Podcast / On The Nose
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Whose West Side Story?
Duration
0:00 / 01:02:32
Published
February 3, 2022

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s recent remake of West Side Story sought to bring the musical into the 21st century by updating its flat, stereotypical depictions of Puerto Ricans. In response, Puerto Rican critics have revived a long-running discussion about the musical’s enduring shadow, which some argue has harmed the community as a primary site of “Puerto Rican” representation, written and directed by white men. This time, however, filmmaker, writer, and scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner, who has been at the forefront of this conversation for decades, found herself accused of antisemitism for daring to criticize the classic musical. What was going on? As the theater historian Brian E. Herrera has observed, West Side Story has two “parallel histories”: as “masterpiece musical and racializing performance.” That parallel also emerges in the different relationships that Jews and Latinx people bring to the work: West Side Story was the work of four gay Jews—Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim—and has been held up intracommunally as a paragon of Jewish cultural achievement. Editor-in-chief Arielle Angel spoke with Negrón-Muntaner, Herrera, and writer and scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner about the parallel resonances of West Side Story in Jewish and Latinx communities, and the tensions that emerge over questions of power and control.

Books and Articles Mentioned:

Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and Puerto Rican Identity Discourses” by Frances Negrón-Muntaner

Compiling West Side Story’s Parahistories, 1949–2009” by Brian Eugenio Herrera

Why West Side Story Abandoned Its Queer Narrative” by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics by José Esteban Muñoz

Let ‘West Side Story’ and Its Stereotypes Die” by Carina del Valle Schorske

West Side Story Can’t Be Saved” by Andrea González-Ramírez

The Great ‘West Side Story’ Debate,” The New York Times

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”


Transcript

Arielle Angel: Hello, and welcome back to On the Nose, a Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Arielle Angel, the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents and your host. Today, we’re gonna do something a little bit different than normal. We have three very distinguished professors, scholars, all of whom have written about West Side Story and we’re going to be talking about the revival of West Side Story, the new Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner affair, um, and about the tensions that have surfaced, I think, between Jewish communities and Latinx communities around this revival.

So our guests are Frances Negrón-Muntaner, filmmaker, writer, scholar, and professor at Columbia University, where she’s also the founding curator of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive. Among her books and publications are Boriqua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture, The Latino Media Gap and Sovereign Arts: Contesting Colonialism in Native Nations and Latinx America.

Brian Herrera is by turns a writer, teacher and scholar presently based in New Jersey, but forever rooted in New Mexico. Brian’s work, whether academic or artistic, examines the history of gender, sexuality, and race within and through US popular performance. He is the author of The Latina/o Theater Commons 2013 National Convening, a narrative report. His book, Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U.S. Popular Performance was awarded the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and received an honorable mention for the John W. Frick Book Award from the American Theater and Drama Society.

And Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a visiting scholar in English and Theater at Portland State University, who has written about the contested origins of West Side Story for the Atlantic.

Thank you guys so much for being here. I feel very lucky to open this topic with you all, especially ’cause I’m just a fan, um, and nothing more. So Frances, I mean you were initially, you’re kind of the convener of this conversation in many ways and I wanted to kick it to you to hear from you sort of why you wanted to have this conversation and why it seemed important even to have this conversation in the context of Jewish Currents.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner: Well, thanks so much and I’m glad to be here. I was commissioned to write a short piece, uh, for an intergenerational dialogue, uh, between Latinas. And basically the question that was posed to me was, uh, what do you think about this, uh, new version of West Side Story, the idea because it hadn’t come out and I hadn’t seen it.

And uh, and one of the reasons they invited me was that I had written a scholarly piece about West Side Story from a Puerto Rican queer perspective, uh, in 2000 and I had, had a long term interest in the, in the work. Particularly the film version. So I wrote it, it was published, and as the piece started to circulate and be cited, I experienced something that I never had experienced in my prior engagements with West Side Story in a public forum or private, which was that some people started complaining that the piece had antisemitic undertones.

I started, uh, receiving hostile messages on social media, basically saying that I was anti-Jewish or a denier of the Jewish people. I went on the radio and there were people that, uh, sent messages saying that West Side Story was perfect and beautiful and timeless, so therefore, any critique was just wrong.

And I started having questions about why was this happening. So that’s where I reached out to our colleague who was an expert that, uh, has a, you know, collaboration with Jewish Currents. And that conversation was incredible because we started teasing out, What were some of the reasons? And one of the things that came out and, and one of the questions for today would be the recognition that different audiences, different publics have different relationships to this particular work.

And that’s something that doesn’t get said. And when the debate becomes, “This is perfect. And if you have a criticism, you, there must be something nefarious about your perspective on Jews or on the work or on the makers,” then it really limits what we can do together, exploring this complex text and context in a way that we actually learn something.

So that’s why I felt that it was, in a way, uncomfortable and unpleasant, but on the other hand, I felt it was an opportunity to open up some of these conversations.

AA: I was reading in, Brian, in your piece about parahistories of West Side Story. You kind of draw this distinction between West Side Story as sort of an intentional masterpiece, like the canonical West Side Story, and also this unintentional model of West Side Story as basically like a primary or iconic site of Latinx representation.

And I think something that’s come up in my conversations with Frances has been the fact that there’s like another way of looking at this, too, which is like West Side Story as like Jewish cultural achievement. Of course, like all four of the men, gay men, who were creators of West Side Story were Jews, Lawrence, Sondheim, Robbins, and Bernstein, and also this like, very contentious side of Latinx representation. I just think that, that’s interesting to think of, Frances, for example, you running up against that.

And also that it doesn’t actually get discussed in that kind of way consciously. Like, I’m not sure that Jews are sort of consciously thinking like, “This is our achievement here that you are tearing down,” but that is something that maybe at work in this conversation and, and maybe like part of the tension.

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner: I was definitely raised, I think, with that kind of, “We did this sense” of accomplishment, Arielle. And I, I’m just remembering, you know, growing up in Portland, Oregon, with a mom who’d come from, uh, New York, grandparents who lived on the Upper West Side. My, uh, dad had dropped out of, uh, being a doctor to become an artist. And every Saturday night he waited tables and we would get a, uh, VHS video of a Broadway show that my mom had seen growing up before she came out West. And our favorite was West Side Story. And it felt like these were our guys, Bernstein and Sondheim and Robbins. And this was the territory, on the Upper West Side where our people lived.

And I remember feeling a, a totally, you know, benighted, but a great sense of, of like cultural achievement that I was connected to that was sort of outdone only by say, Fiddler on the Roof a few years later.

