Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’: Reclaiming a Problematic Story


When Steven Spielberg announced he would be directing an adaption of the 1957 musical “West Side Story,” one of the aspects that he made sure to emphasize was that he was going to cast Latino actors, something which the previous 1961 film adaptation did not do. 

While I was originally skeptical about this new version of “West Side Story” released in December of 2021,  it ended up exceeding my expectations immensely. Spielberg made sure to be respectful of Latino culture when he was shooting the film, and combined with catchy songs and excellent performances from the actors, the new “West Side Story” is a thrilling and enjoyable experience.

Premiering on Broadway in 1957, “West Side Story” is a modern retelling of the classic Shakespearean romance “Romeo and Juliet.” It follows two rival gangs in the Upper West Side of Manhattan—the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican immigrants. The two gangs are sworn enemies, both wanting to run the other gang out of the neighborhood they live in. Amidst this rivalry, one of the Jets, Tony, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Shark’s leader, Bernardo. As the two pursue a forbidden romance, the growing tensions between the two gangs lead to a tragic ending for both the lovers and the gang conflict.

When “West Side Story” originally premiered on Broadway, playwright Arthur Laurents, along with composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, didn’t have any intentions of portraying the Puerto Rican characters accurately or respectfully. Originally, the musical intended to portray a Catholic and Jewish gang conflict on the Lower East Side. However, when they realized that gang conflicts weren’t occurring among religious groups, they decided to change it to an ethnic conflict. While some of the more problematic aspects of “West Side Story” can be attributed to the time period it was written in, it’s clear that the Puerto Rican characters were only written in to add to the conflict of the story. As modern audiences are beginning to speak up about proper representation in media, “West Side Story” in its original form would not be suitable for a film adaptation.

Spielberg’s decision to cast Latino actors as the Sharks also added immensely to the film, as it allowed for the characters to be portrayed true to their ethnicity. In the 1961 film, the only Puerto Rican actress in the cast was Rita Moreno, who played Anita. Every other Puerto Rican character, besides some of the background characters, were played by white actors in brownface. “I remember saying to the makeup man one day, ‘My God! Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish…’” Moreno recalled on an episode of the “Into the Thick” podcast. She tried to explain how diverse Puerto Ricans actually were, which led to an unexpected 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,” Moreno said.

The use of brownface and casting white actors to play Latino characters has been a major criticism of the original film adaptation in recent years, and an aspect that Spielberg sought to remedy with his adaptation. The 2021 film had many notable performances, including newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita, who would go on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The 2021 film adaptation takes the foundation that Laurents, Bernstein, and Sondheim established and builds upon it, expanding on the Puerto Rican characters and their culture in a respectful manner. In the original musical and 1961 film adaptation, the Puerto Rican characters do not speak Spanish, despite their struggle of integration being one of the focal points of their storyline. With the absence of Spanish and other aspects of Puerto Rican culture, the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks appeared to be a simple gang conflict, rather than an ethnic one. In the 2021 film, the Puerto Rican characters constantly speak Spanish, all of which is not subtitled. The decision to not add subtitles was intentional on Spielberg’s behalf, as he told entertainment newspaper IGN that subtitling the Spanish would lessen its impact in the film. “I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it,” he said.

Along with allowing the Puerto Rican characters to speak their native language, Spielberg also changed some of the more offensive lyrics from the musical. A prime example of this is in the song “America,” where the Sharks sing about their experiences as immigrants, as well as the topic of integration. In the original musical, one of the opening lyrics to the song was: “Puerto Rico / You ugly island / Island of tropic diseases / (…) And the money owing / And the babies crying / And the bullets flying.” These lyrics were incredibly offensive even for the time, so much so that they were changed to “My heart’s devotion — Let it sink back in the ocean. / (…) And the money owing / And the sunlight streaming / And the natives steaming.” The 2021 film changes this part of the song once again, only this time, Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita sings the lyrics that were once sung by the “pro” Puerto Rican side: “You lovely island / Island of tropical breezes.”

The 2021 film added many new additions that greatly improved upon the original Broadway musical. Despite these changes, however, “West Side Story” still falls flat for me. While I appreciate what it was trying to achieve as a modern retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the main issues with this musical is that the story is inherently flawed and problematic. The original play told the story of two houses alike in dignity, but “West Side Story” flips this on its head by making the musical about ethnic tensions. The musical portrays both gangs as being equally as bad in the rivalry, which makes parts of the musical uncomfortable to watch because of the historical background behind ethnic conflicts that still persist today. This discomfort is amplified in the 2021 film, where it’s revealed that Riff, the leader of the Jets, attacked Bernardo unprovoked on his first day in Manhattan, which sparked the rivalry between the two gangs.

Overall, “West Side Story” is an enjoyable film, and it makes sure to portray Puerto Rican culture with respect. If you have not seen “West Side Story,” I highly recommend that you do. While it has problematic elements, it has catchy songs and excellent performances that will keep you engaged throughout, and it is definitely a musical that everyone should see or watch at least once in their lives.