puerto Rican was supposed to mean — to me, and to the ‘average’ American.”

GREEN I’ve never seen musicals as documentaries. They often rely on stereotypes to make larger points than they could if they focused on specific, actual characteristics. Without the stereotypes, you probably couldn’t have ensembles. The question is whether the stereotypes are vile, destructive. As a white, non-Latinx person, I’m not the right person to judge that. But I would just say that the Jets are stereotyped, too, and, in the source material, so are the Veronese.

BERSON Do you trust that everyone knows the source material is Shakespeare’s R&J? I wish I did!

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE “The Jets are stereotyped, too,” but white teens are not harmed by such stereotypes because there have always been such a wealth of representations to choose from. And at the time of the musical’s debut, there wasn’t a general suspicion in the air that any white teen might be a gangster, so “West Side Story” wasn’t, for them, reinforcing an expectation of criminality that was already violently shaping the politics of the period.

GREEN Would you say the Puerto Rican characters are less well characterized than the white ones: the Poles, Italians and others? My sense is that most characters in most musicals are poorly characterized in terms of their ethnic or racial or other identity because that’s not what those shows are really about. Don’t get me started on gay and Jewish stereotypes in musicals, which I guess I’m especially aware of as a gay Jew.

BERSON The creators of the show, though they were all white men, were not simply oblivious to what actual Puerto Ricans were like in New York at the time. For instance, Jerome Robbins visited Puerto Rican youth dances and social gatherings, and tried to incorporate some of the popular dance movements he saw in his choreography. He also tried to recruit as many Latinx performers as possible, which was difficult because there were so few opportunities for them to get the Broadway experience and training the show demanded. Also, Bernstein had always loved and admired Latin music and tried to meld some of the rhythms into his score.

“The creators of the show, though they were all white men, were not simply oblivious to what actual Puerto Ricans were like in New York at the time.”

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE That’s interesting, about Robbins. I’m quite familiar with a broad range of Latin rhythms, and I don’t hear or see the influence — unless you’re counting the Spanish paso doble on the rooftop. I do love some of the choreography, especially the anxious, tightly coiled “Cool,” performed by the Jets. It’s good to know that someone was at least trying to do their homework after Sondheim confessed he’d “never even met a Puerto Rican.” In this conversation, I really hope we can move beyond the false binary: “documentary” versus “work of imagination.” Does a work of imagination really have to be so “superficial and sentimental,” which is how the Black Puerto Rican journalist Jesús Colón described West Side Story when it debuted?

GREEN In musical theater, that isn’t a false binary. Some shows operate at a granular level, risking larger insignificance, and others work more broadly, risking stereotype. “West Side Story,” as Misha can tell us more definitively, was an idea looking for an ethnicity. And it does seem to me that in landing on Puerto Ricans vs. whites (instead of Jews vs. Catholics as originally imagined), it was taking advantage of a news hook of the time without any deep engagement in Puerto Rican-ness. I guess the question is whether it’s possible for a work to rise above that when it is primarily looking at the eternal paradigm of outsiders and insiders, and the tragedy of love that tries to cross those boundaries.

Richard Beymer as Tony and Natalie Wood as Maria in the 1961 film, which won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture.Credit…MGM

BERSON That is “Romeo and Juliet,” Jesse, which one could say (as you indicated) had little to do with the actual Verona (which Shakespeare never visited) but still is a potent portrayal of love in the crossfire of hate. I also want to add that though characters in musicals tend not to be deeply complex and contoured, Bernardo and Anita are not portrayed simply as bad kids spoiling for a fight. They are more sympathetic than that, as leaders and lovers, at least to my understanding — in some ways more so than Jets members.

And a moment of historical context may be helpful here: At the time of the show’s creation, there was national alarm about the growing “threat” of youth violence during the postwar malaise, and that was true of Black, Irish and other groups of kids. And there was also, among these liberal artists, a real concern about racial/ethnic prejudice and the rising backlash against immigrants of color. These things are still meaningful, and one of the reasons I think young people especially are still very much drawn to the material despite its flaws.