And I’m so sorry, Frances, that you received that hostile response to your piece, especially ’cause it, it, it now seems, given your work, given Brian’s work, given so many scholars’ work over the last 30 years, like the question of whether or not West Side Story is promulgating dangerous stereotypes seems to me it’s not an open question anymore. It’s just been thoroughly documented and deeply analyzed how much this show has led, not just to pernicious images, but images that have tremendously damaging effects on the personal safety and self image, uh, let alone the persistent colonial relations between US and Puerto Rico and, and particularly Latina women who are sort of forced to choose between identifying with Anita and, uh, Mariand Latino men, who as Brian has argued, have been sort of raised in the shadow of, of Chino being arrested as the final image of West Side Story.

So that seems like we, we just have to grant that and, you know, I would stipulate from the start, if you got $100 million to spend on a movie, spending it on remaking West Side Story is a crazy idea. And of course it should go to, you know, bringing Kiara Allegre Judi’s musical to the, to the screen or, or doing, uh, Matthew Lopez’s show, Somewhere, about, uh, what it’s like to, to grow up as a, a Nuyorican in the shadow of this musical.

And I think we can, we can get into the history of how this musical came to be, whose fantasies it expresses and why those fantasies certainly seem to persist. And of course I can’t speak for any kind of entire Jewish community, but I do think as, uh, you know, as, as part of a Jewish family that has claimed pride in this show, part of accepting that pride has to be also accepting responsibility for the harm the show has caused.

FNM: There certainly have been multiple decades of engagement with West Side Story. There are people that are very critical, people that are very ambivalent about it, and people that love it. So there’s a spectrum. But I don’t think it’s ’til now that some of those voices actually had a forum that was, um, quote unquote mainstream.

So you actually had, uh, voices in the New York Times and you had them in the Washington Post. That hadn’t happened before. Uh, and, and part of the disconnect perhaps has to do with that a lot of that debate had happened among activists, scholars, artists that have never had access to that kind of forum to discuss.

Brian Herrera: Well and that’s sort of the undergirding premise of sort of what I have taken on as sort of part of my work is understanding these as parallel histories, of histories that are, seem to be running concurrently, running at the same time, sometimes in opposite directions. And I think as Frances noted, that because of the sort of profile, New York Times, Washington Post, whatever, this time we saw those parallel lines come to collision more than we’ve ever seen before. And coming to collision in terms of popular discourse, as well as coming to collision in the way that discourse happens in 20, in the 2020s, like these sort of comments and, and direct messages that Frances reports having of trying to shut down and figuring out which track is gonna be the dominant track, moving forward.

One of the key things that is worth noting, and this is why I think it’s worth acknowledging this parallel story going on primarily among two groups, I think as Daniel’s narrative names that it is a story of ascendance, a story of achievement, a story of a masterpiece to, an American masterpiece being written by, uh, like we can say four Jews, but then also, also the film, the original film adaptation, is directed and adapted also by Jewish writers and directors. So there’s a way in which Jewish authorship is a key tradition of West Side Story that moves across its different iterations, right?

And at the same time, there is a longstanding tradition of, of grappling with reckoning and complicated in historically specific ways by Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups with like, “What is, what do we do with this thing that’s now coming at us? And it’s not a story of achievement.” And so this sort of parallel history is I think something we’re seeing coming together now.

And I don’t know that we have really had a lot of space to, to name the specificity, ’cause often it’s talked about, and indeed in the New York Times piece, there’s a way in which it’s not named specifically as this tradition of Jewishness that is being critiqued. It often says “Broadway,” “mainstream culture,” “cannon,” right? And so there’s a kind of a shell game going on there. It’s sort of been unnamed. And that question of specificity has not always inflected, even the, sort of the acclamations of why West Side Story is awesome.

So I think it’s an interesting, thanks for convening this. And I should note, as somebody who is neither Puerto Rican nor Jewish, I am grateful to be able to join this because as an invested observer of this history, I see the significance. I see the significance of the adaptations and the use of the Latino characters by Robbins to tell a story that meant a great deal to the collaborators when they first built this story.

Using white characters, or white ethnic characters who were not Jewish, using Latin characters who were not Jewish, you know, this way of telling a story that felt very Jewish by using other ethnicities, which was not out of bounds in the 1950s. And so that investment is something we haven’t fully explored in, in our own reckoning with what is the import, impact and enduring, uh, implications of West Side story in the 21st century?

AA: Yeah, I mean, I think it is really interesting. You wrote about the 2009 revival, Lawrence’s Broadway revival, where they tried to integrate Spanish and then kind of pulled it back a little bit, very, very clumsy. They, Lin-Manuel Miranda was involved in that translation and, and you kind of call that the end of an era and you’re sort of like, alright, we can, we can really put this to bed now, Lawrence died two years later. And so it seemed like it was over. And then here we are, and we’ve got two more Jewish guys taking this up. Like, what is that? Like, what is that about?

Like, why, like, if, and also like taking it up with the idea that they were going to reckon with this parallel story, right? Like, it’s not like they just remade it. Like they remade it really trying to, you know, reckon with Puerto Rican representation. I mean, like I was reading that they specifically used the National Anthem, but like the revolutionary version, like the pre-national Anthem, so that they’re, they’re making these intentional choices and it’s falling flat for so many people.

And I wonder why it just never occurred to them to either (a) not make it; or, or (b) not be at the helm of it. Like, why did they feel that they were the ones to take it up? And I think there is something really powerful that isn’t being named about that lineage.

FNM: I mean, I think what attracted Spielberg to it was multi-layered. One is that I think he thought it was a way to make a musical that was going to win awards and that, and he had never made a musical, so there’s all this, uh, I guess, artistic professional dimensions to the choice. But I think it’s also about an awareness that there are, some people feel that there’s some problems with this text and in order for it to be reproduced and maintain its canonicity into the future, they must be reckoned with. And, and that the other path was cultural authenticity, which is why they go to include Spanish and so forth. Um, the, uh, van Hove, uh, approach was kind of, race doesn’t exist.

AA: Can you tell us what the van Hove?

BH: That’s the Broadway revival that opened in late 2019 and was scheduled to formally open right about the time of the pandemic. It made a lot of adjustments, dropped a lot of numbers. Uh, in, in some ways it was a stage adaptation of the film version in terms of the way that it approached things.

It closed at the time of the pandemic and it was one of the many Broadway productions that did not reopen when Broadway returned. But it was, again, an attempt to say, “What does this piece mean in the 21st century?” And as Frances notes, it doesn’t take Puerto Rican-ness seriously at all. It sort of did a sort of a mishmosh of American raciality and really focused on police violence as the, sort of the guiding frame for that story.

So again, this sort of investment in sort of not losing West Side Story to the critiques of its racial representation, this investment in that canonicity.

FNM: And I think the other dimension of this is like Spielberg and Kushner actually did a tremendous amount of work with this framework of cultural authenticity. It was including Spanish, it was casting Latinx actors, uh, no, obviously no brown face, which wouldn’t be acceptable now, but, you know, addressing what they, uh, had identified as the reasons why people have problems with this. But one of the disjunctures of that is that the critiques of, of, of many scholars, activists, uh, and artists, is not that it’s not only culturally inauthentic, but that there is something racist about its, um, not only, um, representational strategies, but in the core of the story, in the perspective of the story.

