Steven Spielberg approached Tony Kushner (playwright, screenwriter) about the possibility for a remaking. West Side Story In 2014Kushner initially was apprehensive because of several factors. He had huge shoes to fill, the musical, which was created by two artistic titans in 1957.—director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Steven Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents—is a revered classic and a pillar of 20th century American art. Even though the musical is a classic, it has many outdated aspects that are difficult to understand for a newer, culturally-conscious audience. Many debates have erupted over the years about the musical’s Cartoonish representations of brownface and origins in brownfaceIts Puerto Rican characters. Carina del Valle Schorske (Puerto Rican writer) requested that the musical be retired to New York last year Times piece titled “Let ‘West Side Story’ and Its Stereotypes Die.”
So when Kushner agreed to write the screenplay, he was faced with a perilous balancing act: to preserve the musical’s sheer brilliance while improving upon its shortcomings. His efforts have been praised by critics as well as the public. The movie, which opens in theaters on Dec. 10, currently sits at a 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes; in TIME, critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote: “I had no idea I needed this West Side Story It was not until I actually saw it. This, possibly, is the best kind of movie, the stealth achievement that has been hiding in plain sight all along.”
Learn More: Steven Spielberg’s Extraordinary West Side Story Modern Fairytales are Exuberant!
Kushner pulled off this feat. Both the answer and the explanation lie in both. Angels of America playwright’s individual rigor and his emphasis on collaboration. A notorious history buff—Spielberg says Kushner You can read over 400 books about Abraham Lincoln When writing the screenplay Lincoln—Kushner went through numerous primary and second-hand documents on the history of Puerto Rico, and 50s New York. Kushner decided to update the story about the brutal real-life expulsion of poor Puerto Rican communities by the city planner. Robert MosesThe area was once the dream of a visionary named Claude, who envisioned it as the luxurious Lincoln Center Arts Complex.
Kushner was able to see clearly and began to seek out Puerto Rican historians and cultural advisers. That included his good friend Julio Monge, a dancer, choreographer and actor; the historian Virginia Sánchez Korrol, a Brooklyn College professor who has written 13 books on the subject of Latinos in the U.S.; and a braintrust of Puerto Rican dancers and actors in the cast, whom Kushner dubbed the “Puerto Rican Talmudic study group.”
They worked feverishly together to revise and update the script, as well as its cultural details. “We kept working on this thing, because there was such an enormous feeling that—it wasn’t like, ‘Oh god, we’re going to get canceled if somebody says the wrong word’—but this deep desire to get it right and true,” Kushner said in a Zoom call earlier this week.
In several conversations with TIME, Kushner and Monge discussed the approach they took to the musical. Here are extracts of those conversations.
TIME: Tony: Given the cultural discussions surrounding the adaptation, was it difficult for you to write the screenplay?
Kushner: West Side Story They are vitally important and deserve all the criticism.—when it’s very specific and scrupulous—This is an incredibly significant concept. I think it’s absolutely, as all art is, a product of its time. Certain articulations were not available to the original four gay Jews who wrote it. They made mistakes, yes.
When they were writing “America,” for example, it’s very clear that the mistake they made was equating the relationship of Puerto Ricans in New York to the island of Puerto Rico with the relationship of Jews to the places they had come from—They were referring to Russia and Poland, which are both countries that no Jew has ever had any good things to say about. They fled a country of horror and death, where they were constantly being killed.—and all they could say was, as in the song, “let it sink back in the ocean.”
When they looked for an analogous experience among new arrivals in the United States, what they should have done was think about Ireland and the relationship they had with Ireland. The feeling of having to leave Ireland was very painful. It also brought out a deep love and affection. But the writers didn’t do that: They made an assumption that somebody who really wanted to come here and make a life for themselves, like Anita, would have nothing good to say about Puerto Rico at all.
However, sometimes it is easy to forget how the world works with all its imperfections. West Side StoryIt was an incredibly progressive experience—I consider it to be deeply honourable—Do something. No mandate was given to create something about Puerto Ricans. And there’s no question there was an absolute determination to bring a group of people that had been completely excluded and unrepresented on the Broadway stage onto the Broadway stage. They did it with remarkable success. This included Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno who were nominated for an Oscar for their portrayal of Anita.
There is some criticism when you look at the Spanish-language press during the period of musicals. But there’s also a great deal of excitement about somebody like Rita Moreno winning an Oscar. It was an enormous deal. So we didn’t approach this at all in the spirit of, “This is a terrible thing that we have to fix.” If we had thought that the musical was terrible and needed fixing, we wouldn’t have done a new version of it.
Now, many years later, it’s easier somehow to make a musical where you get into the tangle of politics in the dialogue. So Steven and I wanted to say: “What’s at the heart of this masterpiece? What was really intended?” And then expand what is too compressed, or maybe not reading, in the original. I hope it doesn’t feel like we imposed our own sort of alien ethics and ideas and politics.
