NEW YORK — Ever since 1975, movie audiences have wanted Steven Spielberg to make another shark movie. No one expected it to be a “Jets and Sharks” movie.
It was recently announced that Spielberg, whose Nixon-era drama “The Post” is currently up for a number of Academy Awards, is doing something he’s never done before: remaking a classic, with “West Side Story.”
Yes, in 1989 Spielberg’s “Always” was a remake of 1943’s “A Guy Named Joe” and 2005’s “War of the Worlds” was technically a remake, too (but better known as a novella and radio drama). The point is neither were iconic, legendary films, so this “West Side Story” remake is a risky thing.
Luckily, it looks like he’s going about it the right way.
The initial casting call is looking specifically for Latino and Latina actors to play parts that were, in the 1961 film, played by white actors. Natalie Wood as “Maria” is nothing short of ridiculous when you look back at it now. (Though nothing is quite as cringeworthy as Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in another New York classic from that same year.)
Spielberg’s primary collaborator on this project is Tony Kushner, the much celebrated Jewish-American author of “Angels in America,” arguably the most important theatrical work of the 1990s.
Kushner and Spielberg have collaborated twice before, on 2005’s “Munich” and 2012’s “Lincoln.” These are Spielberg’s best two films of this century (fans of 2002’s “Catch Me If You Can” may disagree, but I say they are wrong) and this project couldn’t have more promise.
While Spielberg has never made a musical before, there’s nothing he can’t do with cinema. The dancehall scenes in one of his few bonafide flops, 1979’s “1941,” are the best thing that confused movie has to offer.
And the truck chase in 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — perhaps the most breathtaking action sequence in the history of film — is essentially a choreographed dance between Harrison Ford and the camera, but with punching instead of singing. Watch it again, it’s as great as you remember.
As with any piece of news where precious little is known, there were immediate naysayers. A writer for GQ and Vulture suggested that the call for “non-whitewashed casting” was meaningless if the film was still being adapted and directed by white people.
sorry but you don't get to call your west side story remake "non-whitewashed' if it's still being adapted and directed by white peoplehttps://t.co/FdDIJa2Jjr
— Joshua Rivera (@jmrivera02) January 26, 2018
A deputy editor at Jezebel.com said that she was “mad that two old white dudes were remaking ‘West Side Story’ in 2018.”
ugh that commercial just reminded me how mad i am at two old white dudes remaking west side story in 2018
— J. Escobedo Shepherd (@jawnita) January 29, 2018
It is quite understandable that any group can get their defenses up when someone who is an outsider is telling a story about that group. Especially when it is such a well-loved (and hummable!) piece that has, for so long, been something of a foundational work in the mainstream. But “West Side Story” has a bit of a knotty history.
And for what it’s worth, “Fiddler on the Roof,” (probably the most famous Jewish musical of all time) was directed by a man named Norman Jewison, who was (I hope you are sitting down for this) actually not Jewish. (He is a 91-year-old Protestant from Toronto, go figure!)
Lower East Side Story, take one
The origins of “West Side Story” are, to quote another non-Jew, Walter Sobchack, “as Jewish as Tevye.”
The original stage production of “West Side Story” sprang from an idea by director/choreographer Jerome Robbins (originally Rabinowitz), who wanted to tweak “Romeo and Juliet” for the then-modern late 1940s. He approached two other Jews, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein, to write the book and music.
Originally, the musical was to be set in the Lower East Side and center around tensions between Irish Catholics and Jews. The Maria character was to have been a Holocaust survivor who came to New York after some time in Israel. The Catholic gang would have been the Jets, and the Jewish gang the Emeralds. It was going to be called “East Side Story.”
Eventually the idea fizzled out. They thought it was too similar to the play “Abie’s Irish Rose.” But the three worked together on various projects over the years and kept in touch, and along the way they met a fourth Jewish man, Steven Sondheim, a composer and lyricist.
The eureka moment came, so the legend goes, when Laurents met Bernstein at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Bernstein was in town to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl, and the day’s paper had an item about turf wars amongst Latin immigrants. “East Side Story” became “West Side Story” –and “West Side Story” became history.
Producer Harold Prince (also Jewish) helped get the show to Broadway in 1957, and, well, you are probably already humming one of the songs by now.
Bernstein’s score mixed classical and jazz with some Latin rhythms. Sondheim’s lyrics were touching and hilarious (“Gee Officer Krupke, Krup you!”) and Robbins’ choreography was likely brilliant. I personally didn’t see it on stage, but I did see the movie version from 1961 that he co-directed with Robert Wise (one of the lone creative Gentiles on this project) and man does it have a lot of pow!
So am I arguing that “West Side Story” is actually a Jewish story on the down-low? No, not really. It was the first major piece of American entertainment to have Hispanic heroes, even if they weren’t written or even played by Hispanics. (Excepting, of course, Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for her supporting role of Anita – the first Latino ever to do so.)
But so much of what makes “West Side Story” works is the yearning that comes with assimilation, something that Jewish-Americans understand so well.
So much of what made the original version of “West Side Story” famous was that snappy wordplay, both in Laurents’s dialogue and Sondheim’s lyrics. I’m sure much of that will by updated – it’s assumed but unconfirmed that the new one will be modern day. And, if we can’t trust Tony Kushner to keep it clever than who can we trust?
Furthermore, if we can’t trust these two cultural giants to do their due diligence to make sure the Latino elements in the movie are authentic, well, we just may as well give up on anyone telling any story that didn’t personally happen to them.
I think Spielberg and Kushner will play it cool, boys, real cool.