And obviously if you believe that that’s what, uh, the issue is, uh, then adding Spanish or casting or, uh, these references that feel incongruous in so many ways like the revolutionary anthem, I mean, one of the things that I point out is that if the Sharks had been sistas, which is the note on the mural there, they would have been infiltrated by the FBI and, uh, the rumble would have been the work of an FBI agent and we’d have to figure out which one it was, you know?

So you throw those very complex references there without any kind of context and they just read very incongruous, very inauthentic to the audience who knows the repercussions of these historical references.

But at the end, it feels to me that, uh, just obviously cultural authenticity is impossible, but sometimes it can be negotiated. And there weren’t the conditions of negotiating here. And in part had to do with context, not only text, which is the, the other dimension. And the context elements that were brought up again and again and again was, it has been 63 years since, uh, the West Side Story show and West Side Story is still the main narrative by which most Americans and the world, uh, know about Puerto Ricans. So there’s an issue of a differential of power in self representation.

And the other contextual issue that, uh, was brought up in one of the shows that I watched that, uh, I hadn’t done that homework myself, but someone on the show had done it. He looked at every single head of a major department in the credits and concluded that they were all white men. And some of them were Jewish and some of them were not.

And if we compare the reception to Encanto, for instance, which is also, let’s say a Hollywood quote unquote white cultural product, it hasn’t met that kind of, of, of response or backlash. And I think part of it is that there was an, a great level of collaboration in that film that did not happen in West Side Story, despite the fact that there was a lot of work of consultation and receiving feedback, and looking at documents and so forth. But at the end, it wasn’t quite collaborative. It seems that Encanto had a higher degree of collaboration.

BH: Well, and in some ways it’s the limits of, of dramaturgy without critique, right? Dramaturgy being the practice of bringing context into production, of sort of adding cultural detail, adding con, adding texture, providing formal references, all those kind of things. And that’s what, what they did. They brought a huge array of dramaturgical techniques to amplify the legibility of Puerto Rican-ness in this iteration of the, this is the first adaptation of West Side Story that has taken as great amount of care with the details of Puerto Rican history and life. Yet, what it did not bring in was the reality of critique.

For whatever reason, it seems that they brought consultants, dramaturgical consultants, but they did not necessarily benefit had they sort of tapped into the long tradition of dramaturgical critique that is available for this text, particularly, both in terms of detail, but also in terms of structure and form that goes into the questions of music and choreographic vocabularies, and the way the music sits within the story, all those kinds of things. They’ve been adorned very nicely in this production, but they haven’t been interrogated the way a dramaturgy with critique might have brought.

AA: I think Frances is also raising the question of like, whether they could have actually done that. Like whether that can be done with this, with this show. And I mean, personally, like, I actually don’t think that it can, and this, I’m saying this as someone who loves the film, like there’s nothing I can do about it, I love it. It’s like, you know, it’s like beyond me, it’s, it’s inside me and I can be sort of aware and engaged with the issues that it brings up and also like work against the grain and like try to read it against the grain to the extent that you can, even with like the imperfect document that it is.

But I, I’m not, I guess my question is like, it seems strange to me that Kushner and Spielberg felt the ownership to do this, even with all that they know, and particularly Kushner. And at the same time, would a Puerto Rican director or screenwriter been able to do something different with it? I think in some ways, yes. Like you would hope so. And in other ways, like I’m not actually sure.

DPP: I, thinking about, uh, the way that Brian contextualized this history for us and the way that the show has been assimilated as a kind of, uh, you know, synecdoche for Broadway rather than as a representative of Jewish achievement in the kind of response Frances got.

But, so my interest as, as with yours, Arielle, was like, what did Tony Kushner think he was doing here? Spielberg, I get. He has both a nostalgia from growing up with this show, probably an affinity for the kind of note that Leonard Bernstein we know scrawled in his copy of Romeo and Juliet, which was an out and out plea for racial tolerance, that there’s this, you know, strain of American sort of centrist liberalism that can see this as, as a “Why, why are we being racist with each other?” kind of story. And that Spielberg is a master of kind of genre craft exercises.

And so as Frances said, the prospect of choreographing cinematic movement and, and staging this great American genre of the movie musical must have been really alluring. But Tony Kushner is pretty, pretty well attuned to the currents of racial politics and representational history in, in the US. And I sort of thought the, at least the best kind of critique reading that I could see, or the space where I could have imagined maybe a dramaturge nudging him a little bit was not in the, in the, sort of, what seemed almost the dutiful earnestness of its ham handed representation of Puerto Rican diaspora seemed most emblematic for me in the line from America that had been, “Always the bullets flying,” and changed in this version to, “Always the people trying,” which seemed representative both of the, kind of, um, positive bootstrap Puerto Rican shop owners, who all come out to defend their, the integrity of their neighborhood or the sort of stodgy suitability of Chino, who’s working on his adding accounting machines before he’s radicalized into The Sharks. But also the, always the people trying of these, you know, Jews who keep retelling the story and trying to get it right by getting consultants to, uh, back them up.

But I thought Kushner as, you know, cuz the guy’s pretty sympathetic to Marxist sympathies and has created great plays that begin with The World’s Last Living Bolshevik on stage is pretty well attuned, at least in the beginning of this show, to the underlying structural economic factors that lead to racial hatred. And that this production, as I saw it at least, was seeming to say The Sharks are fine. There’s a thriving community here. America is basically Carnival Del Barrio out on the street and there’s, there’s night school, there’s opportunities for economic mobility.

The problem are these jets who are coming out of the ground like sewer rats, smudged in grease, and don’t realize that their true enemies are not other ethnic groups like the Egyptian Kings or The Sharks. The true enemies are these gentrifying capitalists, like Robert Moses, in collusion with the New York City government, who are knocking down low-income housing in order to pave the way for high rises. And so we, we do see, at a really cheeky shot at the very beginning, San Juan Hill who’s whose own origins in, uh, the Black community and in Imperial history are somewhat effaced, but we see San Juan Hill being knocked down in order to build Lincoln Center.

And that seemed like maybe a nudge at Jewish families like mine who took cultural pride in this institution that was so closely associated with Leonard Bernstein. I think, especially in his time at the Philharmonic, right? And to say, if you’re gonna, you’re gonna take pride in Bernstein’s achievements, you’re gonna take pride in West Side Story as an example of the assimilation of mid-century Jews who took a Jewish story and turned it into what’s become a canonical story, then you have to acknowledge that the establishment of that cultural edifice, and indeed the very architecture that supported it, came at the cost of knocking out the territory of lower income groups and then pitting them against each other because of, of the sort of horizontal violence that structural inequality creates.

Um, and that seemed to me, the best case I could make for Kushner making this movie, was as an indictment of people like me, who would like watching this movie.