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Steven Sondheim died in this film’s making. Was there anything you learned from him?
Kushner: I’d known Steve since about 2001. We had many conversations over the years about whether we should work together. I loved Steve as an artist. Because the best moments of a musical’s story are the songs, I didn’t want to write the book. And obviously, if you’re working with Stephen Sondheim, nobody else should touch the lyrics because he was one of the greatest lyricists that ever lived.
Steve always had high standards for his own lyrics. West Side Story. It was his first professional gig, and he felt like he didn’t do as good a job as he wished. He was adamant that I didn’t agree with his views on the matter. So I was really pleased when I called him the first time and said, “O.K., I guess I’m doing this,” and he said, “That’s great. I know you think that my lyrics are great, but they’re not perfect. And if you want me to change anything, I’ll change it.”
So I just kept calling him and saying, “Can I do this? Can I do that?” There’s one song I know of that was cut from West Side StoryThis is a song I love, sung and performed by Anybodys. I called him and asked if I could use it, and he said, “Absolutely—but you’ll never find a place to put it in.” And I said, “Well, just watch me.” And then about two months later, I called him and said, “You’re right, it doesn’t fit anywhere.”
About two or three drafts into the screenplay, I told him: “If you’ve got anything else that you’re thinking of, it’s getting to be time to weigh in.” His brownstone was on the East Side. He allowed me to sit in his office and we went page by page through the script. It was my first time working with him in person. Because he was so knowledgeable about the form and had such an incredible grasp of it, it was both profoundly moving as well as endlessly interesting.
He could sing high as well, just like Spielberg and other great practitioners of an art form. His talk would cover the deeper issues involved in making a musical and the subtle details. He said I had made a mistake that everybody makes when you write your first book: That if there’s a pre-existing song, “You start to billboard the song before you get to it.” He said I had to find a way to flow into the song with the dialogue but not announce to the audience what the song is going to be about.
He always has said publicly how much he hates “I Feel Pretty,” because he said: “Why did I write a Puerto Rican teenager singing, ‘I feel pretty and witty and bright?’ It sounds like a goddamn Noël Coward play.”
And I called him and I said, “I’ve got an idea for the song, and it’s gonna make it work for you. Maria, who is part of the cleaning crew, helped me set it up in Gimbels. All around her are these posters that say, ‘Witty autumn wear.’ So the reason the language is slightly arch for a young Puerto Rican girl is that with her heart full of incredible joy, she’s looking at the wealth of America and saying, ‘I’m gonna have a good life and get what I want.’ So it’s sort of ironically quoting those displays.”
I said all that to him, and he said, “Well, I still hate the song. But it’s better for me now than it was.”
The lyrics to “America” are changed from the 1961 film, with the references about gun violence and overpopulation taken out. Which role played Sondheim in this approach?
KushnerIt is not possible to rework the opening—it’s an amalgam. It was taken Rosalia’s hymn to Puerto Rico from the original musical, and then added Anita’s lines from the original and the movie. Sondheim did not rewrite the line.
In my research, I got very interested in the question of guns and crime rates in the ‘50s. New York seemed to be more dangerous than San Juan when I searched for crime statistics. It was common to see people shooting at each other. Gun violence was much less common in general. Most of the gang killings in the ‘50s were with clubs and bricks and sometimes knives.
Arthur Laurents was very conscious of the fact that he put the gun in the musical. It’s a Cold War model: He’s talking about escalation. Puerto Rico was home to a tiny fraction of the gun violence.—so the line about “And the bullets flying” was kind of wrong.
I said that to Steve, and he said, “Well, let me think about it.” And he called up and said, “How about, ‘And the people trying?’” He bought into the whole idea that what you’re hearing is this woman’s ambivalence. And what she’s saying is: “It’s a beautiful place, and it’s really, really hard to live there.”
After that, I wouldn’t let him change anything. He wanted to change “Free to wait tables and shine shoes,” because he said he wasn’t sure that shoeshine boys were Puerto Rican. He was always annoyed by it. I called Virginia Sánchez Korrol and said, “Find me a picture of a Puerto Rican shoeshine guy.” So she did, and I sent it to him. And he said, “Yeah, but still, it’s not…” And I said, “You know what? ‘Free to be anything you choose/ Free to wait tables and shine shoes’ is about as great a couplet as you’ll ever find on every level, including the political. Just leave it, please.” And so he did.
The dialogue is largely in Spanish. What was your process for writing these parts?
Kushner: I don’t speak Spanish, I’m ashamed to say. Because I wanted placeholders to be added, I wrote all the lines in English. I then used Google Translate. It occurred to me, who am I able to call to help with this?
