For all the hard work and innovation, West Side Story had a complicated road to Broadway and a rather underwhelming night at the Tony Awards. Since then, however, its legacy has grown in stature. West Side Story has been translated into dozens of languages, been performed by high schools, colleges, and professional companies all over the world, and entered the pop culture lexicon in a way few other musicals have. On this page, we’ll look at its enduring presence on Broadway, the celebrated 1961 film adaptation, and how scholars have analyzed – and critiqued – its enduring influence.
Back on Broadway
Like most great shows, West Side Story has returned to Broadway on more than one occasion. After its initial 732-show run at the Winter Garden and Broadway Theatres, the show went on a national tour. The original production returned to the Winter Garden in 1960 and later moved to the Alvin Theatre for a total of 249 performances on top of its initial run. For the next few decades, West Side Story enjoyed numerous high-profile productions around the country, as well as a celebrated production in London’s West End featuring many of the original cast members. In 1964, a production by the City Center Light Opera Company enjoyed a limited run at City Center in New York. Its first full Broadway revival came in 1980 at the Minskoff Theatre and featured Debbie Allen, a multi-Tony Award-winning performer who earned a further nomination for her portrayal of Anita.
The next two revivals of West Side Story demonstrate how all plays and musicals, particularly the classics, can adjust with the times – albeit temporarily, sometimes. In 2009, librettist Arthur Laurents returned to the show, this time in the director’s chair, and oversaw some revisions to the text. This included translating two songs into Spanish: “A Boy Like That” became “Un Hombre Asi” and “I Feel Pretty” became “Siento Hermosa.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, already a Tony-winner for In the Heights and later to win even more praise for Hamilton, assisted with the translations (which were aided by an uncredited translation used by a Colombian producer). Though many of the translations were later reversed, they indicate some effort was made to better represent the lived experiences of the Puerto Rican characters. More recently, a Broadway revival directed by Ivo van Hove has attempted to give the musical a more contemporary take by employing a more racially diverse cast and framing the action with extensive use of film projections. The production received strong reviews after its debut in February 2020 but was forced to suspend its run due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the Silver Screen
While the original Broadway production was a major event, it has perhaps been eclipsed by the 1961 film adaptation co-directed by Jerome Robbins. The film debuted right after the return Broadway engagement closed and while the London debut was still running. It was a smash, raking in $43 million, equivalent to $300 million in 2010 when adjusted for inflation. Whereas the play had walked away with only a few Tony Awards, the film scored an incredible ten Oscars, making it one of the Academy’s most lauded films even to this day.
Despite the film’s obvious success, some critics denounced it for for much the same reasons as the musical: that it incorrectly depicted the problems of the youth gangs as the fault of society, rather than individual shortcomings. Ironically, all four of the original creators were dissatisfied with the film for one reason or another, particularly Laurents, who called the final results “appalling.” Though Robbins was heavily involved as co-director, he did eventually lose control of the production and was fired by the producers, leaving Robert Wise to complete the film on his own. While some performers from the original Broadway cast were brought onboard, many of the leading roles were new to the story and, as is still common in film adaptations of major musicals, chosen for their star power as opposed to their musical theatre chops. Natalie Wood, for example, took on the leading role of Maria despite being better known for dramatic films such as Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass. The voice you hear coming out of her on film is, in fact, not her own but that of classically trained soprano Marni Nixon (a fact that did not please Wood at all). The role of Anita, meanwhile, went to Rita Moreno, who went on to win an Oscar for her portrayal and become a major star. The film was extensively rehearsed in California before shooting began in a hot, hot New York City in August. Apparently, the production hired an actual gang to provide extra security during the shoot!
Sixty years after debuting in cinemas, West Side Story is getting a remake, with none other than Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg at the helm. Spielberg has been an admirer of the show since childhood: his family owned a copy of the original Broadway cast recording, which he coveted. With the help of playwright Tony Kushner, who is reworking the script around the original songs, Spielberg is aiming to update the musical for modern sensibilities and correct some of the original’s shortcomings. This includes actually casting Puerto Rican and other Latinx performers as the Sharks and their families, rather than employing a predominately White cast as the film (and, indeed, the original Broadway production) did. Original star Rita Moreno will make an appearance as well, this time in the new role of Valentina, widow to Doc, the old man whose bar serves as a neutral ground for the gangs. The role of Anita, meanwhile, will pass to Ariana DeBose, an Afro-Latina actress who cites her presence as a further opportunity to highlight the racial tensions within the story.