BH: I think you get it exactly right, Daniel. And you can see this even down to the way that the, sort of the final credits role. Who gets top billing? The Sharks, not the Jets. That’s a big adjustment.

This film does not identify with the Jets. It does a lot of things to, to diminish what the first film emphasizes in the charisma of the Jets. The first film and the stage play really do invest in the Jets as sort of what I argue is a collective protagonist, that sort of really invests in their charisma, tries to understand what is individual, what is collective. It’s just a very different.

This one, the two big numbers, which are usually presented as Jets’ charisma, full force, uh, Krupke and cool. We don’t even see the full groups. We see small subsets of the Jets in those things. We see the tragedy of the Jets as sort of embodied in some ways by the breakup of the Jets, with the breakup of Riff and Tony and Riff’s own kind of aimlessness the extraordinary performance by Mike Faist.

Sort of, I sort of started seeing it as sort of a Proud Boys’ narrative. It’s sort of this, kind of this grasping white male anxiety that is so unattractive and so unmoored from community. We, one of the additions that Tony Kushner added was the whole idea of you are the left behind, you have been left behind by your families, or your families are not strong enough to leave.

Like this idea of that seems to be really, uh, what our colleague, uh, José Esteban Muñoz introduced this idea of disidentification of this is me and not me. This project dis-identifies from the Jets. And I think the combination of saying, we’re gonna not make the Jets heroes and we’re gonna amplify the humanity of the Sharks, it’s a huge undertaking because it’s not how the previous adaptations have been built. And I do think they thought that that was enough to recuperate this piece as a worthwhile masterpiece in American culture.

FNM: However, I think that although the Jets are in some ways diminished in, in, in the ways that you are describing, Tony is built up and the sexual gender politics of this film within that liberal narrative striked me as 19th century settler colonialism, where you have a tension between Tony and Riff. And basically he’s saying “You have to drop the knife, you know, we can’t be doing this. It’s an embarrassment. Uh, you, we should follow the liberal way, uh, forward.” However, at the same time, we might be able to keep our centrality and our prominence, because it’s not, we’re not ceding it to the Sharks either.

In a way, this is a, to me, a fantasy of, or a possibility of interracial marriage. With the, you know, the white men with the, uh, light skinned Latinas. Anita is not part of this sexual economy. She’s the only female character that is sexually assaulted. And the fact that she’s, uh, cast as an Afro-Latina actually makes that even more complex than before in some, in some levels.

So at the same that is happening, let’s say on the racial axis of representation, on the sexual and gender axis, there’s a recentering of white male subjectivity, heterosexual subjectivity, and that’s where I find the new character of Valentina so unsettling. So this, um, version has a new character entirely, Valentina, who is the widow of Doc, who used to be the shopkeeper where the gangs, it’s like neutral territory for the gangs.

For many Puerto Rican viewers, one of the things that we register is that this is a Puerto Rican elder in the community who is, uh, mentoring and nurturing, and sometimes even taking risks for Tony, the white character. And there’s a moment where she says, um, that he has so much potential, right? So there is that ado. There’s a gaze of adoration that’s doubled. Maria and Valentina towards Tony.

But back to Arielle’s questions about, there were headlines about “West Side Story can’t be saved,” you know, “I hope it flops” and “The show should have never existed” this kind of, of headline, uh, from the Op-Ed pages. And I find that an interesting question, because for all cultural producers, you know, this is the question, what do you do with old stuff, right?

And people are continuously doing new things with old stuff. Even texts that you would consider hopeless in some way. And in my, as a filmmaker, sometimes I say, what, what would I do with this, you know? Well, one of the things that strikes me is perspective. I mean, you could imagine a West Side Story told from five different perspectives, uh, and clashing perspectives, for instance, that no single one is particularly authorized.

There is actually a story that came out after the film was released. Basically that there was an, there was an attempt by a collective of two artists to make a quote unquote sequel to West Side Story called Maria. What happened to Maria after Tony’s murder? And we start telling the story from her point of view. And that got, uh, pretty much eliminated as an option because, uh, Laurents’s estate said no, no way. There was not unauthorized, uh, project.

So to me, um, can you do something with West Side Story? Well, there’s been a lot of things that have been done. No, they’re not mainstream. People don’t know them, but they have been done. From like mentioning, “I Want to Live in America,” pronounced in that way in a Rubén Blades song a salsero, to Adál Maldonado’s, uh, literally taking pieces of the film and inter-editing it with Puerto Rican materials, performance and songs, and other things, to use it to explore the melancholy of loss of migration.

So, so I don’t know if you can take the entire logic and reproduce it with these so-called updates and leave some of the core logics intact. I don’t know that’s that worth doing, but will it be worth doing as, uh, Brian was saying earlier, other type of work with some of those materials? I think that’s possible.

AA: Frances, you said something also, sorry, that I think is really important, which is, which is the control that this group of people had over this work. And I think that speaks to the power dynamics that you have been talking about, right? It’s like, how can anyone else take ownership of this when there were these four white Jewish guys who really tightly controlled the legacy of the work and now they’re estates. And so who is granted access?

It’s not just a question of, can people do it and will they do it? It, it be, it really comes down to the power narrative here that we can’t ignore, which is that some people actually own this. And what does it mean for this group of people to own, to actually own that work in a very like formal, tangible way.

FNM: Yeah own it and also have, uh, platforms for circulation and dissemination that moves enormous or can move enormous amounts of resources.

The power is not only over the story and what you can do with it, but once, uh, something is authorized, it can now be seen and consumed at at a scale that Puerto Ricans and other Latinos just don’t have access to. Or most of them do not have access to.

AA: Yeah I, something that, I mean, strikes me, the New York Times did this big, uh, great, great West Side Story debate, which is one of the reasons that I really wanted to have this conversation with all of you, is that like, a dynamic that I see in that piece, and shout out to Jewish contributor, Carina del Valle Schorske really like holds it down on a certain level, uh, in that conversation is like, you have some older Jewish critics who are not actually naming that power dynamic and acting as though these are comparable situations.

So for example, Jesse Green says, “Oh, don’t even get me started as a gay Jew about gay Jewish stereotypes in theater,” without recognizing that like a lot of those are written by gay Jews, or that like there were, they were really kind of in the room or like in the app, they were built into the apparatus of theater in this different kind of way.

And this is a good segue to kind of like the original cultural displacement, I’m using, Daniel, your words from your Atlantic piece about the van Hove revival. And I was wondering, actually, Daniel, if maybe you could kind of bring us through the history. Everybody on this podcast has written about this, but maybe you could give us sort of like a snapshot of, of that history.

DPP: Sure. Right. So I think Brian set us up for this. So thinking about how this is a musical about assimilation and how we might see it as one of a number of musicals that Jews wrote in the 1950s about other ethnic groups as a way of marking their own status as a white ethnicity. So we might think of King and I, or South Pacific or Flower Drum Song, say musicals that we, most people at least, are much more uncomfortable about reviving today, but that is very much in keeping with West Side Story.

