And Then: The 1961 West Side Story in 2022 – jewishboston.com

Posted By on January 4, 2022

The original film version of West Side Story was released in 1961. I was a newborn babya bilingual babyliving in a four-room apartment with my mother, who was desperately missing her native Cuba in Hartford, Connecticut. Mama, forget your ethnic rivalry with the Puerto Ricans! Dont you see were in this together, and were in a movie! My mother has never watched West Side Story. Now, 60 years later, Im watching it for the first time. It is a revelation and a disappointment. The Spanish flying around me was dusted with an American inflection. I recognized it, yet it was foreign. Thats how I grew uprecognized, yet foreign.

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Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet is the framework for West Side Story; boy meets girl from warring sides. Ive heard the echoes of that battle all my life. One of my origin stories is how my staid, older father fell into the stars of my young Cubana mother. Neither family wanted the match. Three weeks before their wedding in Havana, my father thought he didnt want the match either. But lust can evolve into love, and my parents eventually married after my father aborted their first trip to the altar. That sort of drama was its own tragic love story. Three children and a mortgage on a home in an American suburb exacerbated rather than quelled my mothers temper.

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Everyone has their own Romeo and Juliet story. There were no dead bodies to step over in my version. But I was young, and love entailed drama in my world. I fell in love with a boy who wasnt Jewish, and this sent my Sephardic mother on a tantrum of fear and desperation. My soul was crushed and its pieces scattered around me when we broke up. Looking back, I see that being a Jew complicated my mothers life. I had done what her father had forbidden for her in Havana; that kind of mixing was its own death in her world. But doesnt anyone who watches West Side Story die a little again over their first loves?

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Other peoples expectations: Like the Sharks, we were other, even though we were Americans. We had the added obstacle that if we spoke Spanish, how could we be Jewish? If we Sephardim did not know Yiddish, how could we be Jewish? The question stabbed us every time. I felt a pinprick each time someone from the Puerto Rican contingent in West Side Story opened their mouth with their saccharine accent and awkward syntax. I want to live in Amer-ee-ka. I like the island Manhattan! Everything free in America.

The Puerto Ricans in the movie look as if they fell into a vat of mud. Their dark makeup had nothing to do with anyones skin color. Rita Moreno, who played Anita, told The New Yorker: That was Jerry [Robbins]s idea. He wanted a contrast between the Puerto Rican gang and the white boys. In fact, some of the Jets had to have their hair dyed blond. That was Jerrys thinking at the time: if you were white, you had to be fair.

Notably, Natalie Wood did not wear slabs of dark makeup to portray Maria. And for the record, my Latinx mother has fair skin and green eyes.

On the positive side, Moreno found her Latinx pride playing Anita. Anita was the only Hispanic character I ever played who had a sense of dignity, who was courageous, she said. Anita was so different from me, and she became my role model because she defended herself, and Id never been that way in my life.

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The Jewish trifecta of West Side StoryLeonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheimcomposer, choreographer and lyricist. Their genius is luminous in the film. Yet West Side Story had its detractors. The film critic Pauline Kael hated the movie. In her scorching review, she called it frenzied hokum, the dialogue painfully old-fashioned and mawkish. The choreography was simpering, sickly romantic ballet. No, Ms. Kael. The dancing was its own dynamic character in the movie. I relate to frenzied. Much of my childhood was that way. It was often exhausting, sometimes thrilling to be hyphenated, Latinx-American. And to confuse things furtherLatinx-American-Jewish. So much reclamation.

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Immigrants triumph! The Puerto-Rican-born Rita Moreno as Anita and Greek American George Chakiris as Bernardo, head of the Sharks, won Oscars for their supporting roles in the film. Supporting is a misnomer. Moreno stole every scene in which she appeared. Chakiris transcended his muddied makeup to exude Latinx pride. My people!

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Doc, the Jewish candy shop owner, and Natalie Woods Maria are credited with conveying the movies messaging. You kids make this world lousy! When will you stop? Doc has just stopped Anita from being gang raped. More frenzied hokum, Ms. Kael? Anita has come to the candy shop to deliver Marias love message to Tony. On NPRs Fresh Air, Moreno said, I left a huge piece of my soul in that scene.

Along with bullets, hate murdered Tony. Maria says so as she grabs the gun used to shoot her lover fatally and threatens to shoot herself. You all killed him, she says, not with bullets and guns, but with hate. She drops the gun and follows the silent funeral cortege made up of Sharks and Jets united to carry away Tonys body.

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When West Side Story was released again in 1968, the advertising for the film declared that it had not aged; in fact, it got younger. Id like to take it further and say it did not age because it was forward-thinking. In the bedroom scene, Tony and Maria have just made love. And the character of Anybodys, although identified as a girl, is a nonbinary character in a Hollywood production. Its time that Anybodys received their deserved pronounsthey/them.

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Theres a place for usSomewhere a place for us

If Tony and Maria had boarded that bus to somewhere, would they have found peace and quiet and open air?

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And Then: The 1961 West Side Story in 2022 - jewishboston.com

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