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“West Side Story” Is Still Relevant Today

The problems we Latinos face in the United States haven’t changed much over the years. Problems with immigration, assimilation, poverty, racism, gangs, and so on have been with us a long time. Though we were always aware of these issues, mainstream America didn’t know much about them until a white dude named Stephen Sondheim decided to create a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet called West Side Story. This story of Puerto Ricans, Polish-Americans, and finger-snapping gangbangers is an American classic.

You might have seen West Side Story for the first time in your high school English class. Teachers use it as a more accessible version of Romeo and Juliet, with less iambic pentameter and more graceful leg lifts. Old Willy Shakes’ tale is recast in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in 1960. This was back when Hell’s Kitchen was more hell-like and had less Pottery Barns. Juliet becomes a recent Puerto Rican immigrant named Maria, played in the movie by non-Latina Natalie Wood. Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, it becomes a clash between Puerto Rican gang the Sharks and Polish-American gang The Jets. One of the members of the white gang, Tony, falls for Maria with the predictable consequence of prancing knife fights and teen murder. All of this is underscored by Sondheim’s music and the ridiculously hard choreography by Tony Robbins.

It’s a great movie and play, but its impact is deeper than that. Though most of the parts were played by white folk, Rita Moreno become the first Latin person, (besides Speedy Gonzales), to win an Oscar. Also, the film introduced mainstream America to the difficulties recent Latino immigrants were having. The song “America” and its portrayal of the two ways immigrants view assimilation, is as poignant today as it was back then. Ultimately, it is a story about tolerance and love. If you can get passed how totally non-menacing the gangs are, it is still an enjoyable way to spend and afternoon. If you happen to be in New York, there is a great revival of West Side Story playing on Broadway. Do it, or else the Sharks will come and dance at you!

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