The great debate on “West Side Story”

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HELLER Matthew, I’ll come back to you, as a stage artist whose response to material has changed over time. Among other things, you wrote a play about the play and its impact on a Puerto Rican family. Tell us about that – and was he informed by your new ideas about the shortcomings of the original?

LÓPEZ The film sparked my nascent creative brain as a play – music, dance – and as cinema. Seeing the revival, however, I realized how the Puerto Rican characters – and therefore the performers who play them – weren’t invited to the party, so to speak. A meal had been prepared and half of the actors seemed to be hungry. My family loved “West Side Story”, but when I thought about it, I realized that their love for the show was not mutual.

All of this led me to start writing “Somewhere,” which takes place in the neighborhood that was ultimately destroyed to build Lincoln Center. A Puerto Rican family of dancers and performers who dream of being cast in “West Side Story” (or whatever Jerome Robbins has created) but who, by the realities of their situation, only dream. I think in a way I was trying to tell the story behind the scenes that you don’t see.

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE Matthew, it seems that “Somewhere” shows us how to engage in a “canonical” work without reproducing its limits. I’m interested in how Puerto Rican artists have creatively handled the constraints of the musical, but I’m also hungry for… something else! In her memoir, Rita Moreno wrote about how hard it was to find substantial roles after “West Side Story”: I’m a little depressed that she’s still defined by the show in 2021. I mean, Moreno has performed in plays by Lorraine Hansberry, she has spent decades in psychoanalysis, doesn’t she deserve to grow up?

LÓPEZ I have to face a forked mind on this. There’s a part of me that really loves “West Side Story” and a part of me that really hates that I like “West Side Story”. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda once called it “a blessing and a curse,” which is a feeling I understand.

BERSON It makes perfect sense to have a conflicting opinion of the show, especially if it speaks to you so personally. It is not equivalent, but as a Jewish woman, “The wonderful Mrs. Maisel” makes me climb the wall! Meanwhile, I can easily imagine that Latinx performers might both love and resent “West Side Story” – love the way it has given many jobs and its exhilarating use of dancer-actor-singers, but hate him for all the reasons you, Carina, and others have stated. Popular culture is often a double-edged sword in this way.

GREEN The new work of new artists is the lifeblood of the theater. Yet engaging with the old ones, who were once new, can also be enjoyable and valuable – unless they have become the equivalent of Confederate statues that must be brought down. Is “West Side Story” a Confederate statue? I do not think so.


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