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The old ‘West Side Story’ got half the story wrong. Spielberg’s new film tries to make it right

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

The “West Side Story” in theaters now isn’t the movie you’ve seen before — and that’s a good thing.

The original 1961 film won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. But for decades this retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” through the lens of White and Puerto Rican gangs in New York has been panned by Puerto Ricans who felt insulted by the way characters from the island were portrayed.

Some worried Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic musical would repeat — and amplify — the very same one-sided story that’s cast a stereotypical shadow over generations of Puerto Ricans.

Spielberg vowed not to do that. And it’s clear he and his team took past criticisms into account as they shaped their version. Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner significantly rewrote much of the screenplay, using Arthur Laurents’ book for the 1957 Broadway show as a jumping-off point.

The songs are largely the same, but the story is different in several notable ways — especially when it comes to the movie’s Puerto Rican characters.

Here’s a look at how the new “West Side Story” responds to some of the missteps of the original film.

How Spielberg tried to solve the problem of Maria

Natalie Wood played Maria in the 1961 film, with Marni Nixon’s voice dubbed in for all the heroine’s songs. Neither one of them was Puerto Rican, or even Latina; most of the movie’s cast wasn’t, either.

Spielberg’s version casts Colombian American Rachel Zegler as Maria. And all the other Puerto Rican characters are played by Latino actors, too.

“It’s so important for people like us to see people like us onscreen,” Zegler said in a recent “20/20” special on the film, “to see people like us singing ‘I Feel Pretty,’ to see people like us falling in love and feeling joy and dancing around in pretty dresses. It’s so important for that next generation to see someone that looks like them.”

Zegler’s been getting rave reviews for her performance. Still, not everyone is sold on the casting choice.

“I have an issue with Hollywood once again fumbling the easiest of opportunities to elevate a Puerto Rican actress. They seem to think that as long as the actors are Hispanic, that’s enough,” Daily Beast Assistant Managing Editor Mandy Velez wrote in a recent column. “Except it’s not, to me or to other Puerto Ricans so thirsty to see themselves represented on screen they might collapse from dehydration.”

There’s no one wearing brownface in this movie

In the original “West Side Story,” many of the actors playing Puerto Rican characters were forced to wear the same dark brown makeup — even Rita Moreno, who is Puerto Rican and played the character of Anita.

“I remember saying to the makeup man one day ― because it was like putting mud on my face, it was really dark and I’m a fairly fair Hispanic ― and I said to the makeup man one day ‘My God! Why do we all have to be the same color?” Moreno told Futuro Media’s “In the Thick” podcast in 2017. “Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish…’ And it’s true, we are very many different colors, we’re Taino indian, we are Black some of us.”

When she raised that point on set, Moreno said she got a surprising response.

“The makeup man actually said to me, ‘What? Are you a racist?’ I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t come back with an answer.”

Thankfully, no one in the 2021 film is wearing brownface. A diverse cast of actors are playing Puerto Rican characters, including Ariana DeBose, who’s Afro-Latina and plays Anita.

And this time around, Moreno’s observations weren’t dismissed. She plays a new character written for this version, Valentina. She was an executive producer of the movie. And she regularly spoke with the cast about what it was like growing up as a Puerto Rican in America.

“She brought so many interesting stories, and she so motivated the cast,” Spielberg says in a promotional video for the film. “And I thought she really needed to be the executive producer, more of a managerial role, not just to come in as an actor, but to really help us frame the messages that ‘West Side Story’ needs to extend to people who see it. She’s been very, very causal in all of that.”

The words to an iconic song have changed

For many fans, “America” is one of the most beloved and well-known songs from “West Side Story.” The rousing dance number is also a searing debate between Anita and her boyfriend Bernardo over the costs and benefits of migration to the US mainland.

But many of the lyrics sung by Anita painted Puerto Rico in a negative light, in both the 1957 musical (“island of tropical diseases”) and the 1961 movie (“let it sink back in the ocean”).

That drew criticism when Spielberg and Kushner traveled to the University of Puerto Rico in 2018 to meet with students and faculty for input while they were making the new movie.