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE I would be more sympathetic to the possibility of “West Side Story” rising above that fault if its creators, or re-creators, were not taking advantage of Puerto Ricans as the “news hook” for liberal street cred. If it’s supposed to be some universal and culturally interchangeable narrative, then it doesn’t get to count as a serious exploration of Puerto Rican or so-called Latinx life.

GREEN I agree that “West Side Story” is not a serious exploration of those things. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious exploration of something else. I say this even though I don’t actually think it’s the greatest musical ever written; it has plenty of aesthetic flaws beyond the political ones we’re discussing. My love for it comes mostly from the way the songs tell the story — though I know that too is a point of contention. For me, Sondheim’s lyrics get at the twitchy excitement (and anger) of youth like nothing else in musical theater ever has — as do Bernstein’s polyrhythms and percussion, whatever their actual sonic origin.

HELLER Matthew, I’m going to circle back to you, as a theater artist whose response to the material has changed over time. Among other things, you wrote a play about the play and its impact on a Puerto Rican family. Tell us about it — and was it informed by your new insights into where the original fell short?

LÓPEZ The movie did spark my nascent creative brain as a piece of drama — the music, the dancing — and as cinema. Seeing the revival, though, I realized how much the Puerto Rican characters — and thereby the performers playing them — were not invited to the party, so to speak. A meal had been laid out and half the cast seemed left to go hungry. My family loved “West Side Story,” but as I thought about it, I realized their love for the show wasn’t reciprocated by it.

All of this led me to begin writing “Somewhere,” which is set in the neighborhood that was ultimately destroyed to build Lincoln Center. A Puerto Rican family of dancers and performers who dream of being cast in “West Side Story” (or anything Jerome Robbins created) but who, by the realities of their situation, are only left dreaming. I think in some ways, I was attempting to tell the offstage story that you don’t see.

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE Matthew, it seems like “Somewhere” shows us how to engage with a “canonical” work without reproducing its limitations. I’m interested in the way Puerto Rican artists have creatively navigated the musical’s constraints, but I’m also hungry for … anything else! In her memoir, Rita Moreno wrote about how difficult it was to find substantial roles after “West Side Story”: I’m kind of depressed by the fact that she’s still defined by the show in 2021. I mean, Moreno performed in plays by Lorraine Hansberry, she spent decades in psychoanalysis — doesn’t she deserve to grow?

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LÓPEZ I do have to cop to a bifurcated mind on this. There’s a part of me that really loves “West Side Story” and a part of me that really hates that I love “West Side Story.” I think Lin-Manuel Miranda once called it “a blessing and a curse,” which is a sentiment I understand.

BERSON It makes total sense to have a conflicted opinion of the show, especially if it speaks to you so personally. It’s not equivalent, but as a Jewish woman, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” drives me up the wall! Meanwhile, I can readily imagine Latinx performers might both love and resent “West Side Story” — love the way it has given many employment and its exhilarating use of dancer-actor-singers, but resent it for all the reasons you, Carina and others have stated. Popular culture is often a double-edged sword that way.

GREEN New work from new artists is the lifeblood of the theater. Yet engaging with the old ones, which were new once, can also be pleasurable and valuable — unless they have become the equivalent of Confederate statues that need to come down. Is “West Side Story” a Confederate statue? I don’t think so.

“Is ‘West Side Story’ a Confederate statue? I don’t think so.”

BERSON If we are now designating imperfect musicals as Confederate statues, I think that’s scary. “West Side Story” gets produced a lot because it can accommodate a teenage cast (there have been thousands of high school productions) and because it is a kind of cultural touchstone that still excites people. Confederate statues glorify bigotry and apartheid. There’s a difference.

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE Audiences are taught what should resonate with them — nothing becomes a “cultural touchstone” by accident — and the more a certain narrative gets repeated, the more sentimental associations it accrues. “West Side Story” might not be a Confederate monument, but it is a monument to the authority of white Americans to dominate the conversation about who Puerto Ricans are. And each revival renews that authority and co-signs the narrative for a new generation.

GREEN All art is political, yes, and deserves to be judged as such. But art is not just political, and deserves to be judged on other grounds, too. If there is no pleasure to be had in “West Side Story” then it cannot possibly overcome the problems we’re discussing. But if it does offer pleasure, then we, as individuals, are free to weigh it against those problems. The balance will be different for different people, not necessarily corresponding with identity.