And also to these questions of its canonicity that Frances and Brian have named too. So we know at least the origin story apparently is that, um, Jerome Robbins had a pal, maybe Montgomery Clift, who wanted to perform Romeo at the actor’s studio as sort of the method is taking hold in American theatrical performance, and can’t get a hang on it, and Robbins says, you just, you have to imagine Romeo as though he were alive today in New York, after World War II.

And then thought, “Hey, this would be a great idea for a show. What if we did Romeo and Juliet? And we did it now. And we did it about the tensions that are alive in New York in the present.” And his idea that he took to Leonard Bernstein, um, with whom I guess he, he’d recently collaborated on, On the Town, and to Arthur Lawrence, a topical playwright whose work Leonard Bernstein quite admired because he’d written about, uh, assimilation difficulties of, uh, gay Jews in, in the service in World War II.

His idea was we’ll, we’ll take the Shakespeare’s, um, ancient grudge feuding households, the Montagues and the Capulets, and we’ll put ‘em on the Lower East Side of New York and we’ll make them Jews and Catholics, having a sort of street battle over the Passover and Easter weekend. And they actually mapped out a whole schema for this show.

So there was the Juliet character was called Dory and she had an aunt Ortanta. And on the, um, the street fair day on Mulberry street, she saw this handsome Catholic boy, Tonio, but her brother Bernard told her to stick to her side of the street, stick to Stronsky’s bridal shop. And then apparently they, they realized that, you know, bad conflict had ensued at this, at the night of the seder when her brother TIAL was to, supposed to show up to ask the four questions, the fir kashes, and he didn’t because he’d been, you know, killed in this street brawl.

And it was gonna be this story about, really, interethnic and interreligious conflict. And then they scrapped this story for, I think, somewhat complicated reasons. Uh, Arthur Laurents says that they didn’t wanna write another version of what was then a kind of a H-O-A-R-Y hoary tale of, uh, of, uh, interreligious, uh, heterosexual romance. Abie’s Irish Rose, about a Jewish boy who falls in love with an Irish Catholic girl from the 1920s, had been, recently been redone as a radio play. And Lawrence said, “This would just be Abie’s Irish Rose set to music.”

But there was also, I think, a really deep discomfort and uncertainty that these artists felt in the shadow of, um, the McCarthy blacklist about the degree to which they could be open about their own Jewish identity and their own sexuality. And we know this was tremendously difficult for these guys, most of whom changed their names, you know, from Jerome Rabinovitz to Jerome Robbins say, and who were called upon to testify and, and, uh, Jerome Robbins famously did name names, uh, before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

AA: My Bubi tells me this all the time, “They name names, he name names.”

DPP: Right? Uh, under the threat, allegedly of, of being exposed as gay. And he, he wrote this wrenching play in which he’s called upon to testify before the committee, and the committee asks, “What’s your profession?” And he says, “I’m a choreographer.” And then the ghost of his dead father from the shtetl appears and says, “No, you’re a Jew. You’re just passing as a choreographer.”

And so all these layers of passing that were both, uh, passing in terms of sexuality, passing in terms of religion, I think get, get kind of displaced onto what, what these folks end up with, which is, you know, the second origin story, Lawrence and Bernstein, the project having fallen fallow, are out in Hollywood in the 1950s. Bernstein sees a story about Mexican gangs in the LA paper and says, “Aha! That’s the story that we should do.” Bernstein had written his, his, uh, thesis at Harvard on the absorption of race elements into American music and his heroes, which was, uh, George Gershwin, another Jew who drew on particularly black rhythms and jazz in order to create a, you know, a vibrant American musical form. And Bernstein wrote about the need for a real American opera that would be infused with American musical styles and wanted to do this.

He was married to a Chilean woman. He started hearing Latin rhythms in his head. Laurents said, “I don’t know anything about Mexicans, but I think there are Puerto Ricans in New York? How about that?” And Bernstein said, “Great.” And they found this young lyricist who was gonna give them some street cred, Stephen Sondheim. Of course Sondheim was raised, you know, in, in Westchester and said, “I’ve never been poor. I’ve never met a Puerto Rican.” But, uh, when I interviewed Sondheim, he told me that they told him not to worry. They weren’t interested in the sociology at all. They just wanted a pretext to do Romeo and Juliet now. And he, Sondheim said it could have been the Hatfields in McCoys for, for all we care.

So they took the structure and changed it, right? So Dory became Maria. Tonio became Tony. Tanta, the aunt, became Anita. Bernard became Bernardo. The Stronsky’s bridal shop became the Jewish bridal shop. And you still get little residues I think of that Jewish origin, maybe in some ways in the character of Doc, who’s a kind of Borscht Belt kvetcher. Maybe even, uh, Arielle, I don’t know if you, you agree that you can kind of hear the opening strains of the shofar doing the tekiah in that opening “dah dah dom.”

AA: Interesting. I have never thought about that.

DPP: Right. That tritone is, is something that Bernstein would’ve heard a lot in his, uh, shul growing up and you can kind of hear echoing in that context. But, the last thing I’ll say, right? Laurents writes in his script that the Jets are an anthology of what is considered “American.” This establishment of Americanness as whiteness, as an assimilation of different European ethnicities. The Sharks are Puerto Rican.

And in a way, you can see Bernstein and, and, and Laurents and Sondheim and Robbins doing what Jewish artists have done really since Al Jolson, which is establishing their Americanness by creating a brown face story, a story with white actors in brown makeup, about what it means to become American, and displacing their own identities about passing, about assimilation, onto a line like that hard scene when the Jets tell Anita, “You’re too dark to pass,” onto a kind of cosmetic makeup construction of Puerto Rican female sexuality.

] BH: Thanks for that incredible exogesis of all these sort of competing threads. One thing as you were talking, Daniel, I really also want to underscore, and I think this goes to the ways in which there’s such an investment in rehabilitation or recuperation or not losing West Side Story is they were also deeply invested in the high 1950s notion of sort of modernist abstraction, of going from an elemental sort of psychoanalytic in certain registers, other times, sort of more conceptual, sort of finding bold, broad colors that tapped into sort of an elemental psychic experience of self as a way of sort of doing a both/and.

One of their sort of guiding premises was, “We want it to feel new, like it’s never been done before.” Laurents and Robbins got lawyers involved because Laurents was so dedicated to Tante as the Anita figure, not being the sort of the b-line female character, who’s more sexually experienced, which was almost cliche in musicals at that period.

And so there was certain, there was a real investment in the “new,” as being part of, I think, connecting to what does it mean to be Jews in the ’50s and the ’60s post World War II? What does it mean to be a voice of what Americanness is now? And that had a lot to do with what they were invested in formally, in trying to make sure that the music, musical worked in a way that hadn’t been worked before, dismantling the separate courses, dismantling all of these things, not fully, but making these transformative gestures.