There, a professor of theater history and acting pointed out the song’s problematic lyrics as she questioned how Spielberg and Kushner planned to represent Puerto Ricans in the film. Kushner told the audience that the White, Jewish team behind the original story likely assumed the migration experience for Puerto Ricans was the same as it had been for their ancestors, who looked on the Old Country with disdain.

The professor who’d raised concerns later told The Hollywood Reporter that it doesn’t make sense for a Puerto Rican character to be speaking so disparagingly of the island, when most people migrate out of economic necessity and desperation.

“No one leaves this island without sobbing,” Isel Rodriguez said. “Three hundred thousand people left the island after Maria and the scene at the airport was like a funeral.”

In the end, Spielberg’s version of “America” cuts the song’s most controversial lines. There’s no one wishing an island where millions of people live should sink into the ocean.

By paring down the lyrics, the new version sharpens the focus of the song to the debate over whether life on the US mainland is good or bad for Puerto Ricans, rather than dragging Puerto Rico and its people through the mud.

The Sharks finally get backstories

Broadway composer and lyricist Lin Manuel-Miranda, whose parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico, has said that for Latinos, “West Side Story” has been “our greatest blessing and our greatest curse.”

“As a piece of art, I think it’s just about as good as it gets,” Miranda told The Washington Post in 2009. “It also represented our foot in the door as an artistic community on Broadway. … At the same time, because it’s just about the only representation of Latinos on Broadway and it’s about gangs, that’s where it gets tricky.”

In the original movie, the Caucasian Jets also get a lot more screen time than the Sharks, their Puerto Rican rivals. In this version, the Sharks are still gang members, but we finally get a chance to learn more about some of them.

Tony Kushner’s screenplay creates back stories for Puerto Rican characters that in the original were two-dimensional at best, and stereotypical at worst.

In the 2021 film, Chino is going to school to be an accountant. Bernardo is a boxer who came to New York more recently. Anita is a seamstress who’s saving money because she wants to open her own dress shop someday. Maria and her friends work on a cleaning crew at Gimbels department store.

Valentina, the new character written for this movie, is a widow running her store and trying to navigate life between two cultures. And everyone who lives in their neighborhood — Sharks and Jets alike — is about to get evicted so wrecking balls can tear down their homes to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center.

Spanish is spoken much more — and with a Puerto Rican accent

A few Spanish phrases were sprinkled into the original “West Side Story” — often delivered with accents that sounded more like Americans overacting than the way Puerto Ricans living in New York actually speak.

The Spanish in Spielberg’s film is delivered with trademark Puerto Rican phrases and accents. It’s spoken — without any subtitles — in intimate scenes like conversations between Maria and Anita at home.

And the only time it sounds stilted makes sense in the story — when non-native speakers like Tony, Maria’s Polish-American love interest, are trying to say something in Spanish.

In fact, the very first song with lyrics that we hear in the remake is sung in Spanish. It’s the Sharks’ version of the Puerto Rican anthem “La Borinqueña,” performed after police order them to leave a crime scene. And it wasn’t in the original.

The team behind this movie tried to do their homework

Originally, the plot of “West Side Story” was conceived to focus on tensions between Jews and Catholics on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

After they shifted gears to make Puerto Ricans one of the rival gangs, it’s clear the musical’s creators did little to research the Puerto Rican experience. Stephen Sondheim even admitted that he had never even met a Puerto Rican when he took on the assignment.

Spielberg and Kushner took a different tack, spending time researching Puerto Rican communities that lived in New York in 1957, when the musical is set. The visit to the University of Puerto Rico was one of many conversations.

Kushner has said the team behind the film also met with history experts and worked with native speakers — including dancers and actors in the cast — to make sure the Spanish phrases were written and used correctly.

“We kept working on this thing, because there was such an enormous feeling that — it wasn’t like, ‘Oh god, we’re going to get canceled if somebody says the wrong word’ — but this deep desire to get it right and true,” Kushner told TIME this week.

So far that attention to detail and the changes to the plot seem to be winning over critics, who’ve responded enthusiastically to the remake.

But the jury’s still out on whether that will persuade Puerto Ricans who were uncomfortable with — or outraged by — the original movie to give this “West Side Story” a chance.

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