Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Whose West Side Story?
Duration
0:00 / 01:02:32
Published
February 3, 2022

Stephen 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).”

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