Julio, I called. [Monge], who I’ve known forever, since the early ’90s. Julio is a brilliant dancer and actor, as well as an extremely smart man. He was shocked when he read the text. He said, “I don’t know what language this is, but this is not Spanish!”
Each line would be taken and we slowly, but surely, worked our way through it, translating each word from my Google Spanish to Puerto Rican Spanish. Each moment that a translation might mean something or another, and whether an exact equivalent existed was discussed.
The discussion was much more than translation. There was also an exchange of cultural nuance. For example, during the breakfast scene in Bernardo and Anita and Maria’s apartment, Julio said, “That’s not how Puerto Ricans made coffee.”
Monge: “I sent you a video of how you make it with the homemade cloth filter. In the scene, I was so proud of it: I was like, ‘Oh, there’s my coffee. That’s the best coffee.’”
Kushner: You were a great help in making the right corrections, and making sure that I was doing everything correctly. Steven had been called before I was able to call. [Spielberg] a long time before that and said, “Can I change the character of Doc to Valentina and cast Rita Moreno?” Steven couldn’t wait to call her and ask her if she’d do it. I thought he was going to wait until Julio and I had gone through the entire script and fixed the Spanish, but he didn’t. She received my draft.
She called him and said, “What the f-ck is this!?” Knowing Rita, that’s exactly what she said. “This isn’t Spanish. This is appalling!” It took a couple of months to calm her down about that. And then she started getting Julio’s version of it and she calmed down.
Julio, How did you become involved with the project?
MongeJerome Robbins: I worked with him several times. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Jerome Robbins Foundation had asked me to be one of his choreographers for the last six or five years. It was something I’d been doing for years, and I kept thinking back to how it all came together. West Side Story as a young dancer many times—And I don’t recall anyone ever caring about half the Sharks as protagonists. Nobody talked about what happened in the ‘50s with Robert Moses, with Puerto Ricans coming in droves.
When I read Tony’s version, it blew me away. And the day we went to look at Justin Peck’s work, I remember Spielberg giving a speech about Robbins’ contribution to the piece. I’ve never heard anybody speak so clearly and eloquently about Robbins: His kinetic sense and the way he used it as a storytelling element.
And then with Tony here and the way he’s digging into the lives of these people and honoring what they lived, I knew I was part of something that respected the material. That was not trying to attack it or overdo it, but also was trying to belong to the times, to take care of honoring people’s stories, to have the right representation.
Tony, can you tell me about what you referred to as the “Puerto Rican Talmudic study group?”
Kushner: I convened five singer-actor/dancers. When you do a translation into a language, there’s always going to be 50 people with 50 different opinions about what it should be. We had people in our group who spoke Spanish and Nuyorican, as well as people still living in Puerto Rico.
After that, we went back over it again. Julio would then receive it. This kept on going: Virginia became involved. Julio and Victor Cruz were our dialect coaches. They would visit the set and listen to what was being said by actors and then make corrections. They would say: “He’s hitting this wrong. It doesn’t sound Puerto Rican; It sounds Cuban.” We worked so hard on it during the shooting, and before the shooting, and for all the months Julio and I worked on it alone.
Then we had to go to work. There’s a quality to Puerto Rican speech and Puerto Rican life that is not evident to non-Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans needed to play a significant role in this.
It’s entirely and eternally Steven’s credit that there was room made in pulling together this gigantic contraption. When I came to him first and I said, “I want to put a lot of Spanish in the film and I don’t want it to be subtitled,” he said, “Great.” There was no discussion about it. He understood immediately why that was necessary.
Julio: There are two conversations on colorism in the Latino community that you can find in this script. Please tell me more about this important aspect of Latinidad.
Monge: What’s wonderful about this version is that they opened the canvas and included a wider sense of what being a Puerto Rican is that goes beyond the stereotypical idea that they look like Europeans. That’s so not the reality, and has never been.
So, I saw opportunities. For instance, when Anita says, “Because I’m prieta, you don’t want me to be a part of the family”: We have our way to deal with race and race relations, our different tones and shades. There’s all these issues and they’re very deep and complex. There are many ways artists can deal with these issues without sounding didactic. Where you’re just portraying a photograph of life; a moment of a person in those conditions with her skin color: How would she stand up for herself?
Virginia, can you tell us how you came to be a historian consultant and if you were hesitant about taking on the role?
Korrol:My talk was about the research I did. It covered the history of Puerto Ricans and the personal experience that I had living during the time period in which the movie is set. A bit skeptical about the idea of meeting everybody, I admit. However, I did go because someone in my field of expertise was needed to attend the meeting and the creative team should be able to hear our thoughts.
