The idea of remaking West Side Story for film (again) is a touchy subject for Puerto Ricans.
The Broadway play was first performed in 1957 and made into a classic film in 1961. It has yet to shake off its offensive portrayal of Puerto Ricans. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg travelled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on December 14 with members of the creative team, including screenwriter Tony Kushner, to meet with locals.
“Why ‘West Side Story’? And why now?” film critic Mario Alegre asked, per the Hollywood Reporter. “That was my first reaction. It’s a very sensitive film for Puerto Ricans because of their portrayal in it. It’s like doing ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.”
University of Puerto Rico professor Isel Rodriguez also commented: “Musicals have this thing that makes you tingle inside and want to sing along,” Rodriguez said. “But that’s a complicated thing when you’re singing along to [a lyric like ] ‘let it sink back in the ocean.’
“I thought this would be on everyone’s mind. But time was running out and I saw no one was going to ask it,” Rodriguez noted. “It was the elephant in the room. Every time someone of this magnitude comes to this island, our instinct is not to create any kind of debate because we’re kind of accommodating.”
Kushner, who rewrote the book of the 1959 Broadway musical and its 1961 movie adaptation for the new film, elaborated. “[That line] is from the musical… [Lyricist Stephen] Sondheim changed that because there was a lot of unhappiness about the negativity towards the island in America,” Kushner said, “so we’re using the lyrics from the film.”
“One of the reasons we are here,” Spielberg added, “the reason we’ve hired so many Puerto Rican singers and dancers and actors, is so they can help guide us to represent Puerto Rico in a way that will make all of you and all of us proud.”
“This will always be Romeo and Juliet,” Spielberg said, “but it also speaks a lot to what’s happening today in terms of what’s happening at the borders. It’s very relevant today to essentially the rejection of anyone who isn’t white. And that’s a big part of our story.”
A video of the conversation was published on Facebook.