Word on the street (i.e., the entertainment press) is that talks are now underway for Steven Spielberg to remake West Side Story, the beloved 1957 Broadway musical that became a beloved 1961 Oscar-winning movie. The idea has its detractors, who feel (not unreasonably) that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ cinematic adaptation got everything right the first time, so there’s no need to revisit it.
But I disagree. Unlike Citizen Kane or La Strada or any other classic film not adapted from a previous source, West Side Story began as a work in another medium: in this case, a stage musical — which continues to be widely performed to this day. Every time a new production of the venerated musical is staged, its creators are, at least spiritually, “remaking” the movie.
However, a new version of West Side Story for the big screen would need to give potential viewers a reason not to stay home and just watch the 1961 movie on DVD. In other words, it would need to speak to contemporary audiences.
My suggestion? I’m glad you asked. Given America’s growing ethnic and racial diversity, I would urge Spielberg and his team to follow the lead of Arthur Laurents’ 2009 Broadway revival and shoot the scenes of the Puerto Rican (or more precisely, Nuyorican) characters in Spanish. Not the entire film, just those scenes where those characters, for whom Spanish is presumably their first language, talk and sing to each other. The interweaving of English and Spanish could also be a theme throughout the film. (And if you read my blogpost grousing over Nazis singing in English in Cabaret, my suggestion couldn’t possibly shock you.)
My recommendation probably seems counterintuitive: Spanish dialogue and lyrics in a movie intended primarily for U.S. audiences would likely require subtitles, and Americans, for the most part, hate reading subtitles. Also, what would the subtitles say? West Side Story’s lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim, who has done a thing or two since then, and he might not want substitute Spanish lyrics preserved on film. And even if he gave his okay, Spanish translations of the songs couldn’t be literal, so what would the subtitles say, Sondheim’s original lyrics or a literal translation of the Spanish lyrics? All of this would need to be ironed out.
But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Spielberg, who knows how to entertain an audience (assuming he directs it himself, rather than just producing it). After all, if he can turn a three-hour, black & white film about a downbeat subject like the Holocaust into a box-office champ that grosses $96 million domestically, then he can do just about anything, cinematically speaking, so subtitles should be a piece of cake.
That’s my suggestion: shoot the scenes between the Puerto Rican characters in Spanish. In fact, I think that shooting those scenes in Spanish is the best reason to remake West Side Story. If Spielberg decides to film the entire movie in English, I just might switch sides and join the opposing camp. Smoke on your pipe and put that in!
Scenes from the 2009 revival of ‘West Side Story’:
And ‘America’ performed on Spanish television: