Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg will be directing his first musical — a remake of the 1961 Academy Award-winning classic "West Side Story" about a Puerto Rican gang facing off against a white American gang on the streets of New York. Fearing a potential backlash, the director recently met with students and faculty at the University of Puerto Rico to hear their perspective on how they should be represented.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Spielberg, along with screenwriter Tony Kushner and other members of the "West Side Story" creative team, made a secret visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico last month where they met with as many as 60 invitees to discuss ways to avoid portraying Puerto Ricans in the same stereotypical light as the original.
"Why West Side Story? And why now?" one prominent film critic, Mario Alegre, reportedly asked Spielberg during the meeting.
The 38-year-old Alegre felt that a remake of "West Side Story" would be like a remake of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which featured Mickey Rooney in yellow-face.
THR reports that the meeting between Spielberg and the invitees went smoothly overall until one theater history major, Isel Rodriguez, asked the "West Side Story" creative team exactly how they plan to represent Puerto Ricans in the film.
"Musicals have this thing that make you tingle inside and want to sing along," Rodriguez said. "But that's a complicated thing when you're singing along to [a lyric like ] 'let it sink back in the ocean.'"
Rodrguez added that she was "hurt" upon first hearing that lyric.
"I thought this would be on everyone's mind," she said. "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."
"Let it sink back in the ocean" refers to a line in the song "America," in which the character Anita sings about her love for America while trashing her homeland. "Puerto Rico / My heart's devotion / Let it sink back in the ocean," goes the lyric. The movie version of the song, however, featured Anita's boyfriend, Bernardo, singing in favor of Puerto Rico in juxtaposition to her, trashing America for its racist tendencies. "Life is all right in America/If you're all white in America," he sings.
Tony Kushner told the concerned student that the lyrics will follow the movie version, not the original stage play. "[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."
THR notes, however, that Kushner was mistaken. "In fact, Kushner had it reversed," reports the outlet. "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.'"
Spielberg tried to assure his audience that he has taken great pains to ensure the film's authenticity by hiring Puerto Rican actors and dancers.
"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."
Alegre and Rodriguez lamented that aside from representation, the musical itself has a problem with the actual immigrant experience of Puerto Ricans.
"The musical always presented it like, 'Screw the island. I love America,'" he said. "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 added: "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."
Spielberg concluded by suggesting to his audience that the film will be a critique of the Trump administration's hardline stance against immigration, which he portrayed as racially motivated.
"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."