When I got back, I felt very happy about the whole thing. I thought:, “We gotta give this a shot. Because if not now, then when?” Sixty years has gone by, and what a difference it makes: In the late 1960s, we established the first departments of ethnic studies, Latino studies, Chicano studies… all of these new fields of inquiry came into being. Then there was the Center for Puerto Rican Studiesfounded, with archives on leaders and other events. Our history begins to be mapped in NYC, and we start collecting information that is new.
The original creators, as wonderful as they were, we didn’t have that fount of information. 60 years later, we are at a stage where inclusion and representation in academia is a priority. The battle for inclusion in universities and culture is still ongoing. This makes 2021’s film even more pertinent than ever.
I also want to ask about the very powerful moment when the Sharks sing the Puerto Rican anthem, “La Borinqueña.” How did that come about?
Monge: The political, social and cultural environment of 1957 was discussed. When I brought up the Gag Law in Puerto Rico, it was something that I wanted to bring up. La Ley de la MordazaThe organization was founded in 1948. The law prohibited Puerto Ricans from the island from raising a Puerto Rican flag or singing the Puerto Rican national anthem. It also banned them from assembling and getting together to criticize the United States. That was the case for nine years.—They could send you to prison for up to 10 years, or they might fine you $10,000.
This was a politically charged time. The Puerto Rican Day Parade was first held in 1958. New York and Philadelphia were the main cities that Puerto Ricans settled in. They became very involved politically with the events on the island. This is a tradition that dates back to the 1800s when there were political struggles against Spain and colonization. Eugenio María de Hostos meeting with Jose Marti,Forming a Chapter of the Group Fighting for Cuban Independence
The movie represents a moment of reflection in the middle all those transformations towards establishing us as respected communities. And that’s what I think is fascinating about the way Tony approached it. In his prologue, it’s not two gangs fighting: you see the damage on the Anglo-Saxon side, and they’re vandalizing the Puerto Rican side of the neighborhood. These working-class kids are forced to fight for it, and to take the system to task.
Korrol: That was my first impression of the script. I didn’t like the boldness, but it seemed to fit historicalally. There were two sets of lyrics for “La Borinqueña”: one written in support of the Puerto Rican revolution in 1868, and another after the revolution was suppressed. Even the flag of revolution, which was light-blue in color, was prohibited.
Puerto Rico was made a commonwealth in 1952. They raised a Puerto Rican flag that had a darker blue color similar to that of the American flag. Puerto Rican Nationalists and others were very vocal about opposing the new flag; it became a cause célèbre. In 1954, Nationalists pushed for an attack against the U.S. Congress.
This is a moment when these movements are taking place in a story where a group Puerto Rican boys were banding together trying to save the turf. Which would they rather emulate: Nationalists, or conservatives? And so Bernardo’s singing of “La Borinqueña”—With the original revolutionary words—makes perfect sense. And Tony understood this history and weaved it all into Bernardo’s backstory.
Tony, one of the songs that felt most invigorated by this adaption was “Cool,” which gets a completely new narrative context. You were asked how you reimagined that song.
Kushner: “Cool” is one of the most exciting dance numbers ever choreographed; I think most people would probably agree that it’s the most influential dance number in the film. But it always seemed odd to me that if you listen to the words, it’s all about lowering the emotional temperature and taking it easy. When you’re approaching the end of your drama, that’s an odd thing to want to do. So I thought, there’s got to be something in here where the narrative can flow through it.
I also had been thinking a lot about the Jets’ relationship to older gangs like the Hudson Dusters, a really serious Irish gang. I decided that Riff’s father was probably a gangster connected to the Hudson Dusters. Although the mafia had pushed them away, there was still some of them. Jets was a type of teenage auxiliary for a serious gang career criminals.
In this origin, Riff has taken over the Jets, but he’s not a natural born leader. He realizes he has to lead his gang into a rumble and he’s scared. He decides to get a gun, as it will allow him to exercise more control. I decided that “Cool” would work as a game of keep-away once they’ve got it. All of them never owned a gun and have not seen one other than with police officers. So they’re really excited about it, and then sort of tossing it around and playing cowboys.
I’ve always been interested in parkour: There’s films on YouTube where kids are jumping over buildings and bouncing off the walls. It’s just a very interesting sort of urban form of dance. Justin Peck seized the opportunity and created something amazing.
There’s one moment in the movie where one of them lands really hard on the pier, and this giant cloud of dust explodes. That’s a gimmick that Steven came up with when he was a teenager. He was like 13 and making a war movie, and he invented these little catapults, where one end of a stick is beneath the surface of the ground where there’s a lot of dust. Dust flies upwards when one person jumps up on the part that is raised. Our next World War II movie will be. FablemansHe did this to imitate bullets striking the ground. And when we were talking about “Cool,” he said, “Why don’t we do my old trick with the catapult?”