The Great ‘West Side Story’ Debate

HELLER Matthew, My thoughts on the subject will return to you, as a theatre artist who has changed his or her approach to the material over time. A Puerto Rican family was the subject of a play you wrote about the play and its effect on them. Was it influenced by your new understanding of where the original fell short?

LÓPEZ As a piece of drama (the music, the dancing), and as cinema, the film inspired my nascent creative brain. Seeing the revival, however, made me realise just how excluded Puerto Rican characters — and the actors portraying them — were from the festivities. Half of the cast appeared to be going hungry after a meal had been served. It occurred to me as I was thinking about “West Side Story” that it wasn’t reciprocated by my family.

All of this inspired me to start writing “Somewhere,” a novel set in the neighbourhood that was eventually levelled to make way for Lincoln Center. Their dreams are dashed by the realities of their situation: they can only dream of being cast in “West Side Story” (or any other work by Jerome Robbins). Trying to convey what’s going on behind the scenes was definitely a goal of mine.

INVESTMENTS IN THE DEL CAMINO When we read “Somewhere,” it appears that you are showing us how to engage with a classic work while not re-creating its flaws. What piques my interest is the inventiveness with which Puerto Rican performers have worked within the musical’s limitations. But really, what else can I want? How difficult it was for Rita Moreno after “West Side Story,” she wrote in the memoir of her life. In 2021, she’ll still be defined by the show, which makes me sad. Doesn’t Moreno, who has appeared in Lorraine Hansberry’s plays and undergone decades of psychoanalysis, deserve to progress?

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LÓPEZ Despite my best efforts, I’m left with a split personality. There’s a part of me that adores “West Side Story” and a part of me that despises the fact that I adore it. Previously, Lin-Manuel Miranda had said that it was both a blessing and a curse.

BERSON The fact that the show has such a strong emotional impact on you only adds to your ambivalence toward it. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” frustrates me to no end because I am a Jew. I can imagine Latinx performers both loving and hating “West Side Story” for the reasons you, Carina, and others have stated. Moreover, I can imagine Latinx performers both loving and hating “West Side Story” for the reasons you, Carina, and others have stated. In this way, popular culture can be a double-edged sword.

GREEN Theater thrives on new works from new artists. However, re-engaging with the old ones, which were once new, can be both enjoyable and valuable, provided they haven’t devolved into something akin to Confederate monuments that must be removed. Is there a statue of “West Side Story” in New York City honouring the Confederacy? There is no way.