Steven Spielberg Met With Puerto Ricans About 'West Side Story' Concerns

Steven Spielberg
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Steven Spielberg attends the premiere of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment's "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" on June 12, 2018 in Los Angeles.

The news on Monday that Steven Spielberg had found his West Side Story remake's Maria after a year-long casting search had all the hallmarks of a classic Hollywood public relations coup.   

But one month earlier, the director eschewed all publicity when he made an unannounced visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico. With him were several members of the West Side Story creative team, including screenwriter Tony Kushner, who rewrote the book of the 1959 Broadway musical and its 1961 movie adaptation for Fox's planned update.

In a small theater on the campus of University of Puerto Rico, a group of about 60 invitees, many of them faculty members and students, gathered on Dec. 14 for a dialogue with Spielberg and his team.

Among them was Mario Alegre, 38, a prominent film critic on the island, who tagged along with a friend. Alegre was hoping Spielberg might clear up something nagging at him since the project began making headlines in January 2018.

"Why West Side Story? And why now?" Alegre asks of the reboot plans. "That was my first reaction. It's a very sensitive film for Puerto Ricans because of their portrayal in it. It's like doing Breakfast at Tiffany's."

That 1961 Audrey Hepburn film, with its racist caricature of an Asian landlord played by Mickey Rooney, would never fly in the current climate. So why, Alegre reasons, should the late-1950s Puerto Rican immigrants of West Side Story -- stereotypically fiery Latinas and greasy-haired, switchblade-wielding gang members -- be viewed any differently?

The conversation carried on politely for nearly 90 minutes without the sensitive issue of representation being broached. That's when another attendee, Isel Rodriguez, a theater history and acting professor at UPR, timidly stood up and asked Spielberg and Kushner point blank how they planned to "represent Puerto Ricans" in the remake.

"Musicals have this thing that make you tingle inside and want to sing along," Rodriguez pointed out. "But that's a complicated thing when you're singing along to [a lyric like ] 'let it sink back in the ocean.'"

Rodriguez was referring to a line in the song "America," in which the character Anita -- a role that earned an Oscar for Rita Moreno, who serves as a producer on the remake and will also appear in the film -- sings, "Puerto Rico/ My heart's devotion/ Let it sink back in the ocean." Rodriguez, who knows the material by heart and teaches it to her students, will never forget the first time she heard that line. "I was hurt."

Alegre captured the moment in a video. Recalls Rodriguez, 40, "I thought this would be on everyone's mind. But time was running out and I saw no one was going to ask it. It was the elephant in the room. Every time someone of this magnitude comes to this island, our instinct is not to create any kind of debate, because we're kind of accommodating."

Kushner, 62, fielded the question first, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "[That line] is from the musical," he replied. "[Lyricist Stephen] Sondheim changed that because there was a lot of unhappiness about the negativity towards the island in America. So we're using the lyrics from the film."

In fact, Kushner had it reversed. The original Broadway version referred to an "island of tropical breezes," but the 1961 film version changed that lyric to "let it sink back in the ocean." Stumbling in his response, the screenwriter then lobbed the matter over to Spielberg. "It' don't know, do you want to...?" Kushner said, drawing nervous laughter.

Spielberg, 72, was aware that whatever he said next could have enormous consequences. The movie remake -- which he first expressed interest in making back in 2013 -- comes at a highly sensitive time for the U.S. territory, as it struggles to recover from the devastating damage of 2017's Hurricane Maria, which took 3,000 Puerto Rican lives and plunged the island $6 billion in debt.

A triumphant staging of Hamilton that premiered this week led by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose father is from the island, has brought some respite -- but, as Alegre points out, "when Hamilton ends its run we're still going to be asphyxiated by austerity measures. A lot of things will need to be done to pay back bondholders. That's something 10 Hamiltons won't fix."

Spielberg seemed more prepared than Kushner to tackle the issue. "One of the reasons we are here," he told Rodriguez, "the reason we've hired so many Puerto Rican singers and dancers and actors, is so they can help guide us to represent Puerto Rico in a way that will make all of you and all of us proud."

The director went on to explain how he is particularly "OCD about accents" and has arranged for multiple dialect coaches to "help Puerto Ricans who have lived in New York too long to remember where they came from."

Similar painstaking measures are being taken to ensure the look of the film -- which, like the original, will be set in the late 1950s and trace a tragic love story between two young members of rival ethnic groups -- is authentic. "The props, the signage, the customs and the slang. We owe it to go to the experts who were around then," Spielberg said.

Authenticity might not be enough. "Spielberg did what he could with his answer," Alegre says. "He tried to amend the situation. But the general feeling over here was neither of them got to the point of the question." Adds Rodriguez, "I don't know if they'll be able to fix the problem with just Latino actors and good accents."

Much of the problem lies in the way the material is perceived. In the continental U.S., West Side Story remains an enduring and beloved staple of the musical theater, performed countless times on high school stages and in community theaters.

The original 1957 Broadway production won Tony Awards for Jerome Robbins' choreography and scenic design (it lost best musical to The Music Man) and was mounted four more times on the Great White Way. The 1961 film version, directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, starred the non-Latina Natalie Wood as Maria and won 10 Oscars, including best picture -- still a record for a movie musical.

But Puerto Rico's relationship to the material is far more fraught. "It's not something that comes up a lot in conversations about movies," Alegre notes, adding that he's never seen or even heard of a local production. "It's not a go-to musical."

"It's beautiful music. And dancing. And it's Romeo and Juliet. What's not to like?" says Rodriguez. "But if you think about it, and you don't have to think too hard, you kind of see, hm, something's off here."

Despite minor tinkering to the lyrics over the years, the score -- Sondheim's lyrics are married inextricably to Leonard Bernstein's luscious orchestrations -- and the characterizations remain problematic for many Puerto Ricans.

In "America," a spirited debate about the merits of Puerto Rico versus New York, one verse goes, "Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases/ Always the hurricanes blowing, Always the population growing/ And the money owing, And the babies crying/ And the bullets flying."

In his defense of the material, Kushner put part of the blame on the Jewish roots of the show's creators. "They're using the Jewish immigrant experience, the notion that you look back where you came from and go 'yech,'" he explained, adding, "I'm sure it sounded better in Yiddish."

But that's a key misstep, counters Alegre. "The musical always presented it like, 'Screw the island. I love America.' But every time there's been a massive migration from Puerto Rico, it's been over economic austerity. The musical never explained that it was out of necessity."

Rodriguez concurs: "No one leaves this island without sobbing. 300,000 people left the island after Maria and the scene at the airport was like a funeral. No one wants to leave. This is paradise."

In his final remarks to the university group, Spielberg attempted one last tack, positioning the film as a response to the hardline anti-immigration stance taken by Donald Trump, whom Puerto Ricans feel abandoned them at their time of need. (A rep for the director declined to comment on this story, except to point to a statement announcing the casting of the Maria character.)

"This will always be Romeo and Juliet," Spielberg said. "But it also speaks a lot to what’s happening today in terms of what’s happening at the borders. It’s very relevant today to essentially the rejection of anyone who isn’t white. And that’s a big part of our story."

And with that, the town hall drew to a close. "I got a sense they got nervous about their answer," Rodriguez notes. "And it should. They should get nervous when you're representing a whole other ethnicity."

This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.