And so I do think that that’s where we see each of the four collaborators returning to West Side Story and finding ways to try to rebuild it without the taint of racism. Right? And so we see it with Bernstein sort of moving it to the operatic space. We see Robbins taking it into, uh, Jerome Robbins Broadway, and just focusing on the dances as this sort of suite of dances.

And then Laurents does 2009. And I would, what I didn’t expect was that Sondheim would get involved with that recuperation and rehabilitation. In one story that I have seen and haven’t seen verified was that Sondheim went to Kushner saying, “Can you do something with this?” Part of this thing of like, “There’s still something good here that is gonna get lost if we don’t fix what was wrong here.”

Like there was, there’s a tenderness that’s treated here with the piece. Like there’s something, we love it, we don’t wanna lose it. So there is that question of tradition that’s also embedded there too.

I’m fascinated, going back to what, um, Frances noted, we see this marriage between Valentina and the Doc figure. We see the image of the two of them together. And what I have yet to see verified is whether or not that’s Spielberg’s father, to whom the film is dedicated. This notion of recuperation of legacy, of the errors of the elders. How can the errors of the elders be reexamined and addressed and redressed in the creations of the, this next generation?

So there is a kind of going undercover to try to maintain tradition that is, uh, I think embedded in this work, in this most recent iteration. And most, all of these, I would say are not remix, but adaptations. There is not a true version of this piece ever, but there are different reckonings with it at different junctures. And this 2021 one is gonna be one that will be part of everybody who loves West Side Story, every high school that stages West Side Story is now gonna have this as a point of reference, as well as 1961, as well as the cast recordings, for better and for worse.

FNM: There’s another set of questions that we can raise around the role of race and racism in cinematic innovation in American cinema history. It’s not a coincidence that I feel that race is often, uh, or almost always, uh, at the center of an attempt to formally innovate. And at the same time, it’s not examined. So for instance, we can speak quite a long time about formal elements and about, uh, innovation and about choreography, about our music, without speaking about race or racism at all, which is, I think, uh, an interesting question that was raised for me in the process of, of, uh, Spielberg/Kushner’s adaptation, not only at the level of analysis of plot or text, but also saw a comment that, uh, Stephen Spielberg made and a response of many reviewers, which said that this West Side Story was beautiful.

And one of the questions that that raised for me is like, What does it mean exactly that racial conflict is beautiful? What does it mean exactly that a scene of sexual assault, you know, is beautiful? Uh, and it’s not though what I meant, that that’s not what they meant specifically, but I don’t feel this narrative with all the attempts to cultural authenticity or highlight the Sharks or, or what have you, I don’t think it really shifted very much on the ways that it views a racial hierarchy. I mean, one of the things that I mentioned in the review is that one of the disjunctures is what is wrong with it is there’s no consensus about it.

So if you take it, you know, if you say what’s wrong with it, it’s not culturally authentic, you’re gonna go one route. If you say what’s wrong with it is actually the, it has a racialized perspective that’s problematic or a heteronormative gaze, I mean, depends how you identify what’s quote unquote wrong, you will then proceed with your fixing of what is wrong. And then of course, along the way, you always have blind spots because, uh, very, um, glaring also is that, uh, as with In the Heights, the debate has, uh, almost exclusively focuses on race and very few people talk about gender or sexuality in either case, uh, which also means that, uh, people’s perspective of hierarchy is still, uh, you know, just fixated on that. And it does doesn’t really, um, see the way that it’s related to, uh, these other parts of the matrix of power. Right?

DPP: Well, I was just gonna ask how you read the specific moment that seems like it’s really trying to invite the way that Brian so helpfully has described the kind of, um, heritage quality of this adaptation and its, and its sense of dutiful legacy, which is the moment when Valentina, played by Rita Moreno, rescues, Anita, played by Ariana Debose from the Jets. And I have, I had sort of thought coming in, there’s this story, apparently Kushner’s, um, husband Mark Harris said, “Why don’t you make Doc Puerto Rican? Why don’t you have Rita Moreno play her?” Solve, you know that one of these, another sort of cosmetic fix that solve, solves the authenticity problems.

And it seemed to me, okay, yet again, here we are 63 years later, turning a Jewish character into a Latina character to solve the problems. And it creates all these other problems that you had named earlier, Frances, about where Valentina’s legacies lie. But since, since Rita Moreno’s own charisma and body have been a sight of such identification and maybe even, you know, a number of scholars, including you, have argued of kind of excess that goes beyond the constraints of West Side Story, like what is being staged at this moment of union between Anitas?

Especially in a moment that is very much part of the kind of canonical quality of West Side Story, which is that Arthur Laurents was most proud when he took the Shakespeare script of changing a kind of, um, coincidental tragedy, the fryer doesn’t get the message to Juliet so she doesn’t know that Romeo is dead, into what he proudly declared was the triumph of hate over love because he added this scene of sexual assault that is, of course, we see it pretty explicitly in this film, right? A kind of echo of the Shark’s, uh, assault penetration of Baby John at the, in the opening scene. This is then the, kind of the Jets’ rape of Anita in order to, you know, restore Baby John’s masculinity, codify their own, you know, white control of Americanness. Like what’s, what’s going on when we see Ariana Debose and Rita Moreno together?

FNM: That’s a good question. You know, one of the characteristics I felt as a viewer of this film is that there is so much going on in the sense that, uh, there are all these in intentionalities shaping what you’re seeing.

So on the one hand, you have Rita Moreno as this, uh, living archive, a reminder that there was a history before that’s now opened to people. I also felt it was poetic justice that she gets to break up the sexual assault because she was the one on the ground in 1961. And she has talked about how terrifying playing that scene was when she did it in 1961. So I think it’s a way for her and for us to, uh, grapple with that, um, 1961 pass.

On the other hand, what she tells the Jets struck me as very mild. So it’s like, “You dishonor yourselves and the past,” uh, and to which they say, “What do we do now?” And they just kind of go, right? So there’s really no consequence.

And what follows, she makes the equivalent of, um, citizen’s arrest with Chino. I mean, she goes out, she holds him, she picks up the weapon, and waits for the police to come and gives him in. If there was something I would’ve changed, even in this not revolutionary version, it would’ve been that ending because actually she protects Tony from the authorities, she gives him a job, she gives him a place to live, and she, and she gives Chino up. So I feel like that character is a site of, of a lot of contradictory, um, desires and intentions that are manifested, uh, in various ways. And I would say, I felt that she was there to a way to legitimize this, uh, production and that role was also taken up in real life.

Uh, so it wasn’t only in the text. It was also in the context. Like when I went to see the film for the first time, and it was a Puerto Rican Latinx audience, and there was a video that appeared before that basically Rita Moreno said, “This is a great film and you should really like it.” So it was using the enormous authority that Rita Moreno has and love that people have for her to, um, bring an audience to the film and, and curve, uh, criticism as much as possible. It was a, she was a weapon, both textually and contextually, to validate this film for a Latinx public.

