The new West Side Story film is Steven Spielberg’s first musical, but you’d never know it. It’s wonderful. The music, the dancing, the dialogue, the performances. See this remake for all those reasons. Or see it as a tribute to the late great Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for the original 1957 Broadway production, which were used in the Oscar-winning 1961 film, and who passed away at age ninety-one, two weeks before the release of this film. Or see it for Tony Kushner’s screenplay, which stays true to the original storyline but tweaks it in a way that allows us to see this as a timeless story about true love and its opposite–the senseless hate that destroys even more than it targeted.
The film opens on the streets of New York. Manhattan is a big city, but we’re in one particular neighborhood on the West Side, and our initial view is higher than the wrecking ball that is demolishing a building—many buildings, judging from the surrounding rubble. As it turns out, this is the beginning of Lincoln Center and its upscale surrounds—luxury apartment buildings, restaurants, stores. A teen gang (the Jets: the white boys) begins to gather in the street. They’re carrying cans of paint, which they’re about to use to deface the painting of a Puerto Rican flag on the side of a building. Midway through the paint slinging, the Sharks—the Puerto Rican gang—show up, and a fight breaks out until the police arrive to stop it. As Lieutenant Schrank points out to both gangs, their anger is misdirected and their rivalry stupid. “Any day now you’ll all be evicted.”
Later that night the two gangs and their girlfriends meet up at a dance at a local gym. A “Social Experiment,” one of the adults calls it, but the mingling doesn’t go well—with one exception. Tony was once co-leader of the Jets (with his buddy Riff), until a one-year stint in prison for a fight that got out of hand made him rethink what he wants out of life. Maria is the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. Bernardo is overly protective and has even picked out a suitable husband for her—an earnest, hard-working young Puerto Rican named Chino. But Chino doesn’t stand a chance once Maria and Tony spot each other across the crowded dance floor.
Meanwhile, Riff and Bernardo break away to discuss the ground rules for a final “rumble” that will decide the fate of their turf war. They agree on no deadly weapons. But what are rules? Rules are meant to be broken.
The original West Side Story Broadway musical was a collaboration between the composer Leonard Bernstein and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. Bernstein imagined a musical that was a modern-day retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Initially he thought of replacing Shakespeare’s feuding aristocratic families, the Montagues and the Capulets, with a Catholic and a Jewish family but decided instead on two gangs in a crowded, lower-class neighborhood. That neighborhood was an area known as “San Juan Hill.” Puerto Ricans had started moving into the area after WWII.
Lincoln Center officially opened in 1962. This was such a big deal that President Eisenhower was the one to break ground on the new project in 1959. “San Juan Hill” gave way to a neighborhood called “Lincoln Square.” But San Juan Hill was more than just a tenement-type neighborhood with residents packed together like sardines. The Charleston—the dance craze of the 20s—was introduced there by James P. Johnson; it’s also where Thelonious Monk perfected his bebop style of jazz.
Lincoln Square “was the crown-jewel project of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance,” according to a December 2017 article in The New York Times. It was overseen by Robert Moses, the man who reshaped the city in the mid-20th Century. More than 7,000 lower-class families and 800 businesses were displaced. According to the Times, “the relocation assistance promised by the committee never materialized.” Where did they go? To other low-income areas like Harlem and parts of the Bronx, “deepening the rift of segregation and creating new slums in a different part of the city.”
Few would deny that Lincoln Center is a wonderful addition to New York City. But what of the residents who were displaced? The residents who were lied to about relocation assistance? Resentment fuels hate, and hate is often misdirected–as this movie makes clear.
There’s a lot of hate in this country right now–and it’s not limited to racial or immigrant issues. In Romeo and Juliet and in West Side Story, it takes a personal tragedy for the two feuding sides to regret their senseless hatred. What’s it going to take for us?
Wishing you and yours Happy Holidays and a healthier, more loving New Year for us all.