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'West Side Story' gets 21st-century reboot

December 9, 2021

The Hollywood director's remake of the 1957 hit musical ticks all representation boxes, but has been banned in six Gulf countries for a transgender character.

Women dressed in colorful dresses caught on camera mid-dance
Boasting energetic song-and-dance sequences, Spielberg spent a year casting for the filmImage: 0th Century Studios/Everett Collection/picture alliance

Iconic Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg first listened to the "West Side Story" album when he was 10. He harbored the dream of (re)telling its story ever since.

The three-time Academy Award winner has helmed just about every film genre in his illustrious career, from rollicking action flicks like the "Indiana Jones" franchise and "Jurassic Park," to gripping dramas like "Schindler's List" and "Munich," spanning outer space ("E.T") to the deepest oceans ("Jaws").  

Now, he can add "musical" to his already remarkable body of work. 

Steven Spielberg on the set of West Side Story, interior of a 1950s diner.
This is Spielberg's first foray into musicalsImage: Twentieth Century Studios/Zuma/imago images

His version of "West Side Story" is based on the original 1957 hit Broadway musical, adapted into a film in 1961 — works that have amassed two Tonys and 10 Academy Awards to date.

The musical was originally created by director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died last Friday aged 91. 

For his 21st-century reboot of the story, Spielberg had actually worked with Sondheim, along with writer Tony Kushner.

The cast of the remake of West Side Story by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg's remake features a more culturally representative and younger castImage: Twentieth Century Fox/Zuma/picture alliance

Spotlight on xenophobia and prejudice

Beyond the childhood dream, there was another reason driving the director to pick up "West Side Story."

Even if it is set in 1950s New York, the classic tale about forbidden love and two feuding street gangs — a retelling of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" — has lost none of its social relevance today.  

"This story is not only a product of its time, but that time has returned, and it's returned with a kind of social fury," Spielberg told Vanity Fair. "I really wanted to tell that Puerto Rican, Nuyorican experience of basically the migration to this country and the struggle to make a living, and to have children, and to battle against the obstacles of xenophobia and racial prejudice."

In Spielberg's version, Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler, a Latina of Colombian descent who beat 35,000 actresses from around the world for the role, play the doomed lovers Tony and Maria.

They fall in love at first sight, despite belonging to the opposing clans: the Puerto Rican Sharks, headed by Maria's brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Caucasian Jets, run by Tony's best friend Riff (Mike Faist), who cannot fathom Tony's plans to quit the gang.

It also boasts electrifying song-and-dance sequences featuring some of the late Sondheim's most memorable songs, including "America," "I Feel Pretty" and the soaring "Somewhere" — an ode to a utopia where love and acceptance prevail.

Still from 'West Side Story'. two groups facing each other in a theater
The remake celebrates the dazzling musical numbers of the original hitImage: Niko Tavernise/Prod.DB/imago images

No more brownface

In keeping with industry standards of representation and inclusivity, Spielberg also spent a year casting globally for Latino men and women to play the Sharks.

"That's a big part of our story. The characters say and do things in our movie that they didn't say or do onstage, or in the 1961 film. And we cast all Latinx actors for the Shark boys and the Shark girls," Spielberg said at the film's premiere in New York in November.

In fact, some reviewers have lauded Spielberg for using his privilege and position in Hollywood for righting the wrongs of previous versions of the musical, in which non-Latino actors donned brownface to play the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Even in the 1961 movie, Caucasian actors Natalie Wood and George Chakiris, who played Maria and her gang leader brother Bernardo respectively, wore heavy brownface makeup.

Film still from the 1961 version of 'West Side Story' featuring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno
Caucasian actor Natalie Wood (left) and Puerto Rican actor Rita Moreno were both made to don brownface for the 1961 film Image: United Archives/imago images

Speaking at the same premiere, Puerto Rico-born actor Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film and appears as Valentina in the 2021 version, expressed pride "that every single Latino character is portrayed by a Latino actor, and that is very important because we are authentically showing what it means to be Latin."

"The representation of Latino and Hispanic performers in Hollywood has a long way to go, but we are starting to change that. There are so many talented people among Latinos, and Jennifer Lopez isn't the only one. We are everywhere!"

The 89-year-old actress had previously commented on how "extremely dark" the makeup was for some of the actors in the 1961 film; Moreno herself had her skin tone darkened, which she likened to "putting mud on my face."

She had tried to explain to the makeup artist back then how Puerto Ricans have different skin tones given their ethnic diversity, only to be asked in return if she was a racist.

"I was so flabbergasted that I couldn't come back with an answer," she recalled in a 2017 episode of  "In The Thick," a podcast on race, politics and culture.

Spielberg has also deliberately not subtitled the Spanish dialog in the film, as a nod to the significant Spanish-speaking community who call the US home.

Film ban because of transgender character

Amidst the overwhelmingly rave initial reviews, there's Oscar chatter swirling about the film.

However, it has also recently garnered media attention for reportedly being banned in six Gulf countries.

The 1961 film had featured a character called Anybodys, a teenage girl who was referred to back then as a "tomboy," who badly wanted to become a member of the Jets but was refused because of her gender.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, in Spielberg's version, Anybodys gets more screen time and David Saint, who is the executor of author Arthur Laurents' estate, confirmed that Anybodys "is a character who was a man born in a female's body. End of story."

Non-binary actor Iris Menas
Iris Menas' transgender character has led to six Gulf countries banning the filmImage: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Spielberg cast 31-year-old, non-binary actor Iris Menas, whose credits include the Broadway musical "Jagged Little Pill," inspired by the Alanis Morissette album of the same name. 

This inclusion of a transgender character has resulted in the film being banned in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait refused to grant the film a distribution certificate; the other countries' film authorities had requested cuts, but Disney refused to censor the work.

Brenda Haas | Porträt
Brenda Haas Writer and editor for DW Culture