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I am a teacher of English and history by profession and I have also taught Spanish for Beginners.

When I taught literature, I always liked to include the historic foundation for the piece we were studying as well as background of the author. Thus, the following. . .

Back in 1947, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents had considered doing a story about a star-crossed couple, one Catholic and one Jewish. It was to be called Eastside Story but because Abie's Irish Rose (from 1922) had a similar plot, the idea was dropped.

Some years later, the idea was resurrected. The original West Side Story was based, as most of us know, on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The authors of the 1957 stage production and subsequent 1961 film (joined in production by Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein) were in part inspired by an article that one of them had read about a gang fight of rivals in Los Angeles which led to the death of one of the combatants. 

West Side Story, 1961

West Side Story, 1961

This incident transpired at a time when there was a Chicano turf war in LA. Ultimately, because Laurents was more familiar with the Puerto Rican culture, the location of the story was moved to New York City. Of interest, during one of the film's scenes, when Tony is walking/singing down a street, we see a portion of a company name painted on a building. It advertised the Eastside Warehouse but the framing indicated Eastside War—a tribute to the original idea.

Now, to speak more specifically to the recent reinterpretation of West Side Story. . . The original collaboration in the '50s and 60's tried to stay true to Shakespeare's intent while modernizing the setting and language to contemporary times in a way that would last beyond future cultural changes (in slang usage, mannerisms, dance motifs, and fashion). Spielberg, however, changed so much of what was behind the original concepts that he abused his use of dramatic license to a fault.

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For instance, he utilizes many Spanish phrases without benefit of English translation (apparently because he thought that would make English seem like a superior language). Despite what many might think, many of Latinx heritage don't speak Spanish. For those who do, Spanish dialects from place to place vary so the Spanish utilized in the recent movie is not what all Spanish speakers use. In my humble opinion, it is insulting to assume that the Spanish-speaking characters in the movie would not be at least somewhat fluent in English. For example and to my dismay, I have witnessed Spanish-speaking customers in a restaurant or a shop automatically speak Spanish to a waiter or shopkeeper just because of a complexion or last name when, in fact, they might know Spanish no better than someone from England.

Another problem is when Spielberg substitutes Valentina (the "invented" widow of the candy store owner, Doc). Doc's character is based on the Monk who played a pivotal role not only in Romeo and Juliet but also in the film version from 1961. Spielberg, among other reasons, uses Valentina to translate for Tony. Certainly Maria was not new to America (neither were most of the people in her community) and would have been able to converse quite fluently in English with Tony. If Tony wanted to learn a few phrases in Spanish to romance Maria, I can understand that. However, to reiterate, there was far too much Spanish used without sub-titles, a situation which surely affected theater attendance (and box office).

West Side Story, 2021

West Side Story, 2021

When I taught Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to my classes, I always followed our study with a showing of the 1961 film, which, despite current PC objections, did an outstanding job at interpreting the play. Of course, using brown-face at the time was inadvertently hurtful to communities of color and Spielberg corrected that for the most part—to his credit. But I wish he had not made so many other unnecessary changes. If I were teaching today, I think I would still use the older film (with my accompanying explanations—something I always did anyway).

Sadly, far too many adaptations of books and plays fall short—so much so that viewers might hardly recognize the original pieces of literature they had read. I worry that those who view these re-interpreted films (who had not read the originals) might come away believing they were getting a genuine, reliable version of the original and not bother to read the books or plays themselves. I have had students who thought they could fool me (despite my warnings) with their book/play reports by giving me the movie version. Try to fool me?! Gotcha!!

rosemary jenkins 500

I often say to myself that it would be better if screenwriters simply produce an original opus instead of mis-imagining the piece upon which they are attempting to make an adaptation. How about leaving Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story alone?! What happened to creativity?!

Rosemary Jenkins