BH: Co-sign everything that, uh, Frances just named, and I think the ending of this film is particularly shocking to me when I first saw it, given that the, that that’s a revisitation of the Wise/Lehman ending of the film in 1961, because the original play script says the adults stand by uselessly as the kids take care of each other in this moment of tragedy.

And so there’s a moment of deferring to carceral logics, or this idea of bringing the police in, that is part now of the tradition that is the sort of complicated path of adaptation. That iconic image, which I argue is that when we see Chino being lead away alone in handcuffs in the 1961 version, it is an emblazoning of what becomes one of the dominant reference points of any cinematic depiction of Latinx masculinity, which is youth criminality.

And so I think the fact that there is a ratification of that, and then also embedding it in sort of Latinx community as being part of that carceral or police deferential logic. I was gobsmacked in some ways, the fact that of all the things they kept from ’61, that was it. These are choices being made and there is not an authentic text.

So when we defend our love for West Side Story, it’s really important not to defer to, uh, ideas of masterpiece because ’57 on Broadway and ’61 on screen, they’re different texts. And so your love of the masterpiece is something other than the text that we’re talking about, it’s something more affective. It’s something more about connecting with tradition and connecting with memory and connecting with experience. And the fact that we return to these stories, we retell them, and we make changes that make sense in our historical moment that end up revealing that historical moment for all of its flaws.

And so part of what I hadn’t really thought of before this conversation is, What is the possessive investment in West Side Story on the Jewish side? I had not really interrogated that. And I think that is, helps me to sort of transform my understanding of what these parallel investments in both the promise and the problem of West Side Story that we see on the Latinx and on the Jewish side.

AA: I love, Brian, I just really love what you were saying also about thinking about the love itself or like the memory or the investment as almost a discrete object, that like it isn’t inherent in the object itself. It is, it is its own object. And I think that connects to me for, to something that Frances was saying just about like something that I think people are really wrestling with.

And particularly in West Side Story, I think, look, I think like a lot of times when you have things that are politically problematic and quotes, you look at like Dave Chappelle’s comedy or something, and my response to that is like, well, it’s, it’s really not very good. I mean, like, you know, like it’s very easy to throw it out.

And I think something that Frances was saying about there being this innovation in a lot of essentially racist filmmaking is very disturbing because I think there’s a desire to feel also that beauty is also tied to politics in a certain way, or, or like that the truth of, of something being harmful or damaging would affect its ability for us, you know, affect the ability for us to find it beautiful or, or like even take something out of it in that kind of way.

And I think that West Side Story is a really deep challenge to that. It sort of affirms that there’s this beauty that is sort of different or like, or like obeying kind of a different logic, which is not to say that we sort of swallow it or that we, you know, that we don’t interrogate it or that we don’t have to do something with that.

But again, I find it so helpful to think about that as a discreet object and, and to think of our investment as a discrete object, that our own cultural histories, that our own individuated experience has a lot to say about that.

FNM: And, you know, it’s, it’s really, I think one of the things I’ve learned from this process and this conversation is that it, that sometimes the debate is very fixated on the idea of a, of an object. Is it good? Is it bad? And it doesn’t look into these other processes that allow for many more questions and, uh, interrogations and possibilities in creating that sphere to have the conversations.

But one thing I wanted to say about the prison, uh, narrative in the film, uh, there is a passage, a part where, a scene where Tony talks about, uh, prison, uh, when he’s with Maria and, and he talks about how prison gave him this space to think about things. You know, so there is a pretty benign idea of prison, uh, in this film, in, in general. At the same time, we can anticipate that, uh, Chino’s fate in the prison, uh, industrial complex is gonna be very different from Tony’s.

I mean, he, he almost killed someone, he got off, uh, in a year or a year and a half, a year I think. And then he has uh, you know, Valentina supporting him, gave him a job, gave him a place to live. Uh, so he’s getting his life together. And in my first West Side Story piece, I say, well, Chino is probably on his way to the electric chair.

So in that sense, fleshing out, uh, this dimension of punishment and the prison industrial complex in this film inadvertently, I don’t think they meant it, but I think shows some of the racialization of that system. And it’s, again, it’s another ideological site of the film that’s not interrogated at all and it’s tragic.

And this is the other thing. Everybody focuses on the tragedy that, uh, the lovers are not together and Tony was killed. Definitely Tony’s killing is a tragedy in the classic sense, but Chino going to prison for the rest of his life is an enormous tragedy and very rarely does any reviewer see it that way. In this film even more because they develop him as someone with aspirations, as someone who, uh, has a future or sees himself in that way. And then the story ends with his life destroyed. Right. Uh, so it’s an even bigger tragedy than in 1961 where we didn’t know anything at all about Chino. Right.

But these, these ways that we don’t see some things, I mean, I guess this is another, another dimension of method, is like the way that we don’t interrogate what we see, but also what we don’t see. And the only way that we are gonna be able to do that is that we, we have conversations with people that see other things than we do, right?

DPP: You’re making me think like, what is it that I love when I say I love West Side Story? And to what extent in the, in the kind of adaptations that Brian describes, can you take the music apart from the story? Could you detach the dance from the bodies that are, uh, adopting it? And the way in which I think for a lot of, a lot of, uh, kids, you encounter West Side Story, either through a community theater production, or if you’re taking a music class and you learn that the way to remember a major seventh is by singing “There’s a place for us,” or you learn a tritone by singing “Maria” in a way that craft seems to be totally disembodied from, um, from actual folks.

Whereas of course we know the history of, as you said earlier, that, Brian, that Robbins choreography is totally, totally enmeshed in the beauty of young white male bodies and Bernstein’s music is invested in taking Huapango, and taking flamenco, and taking sort of any musical form more or less except for Puerto Rican musical forms, and using them to jazz up, uh, a score. So that the kind of New York Times suggestion that we can love the art and forget about the politics is, you know, is of course, as we all know, a faulty distinction to make.

But it does make me wonder. It seems like “Somewhere” has become the anthem that’s most detachable, both that of course Bernstein would use in, in, in, uh, aids fundraisers in the ’80s as an anthem for gay love, or that gives the title to D.A. Miller’s sort of study of Broadway history as a space for gay identification, or that seems to offer the kind of most inclusive vision of whatever the film’s version of inclusion is in the way that Rita Moreno sings it in this version.

And it makes me wonder, like, is, is that, is that the condition of West Side Story is that it’s always imagining a place of inclusion that is never contained within the story itself? And makes me think then of seeing Ariana Debose hosting SNL in which her opening monologue is a kind of, uh, karaoke medley. She sings “Tonight,” she, she does a little mambo number, she does “Maria,” and she sings opposite Kate McKinnon, who both is, as queer artists who give each other a little fist bump on “pretty and witty and gay.” Um, if there are sort of other spaces in which that kind of ideal of love could, could survive apart from its own conditions of production or, or maybe that’s just the biggest fantasy that the musical sells.

