I’d like to return for a moment to my post about the prospective West Side Story movie remake by Steven Spielberg, and how I would like to see such a film have the musical’s Puerto Rican/Nuyorican characters sing and speak to each other in Spanish. To help illustrate my point in my previous post, I embedded the above video from the 2009 Broadway revival, which did indeed mix Spanish and English, just as I hope Spielberg’s film (should it come about) will do.
The scene from the video features the musical’s well-known song “A Boy Like That,” sung in Spanish as “Un Hombre Asi.” The scene depicts Tony (Matt Cavanaugh) and Maria (Josephina Scaglione), the Romeo and Juliet figures, and Maria’s friend Anita (Karen Olivo), the love of Maria’s brother, Bernardo, whom Tony — in the heat of the moment — killed in a knife fight the night before.
The mix of languages in this scene, Spanish and English, makes palpable Maria’s entrapment between two conflicting worlds. When Anita sings “Un Hombre Asi” to Maria, the viewer more forcefully grasps that Anita is appealing to Maria’s sense of family and community. This feeling is much stronger than it was in all of the strictly Anglophone productions of West Side Story that I’ve seen.
And when Maria finally pushes back against Anita, and shouts — in English — “You should know better” to her, the moment strikes like a thunderclap: Maria has assertively chosen a place with the English-speaking Tony (“There’s a place for us”), not necessarily a place apart from her Nuyorican community, but one that allows a different, more inclusive identity.
It becomes clear to us that Anita senses Maria growing away from a demarcated Nuyorican identity. As she sinks onto the bed with her hand covering her face, the audience tangibly gets the sense that Anita — having just lost Bernardo — is now losing Maria, too. Then, Maria continues to assert her new identity by singing to Anita in English. The song that she sings, “I Have a Love,” has perhaps the most beautiful verses in all of West Side Story, so this is one Puerto Rican-sung number in the musical that ought to retain its English lyrics. Finally, when Anita joins Maria in singing the song’s final verse in English, the gesture forcefully communicates that Maria has changed Anita’s mind, more forcefully than it would have had the scene been played entirely in English. Moments like this illustrate the expressive power that comes when using a mix of multiple languages in a single work.
With all of the newfound strengths in this two-tongued approach, I was very dismayed to learn that the creators of this bilingual production of West Side Story — which used Spanish only very sparingly to begin with — cut back drastically on the use of the language later in the musical’s run. According to Playbill, most of “A Boy Like That’s” original English dialogue and lyrics were reinstated, and “I Feel Pretty,” initially sung in the revival as “Mi Siento Hermosa” (another Spanish-language video that I embedded), reverted to English in its entirety. Considering “Un Hombre Asi’s” emotional impact, I can’t see how returning to a (virtually) monolingual rendition of the musical was a change for the better. I’m left to imagine that the creators of the 2009 revival were hit with mucho negative feedback from viewers (out-of-towners?) who just didn’t like to be linguistically challenged by a Broadway musical (on the other hand, the change might have been prompted by nothing more ominous than disappointing ticket sales).
Whatever the reason, this now makes it more unlikely that a prospective remake of West Side Story will follow the 2009 revival’s polyglot daring. I can keep my fingers crossed, but the chances of Spielberg making a bilingual film of the musical were slim to begin with. And news of the 2009 revival’s reversion to English-only adds to the improbability. But I hope that a bilingual audiovisual version of West Side Story, by Spielberg or by someone else, is made one day. Maybe, like Tony and Maria, there’s a place for that as well.