In 1947, the three most exciting Jews in American entertainment got together to plan their first collaboration. Jerome Robbins had struck Broadway box office gold with On the Town three years earlier. The same show proved that Leonard Bernstein was as skilled at writing a catchy tune as he was conducting the New York Philharmonic. Together with the young but promising playwright Arthur Laurents, they were looking for the next big project. Naturally, Shakespeare came to mind.
They settled on reworking Romeo and Juliet. It’ll be called East Side Story, they decided, and it’ll tell the story of a Catholic boy on Manhattan’s Lower East Side who falls in love with a Jewish girl, a Holocaust survivor. He’s the leader of a gaggle of toughs calling themselves the Jets, and she’s mixed up with a rival gang, the all-Jewish Emeralds. As Passover and Easter bleed into each other, so do the star-crossed lovers.
But they had doubts. For one thing, it struck them as too similar to Abie’s Irish Rose, another hit play about a Jew and a Catholic falling in love. For another, it just felt wrong. As a Jewish immigrant to America, it’s not hard for me to understand why a musical that portrayed Jews as newcomers on the margins of society struck the three as distasteful. All three had to some degree or another Americanized their names. They were eager to tell all-American stories, for they understood America to be radiant precisely because it allowed cats like them, one or two generations removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, to shine. Their vision was Jewish, acutely sensitive to the suffering of the neediest. At the same time, they had faith in what was back then still called—without any irony—the American Dream.
It took them another decade, and a chance encounter with a newspaper story about New York gang warfare, to shift their focus to a group of even newer arrivals, Puerto Ricans, and to move the story uptown. The result is West Side Story. A few years later, the show became a movie, the movie won an armful of Oscars, and generations of children swooned along with Tony and Maria.
When Steven Spielberg announced he was taking on the much-beloved classic, excitement was rampant. Theater geeks excitedly noted that the writer entrusted with the screenplay would be Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America lives a few doors down from West Side Story in the pantheon of American theater. The pairing felt promising, almost cosmically right: Just as a team of Jewish artists delivered the original musical as a platform for asking thorny questions about race, class, and bigotry in 1950s America, so would a new team of Jewish artists tackle the same questions, no less urgent six decades later.
And, indeed, Spielberg’s West Side Story is visually ravishing. The original movie’s soundstage aesthetic is replaced with a much more realistic setting: a slum being razed to make way for Lincoln Center. Spielberg’s cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński, glides his camera between the rubble and the dancers, making us feel not only the beauty of Robbins’s choreography but also the despair of impoverished young men growing up in a neighborhood being torn down. And Kushner’s script is artful, giving the play’s largely stock characters backstories that make their downfall all the more painful.
Considering how much the film gets right, it’s tragic that it gets one very important thing very wrong. When the film opened in December, it took in only $10.5 million the first weekend, which Variety, the closest thing Hollywood has to a gospel, labeled a “shocking disappointment.” Why would a remake of a beloved classic by America’s most popular director fall behind duds like Clifford the Big Red Dog or the gossipy House of Gucci? The fault, it seems, isn’t in Spielberg’s stars but in his sensibilities. Simply put, the new West Side Story bombed because it takes a very different view of America than its predecessor, offering viewers a bleak American nightmare.
The difference is evident from the very first number. Before we hear anyone belt out Bernstein’s beloved tunes, the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, berated by a bigoted police officer, lines up for a rousing rendition of “La Borinqueña,” Puerto Rico’s anthem. It’s a declaration of intent, not just theirs, but the film’s as well, telling us that we’re about to watch a meditation on identity politics.
The question of identity, of course, was always the central theme of West Side Story, but the way we talk about identity has changed in the decades that separate the original and the latest remake. For Jewish liberal intellectuals of Bernstein and Robbins’s generation, thinking about identity meant pondering ways to better hold America up to its timeless promise of opportunity and excellence, a promise animated by the spirit of the Hebrew prophets. Social justice and American exceptionalism were intertwined, informing and empowering each other. The point of watching Tony die at the end was to spur us all to pay more attention to the plight of these poor souls on the margins and to make sure America became ever greater by allowing them, too, a slice of the pie.
Fast-forward to 2021. Being a Jewish liberal in America these days means something very different, a weird cult of tribes that pledge allegiance to ever-narrowing circles of belonging: I’m a queer Latinx! I’m a half-black, gender-nonconforming Jewess!
In 1957, that identity might be destiny was a tragedy to mourn; today, it’s a given, as well as a cause for celebration. That’s why Chino, originally the story’s villain, is transformed in the new version into, if not exactly a hero, then at least an eminently sympathetic character. In Kushner’s telling, he starts the movie a bright and promising nerd, studying accounting and believing firmly in the promise of America. His fellow Puerto Ricans urge him not to get involved with gang nonsense—his future is bright. Yet after Tony kills Maria’s brother, Bernardo, Chino is radicalized. He grabs a gun and tells Bernardo’s friends he’s going to avenge his pal’s death. “The gringos will kill you,” they warn him. But Chino is undeterred. With quiet rage, he hisses, “The gringos kill everything.”
This ethos—faith in America out, belief in group worship in—permeates the entire movie. Traditionally, as Maria holds the dying Tony in her arms, they sing, “There’s a place for us / somewhere a place for us / peace and quiet and open air wait for us / somewhere,” delivering a much-needed measure of optimism. Spielberg gave this song to Valentina, a new character: She’s the widow of Doc, the pharmacy owner whose shop is a central setting in both versions. Doc and Valentina, we learn, were a mixed-race couple—he white, she Puerto Rican—and they struggled to overcome the bigotry of their friends and neighbors. When Valentina sings about there being a peaceful place somewhere, it sounds not like a promise but like a dirge. She’s lived long enough, we’re meant to understand, to know that this hopeful somewhere ain’t America.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know precisely why a particular film does poorly or well, especially now, after the pandemic has upended so many people’s habits and routines. But if we look at a bundle of other data points—like the recent Republican upset in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, say, or the surprising percentage of Latinos along the Mexican border who voted for Trump—we might surmise that the rejection of Spielberg’s film is motivated, at least in part, by a deep disgust with its core beliefs.
Americans, especially immigrants, understand that the noxious ideology that insists on the perpetual atomization of society, on never-ending power struggles between groups for cultural and political hegemony, on reading American history as nothing more than the sum of past slights and oppressions, condemns them to a life of marginality, not empowerment. These immigrants, myself included, didn’t come here to be told that they’re powerless and dispossessed and destined to be carted away by the police, like poor Chino in the new film’s final scene. We came here because we believe that (her flaws very much in mind) America is incomparably transcendent, a nation predicated on a covenant with the Divine and dedicated to the dissemination of freedom. We have no patience for the preening of privileged progressives eager to tell us that all is bleak, that America’s ills are endemic and incurable, that virtue is only achievable if we pick our side and snarl at the other. That Spielberg and Kushner would impose such insipid obsessions onto West Side Story is richly ironic given that the original version was all about how picking sides leads to violent demise. Let us hope, then, that these bad ideas—Spielberg’s, Kushner’s, and the culture they represent—will end up, like Tony, expiring prematurely as everyone else on stage quietly saunters away.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.
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