FNM: But you know what, it’s interesting you bring that up because, uh, one, when I was in the theater with a largely Puerto Rican audience and people came out and I, you know, doing a little ethnography, like, what did you think? Uh, and most people said, well, the music is beautiful, even if they didn’t like the film. So I think people detach the elements all the time and recontextualize them all the time.

And in fact, when I saw the SNL opening, I actually had the same thought. If you didn’t know the story, you know, the show or the film, and you just heard the music, it’s open enough that you can pretty much imagine any number of situations where that could be playing out.

And there’s also the mobility of the different materials. So like for instance, um, many people often relate that they had an album of West Side Story in their house. So they didn’t watch the movie, uh, they didn’t go to the Broadway show, or they may have never seen a Broadway version of it, but they heard the music.

Uh, so I believe in, in actual experience, people do separate them to, to an extent and, uh, and may identify, uh, or emphasize with more intensity, some elements over others. And in fact, I think that’s part of the reason that it signifies differently.

In other words, if you love the music, going back to your question of why do I love this? If you love the music and that is all consuming, you might not notice that much everything else. It just doesn’t matter that much from that perspective.

BH: Well, and I would say that “Somewhere” moves the most. It’s both the most identifiable song that is the most exportable, it’s the one that people love, it’s the one that’s, people sing more. But it migrates who sings it, you know. For example, in the Arthur Laurents staging, it was the young child who sang the song, a boy soprano who sang the song. And here we have somebody pushing 90 singing the song. So it’s like this question of what are we imagining, the future of the body itself or the lost possibilities of moments prior?

And indeed in the original Broadway staging of it, there was lots of pit singers, there were singers who were just sort of migrate, like it was disembodied singing. And so I think that there is a way in which what we hold onto from the piece is always going to be idiosyncratic and selective, but it is also worth noting that I think the musical is such that, it’s a funny genre. The story is gonna, is connected to the music, is connected to the choreography.

And as the generations move along, this is the first major telling, the Ivo van Hove, and this version, are the first time that we see West Side Story in a major platform, without the Robbins choreography. There has been an incredible control over licensing of the piece that had to have some staging of the Robbins choreography. We’re seeing that go away a little bit.

But the music will persist the way music does, both contractually and experientially. The music will continue to persist. And so I think that there is the way that people have, even if they don’t know that they’ve heard the song before, they probably have heard the song before, kind of phenomenon in American culture.

When I first talked about West Side Story and had a conversation with somebody who had, had never encountered West Side Story, Puerto Rican, but on the island where the currency of West Side Story is not the same. She goes, “I think I did hear that one song, ‘Somewhere.’ ” She was able to call out “Somewhere” as one melody she recognized.

So it was this kind of way where, how much is our connection to the piece connected to the piece itself or to our own affective experiences? Looping back to what Arielle reminded us of the love of the experience of West Side Story. The one thing I might invite folks to remember when they encounter a discussion about West Side Story is to always remember that even though the title is a singular, the phenomenon is plural.

It is always West Side Stories. There are different west side stories. There are different versions, but they’re all different, also different responses. And it’s not new. It’s baked into the history of the phenomenon of West Side Story, that there are many west side stories about the ways it was made, who made it, how people responded to it. And when you’re defending West Side Story, remember that there are other west side stories out there.

FNM: But also that there are other west side stories that remain untold.

AA: Yes. Well, this has been really, really wonderful. And thank you, Frances, Brian, and Daniel for joining me. If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends. Leave us a comment, a note, a review. Thanks so much, everyone. This has been another episode of On the Nose.

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Aug 11 2022
The Scream Clarifies an Elsewhere (01:03:07)
To celebrate the release of Culture Editor Claire Schwartz’s debut poetry collection, Civil Service, she discusses the social meanings of poetry with Managing Editor Nathan Goldman and Graywolf Press editor Chantz Erolin.
Jul 28 2022
The Trouble with Germany, Part 1 (01:06:59)
Arielle Angel speaks with Emily Dische-Becker and Michael Sappir about the bizarre and worrisome ways that “memory culture” plays out in Germany among Jews, Palestinians, and Germans, as well as the recent attacks on Dische-Becker in the German press.
Jul 14 2022
¡Inquilinos Unidos, Jamás Serán Vencidos! (51:29)
Recording from a convention of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, Ari Brostoff speaks with organizers Kenia Alcocer, Danya Martinez-Spider, and Claire Spiehler about the tenant movement across the country.
Jun 30 2022
The Mapping Project (53:25)
Jewish Currents staff discuss the controversy that arose after Boston activists published a map of Massachusetts institutions they deemed complicit in Zionism and US imperialism.
Jun 16 2022
The Age of No Revolutions (49:08)
David Klion speaks with history podcaster Mike Duncan about why the left’s discontent with the status quo hasn’t led to a sustained uprising.
May 26 2022
The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh (51:36)
Dylan Saba, Dana El Kurd, and Fadi Quran discuss Israeli obfuscation and strategies of resistance in the wake of a journalist’s murder
May 5 2022
Campus Wars (54:10)
Jewish Currents staff discuss the latest flashpoints in campus conflict over Israel/Palestine
Apr 20 2022
A Surge of Violence in Israel/Palestine (36:27)
Peter Beinart, Dana El Kurd, and Daniel Seidemann discuss the recent increase in fatal attacks in Israel/Palestine.
Apr 1 2022
Volodymyr Zelensky and Post-Soviet Jewishness (56:15)
David Klion, Julia Alekseyeva, Linda Kinstler, and Helen Betya Rubinstein discuss the meaning of the Ukrainian president’s background.
Mar 17 2022
The Assault on Trans and Reproductive Rights (58:16)
Senior Editor Ari M. Brostoff, scholar Jules Gill-Peterson, journalist Meaghan Winter, and reproductive justice advocate Laurie Bertram Roberts discuss the recent wave of executive and legislative attacks on trans people and abortion rights.
Mar 3 2022
I Want to Believe (54:54)
Upon the release of Senior Editor Ari M. Brostoff’s debut essay collection, Missing Time, they discuss the political potential of The X-Files with Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel and Managing Editor Nathan Goldman.
Feb 17 2022
The Black–Jewish Relations Industrial Complex (59:54)
In light of recent flashpoints in so-called Black–Jewish relations, Contributing Writer Rebecca Pierce joins artists and activists Anthony Russell, Reuben Telushkin, and Shoshana Brown in discussing the continued prevalence of anti-Black racism in the American Jewish community and the ongoing exclusion of Black Jews.
Feb 3 2022
Whose West Side Story? (this page)
Editor-in-chief Arielle Angel spoke with scholars Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Brian E. Herrera, and Daniel Pollack-Pelzner about the parallel resonances of West Side Story in Jewish and Latinx communities, and the tensions that emerge over questions of power and control.