আপডেট: ফেব্রুয়ারি ২৫, ২০২০
Yesenia Ayala as Anita with Amar Ramasar, left, as Bernardo in the 2020 version of “West Side Story” at the Broadway Theatre.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
SAN JUAN, P.R. — For many years I’ve avoided writing about “West Side Story.” As a Puerto Rican critic, I resent the expectation that I have something to say about a musty old musical from 1957.
Just as the U.S. government bestowed second-class American citizenship upon islanders in 1917 without popular consent, “West Side Story” continues to recruit us as extras even when we never intended to audition for the show. The Puerto Rican writer Nelson Rivera once recalled studying abroad in Paris, where he was greeted by “Oui, ‘West Side Story’!” at every turn, as if collecting stamps in the passport of an imaginary nation everyone else thought was real.
But the show remains one of the most enduring representations of Puerto Rican life in American pop culture, and the entertainment industry won’t leave it alone. A new movie adaptation from Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner is coming to theaters this year, and a modernized production by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove is the latest Broadway revival.
So when my literary agent reached out with free tickets for a dress rehearsal in December — the show officially opened on Thursday — it felt like my long-delayed civic responsibility to bear witness. I clipped on my gold hoops and painted my lips red, as if for battle, tweeting a selfie before I left for the theater: “Always Anita, never Maria.”
My mother taught me to resist the cartoonish stereotypes of macho teenage gangsters and hysterical lovers in “West Side Story.” But I also know that when the 1961 movie version came out, she and her friends went to see it twice at the local theater in Washington Heights and cheered when the Sharks came onscreen. If this musical is still our narrative ghetto, then the least we can do is make noise about what it feels like to live in it.
In 2020, it feels exhausting.
There’s no doubt that “West Side Story” has long functioned as a vehicle for great performances by Latinx artists, despite the fact that the lead Puerto Rican roles of Maria and Bernardo in major productions have most often gone to white actors in brownface. Rita Moreno’s best supporting actress Oscar for her brilliant turn as Anita in the 1961 film remains, to this day,
one of only two Latinas to win an Oscar for acting. Though this distinction has grown bitter with time, it’s still a thrill to watch her “sing of assimilation while dancing its undoing,” in the words of the performance studies scholar Deborah Paredez. But whatever pleasure and power Puerto Ricans have extracted from “West Side Story” have been extracted against the odds.
The show’s creators didn’t know, or didn’t seem to care to know, much about their own material. The lyricist Stephen Sondheim at first expressed doubts about his fitness for the project:
“I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even met a Puerto Rican.” The initial concept, an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” recast with teenage street gangs, didn’t involve Puerto Ricans at all. The artists toyed with a number of ethnic possibilities — Jewish people? Mexicans? — before settling on the version we know now.
In the words of Leonard Bernstein, the show’s composer, “the Puerto Rican thing had just begun to explode.” For Mr. Bernstein, that “thing” was a fortuitous coincidence for his formal experiment, but in the real world, it was an enormous postwar migration from the island that had “nearly doubled” New York City’s Puerto Rican population in just two years, as the scholar Lorrin Thomas notes in her book “Puerto Rican Citizen.”
Right from the beginning, these recent arrivals didn’t like what they saw on Broadway. New York’s most widely circulated Spanish-language newspaper at the time, La Prensa, called for a picket at the premiere, and the Puerto Rican journalist and labor organizer Jesús Colón
lamented that the show was “superficial and sentimental” and “always out of context with the real history, culture, and traditions of my people.” In subsequent decades, this tradition of protest and critique has only grown richer and more collectively exasperated.