The most recent Broadway revival, directed by Ivo van Hove, featured video projections. It was critically divisive and had a short run, in part because of the pandemic.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

HELLER Matthew, you and I had some provocative back-and-forths about critical responses to “The Inheritance” and its depictions of the gay community, and you were good enough to write a piece for us, in which you made this point: “No one piece of writing about our complex, sprawling community will ever tell the entire story, and I believe that is a good thing: It creates an unquenchable thirst for more and more narratives.” Does that hold for “West Side Story” as well?

LÓPEZ I don’t think it’s an apt comparison. “The Inheritance” is a gay play written by a gay man whereas “West Side Story” is purported to be about Puerto Ricans and was written by white men. And while there are heterosexual characters in “The Inheritance,” they aren’t serving the same dramatic function in my play that the Puerto Rican characters do in “West Side Story.” And I used the word “function” purposefully, for that is what they feel in the story. I’d love to see a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”-style rethinking one day.

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE I agree that any future engagement with “West Side Story” that actually deepens the material would have to abandon all loyalty to the show as written, the way “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” completely reimagines “Hamlet.” It’s an independent work of art that deconstructs the canonical play. I doubt the creators of “West Side Story” gave a single thought to “new narratives” that might emerge from their musical, let alone new Puerto Rican narratives. And it doesn’t seem like the power brokers of Broadway or Hollywood are really thirsting for them, otherwise the same material wouldn’t get recycled over and over.

HELLER So we are getting to the Spielberg movie.

HERRERA I’m also skeptical of how much the thirst for new narratives comes from a genuine place, rather than a response to an industry that is clearly grappling with questions of racism and struggling to navigate critiques about representation. Honestly, I think there is something sinister about capitalizing on the nostalgia of a Hollywood artifact, casting an all-Latinx Sharks cast, while still using the liberal language of “inclusion” and “diversity” as armor against critique. The fact that “West Side Story” is being remade with these issues in mind doesn’t necessarily absolve it of its original missteps.

BERSON So is there no place for “West Side Story,” even with the best of intentions? Does that mean there’s no place for “Othello” or “Merchant of Venice,” which are problematic but still dramatically vital works? Can we still see the show, or not see it, and have fruitful debate about it?

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE I’m not advocating the wholesale erasure of “West Side Story.” I’m saying, let’s stop pouring literally hundreds of millions of dollars into propping up its relevance, and let’s stop minimizing its flaws.

HERRERA Misha,I think we can certainly still have a fruitful debate about it! When discussions around colorism mushroomed online surrounding the film adaptation of “In the Heights,” I mentioned in our roundtable that criticism emerges from a place of love — a desire to make art, life and politics better. I don’t see these critiques as mutually exclusive.

BERSON That is very well said. And just my awareness of the politics of librettist Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein especially — who were both blacklisted in the ’50s for their civil rights and other activism — makes me think they would probably share some of these concerns and find them meaningful. But the show has intrinsic artistic power, and I think will survive. It is encouraging to me that someone with the skill and sensitivity of Tony Kushner is the screenwriter/adapter. I hope it’s great, and I hope it’s the last!

HELLER Do others hope the remake is great?

HERRERA I don’t know if there is such a thing as a great remake, but I’m certainly hoping this version releases its grip on stereotypes, offers its more underdeveloped characters a bit of autonomy and perhaps provides more texture about the actual life and experiences of Puerto Rican migration at the time. And please, give us at least a few songs with actual Afro-Caribbean rhythms! A plena take on “I Feel Pretty”?

GREEN Authenticity isn’t the goal; if “Hamilton” were authentic, it would be mostly minuets. I want the new movie of “West Side Story” to succeed if it’s good, if it manages to move people. But if only white people are moved, it will be a failure.

LÓPEZ I’m excited to see what Spielberg, Kushner and [the choreographer Justin] Peck do with the material for a 21st-century audience. It’s a perfect opportunity to honor what’s glorious about the show, and address what is flawed.

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE I want it to flop so we can move on.

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