Touchstones and Debates
Like all art, the original West Side Story – and the 1961 film – was very much a product of its time. It is also – and has always been – quite controversial. It’s depiction of gang violence and juvenile delinquency struck many commentators as crass and morally repugnant, while many would-be producers objected to being involved in an “ethnic rumble” between competing racial groups. In some ways, this is what makes West Side Story a valuable work of art: because it confronts issues that were otherwise taboo in mainstream American culture – particularly White mainstream American culture. Indeed, the musical’s depiction of interracial tensions and the capacity to overcome them has helped maintain the show’s popularity for decades.
Nevertheless, the show’s depiction of race and racial conflict must be taken with some caveats. For starters, as stated above, many of the original performers who took on the roles of the Sharks and their community members were not Latinx at all, and certainly not Puerto Rican. Furthermore, as scholar Brian Herrera notes, the creators of the musical were drawn to the interracial conflict not out of interest in Puerto Ricans and their lived experience, but rather by what would best suit the dramatic conflict of their musical. As Stephen Sondheim himself confessed, he didn’t even know any Puerto Ricans. As a result, the musical is often criticized for playing into Latin stereotypes and suggesting that Puerto Rico itself is a primitive, backwoods island. Indeed, the original tryouts in Washington were threatened with protests by the editorial team at La Prensa, New York’s leading Spanish-speaking newspaper. So while many great artists – including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jennifer Lopez, and many of the artists who got their start in the musical – are influenced by West Side Story, it is important to remember that its portrayal of society’s ills is shaped by certain social misconceptions and made to serve the purposes of an entertaining musical, rather than a rigorous social critique. This applies to its portrayal of gang violence and youth disenfranchisement, which, though sometimes upheld as a conversation starter, was inspirational to the creative team rather than instructive.
West Side Story represented a significant work of its time and maintains a strong influence to this day. That alone makes it prime real estate for new ideas and rigorous debate. Like a lot of great art, its problems are as frustrating – and sometimes as interesting – as its successes are compelling. This is why subsequent revivals and films have retooled significant portions of its narrative and casting: so that its strengths can be maximized and its limitations managed. What is important to remember is that who gets to tell a story and how is often as crucial as what the story actually is. The creators of West Side Story set out to create a modern re-telling of Romeo and Juliet and produce a masterpiece that advanced their own creative visions, not an accurate portrayal of interracial conflict and youth disenfranchisement. Other fine artists have told more accurate and compelling stories about these topics, including in musicals such as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. Nevertheless, West Side Story is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. The only question is how it will continue to evolve in order to better reflect the landscape of today – or even yesterday.
Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland are sometimes categorized as immigrants, but this is not technically true. As depicted in the show, some of this can be attributed to xenophobia and racism, but misunderstandings may also stem from the island’s complex relationship with the rest of the United States. Puerto Rico is what’s called a territory, which means its people are citizens of the United States, capable of serving in the military and electing their own leaders. However, they lack full representation in Congress – their representative in the House is a non-voting member – and are unable to vote in U.S. Presidential elections. To learn more about the island’s complicated relationship with the mainland, check out this episode of Throughline, a podcast by NPR.
In recent years, Puerto Rico has faced a number of difficulties, including natural disasters, an economic crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic. To learn more about these issues and how they might be resolved, visit this special feature by the Council on Foreign Relations. You can also learn about the island’s rich culture, vibrant ecology, and complicated history by visiting their official tourism site.
Berson, Misha. Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination. Milwaukee: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2011.
Breznican, Anthony. “A First Look at Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.” Vanity Fair online. Vanity Fair, March 16, 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/03/a-first-look-at-steven-spielbergs-west-side-story.
Gans, Andrew. “A Song Like That: Collaborators Reconsider Spanish Lyrics in West Side Story.” Playbill.com. Playbill, August 25, 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20090828011523/http://www.playbill.com/news/article/132241-A_Song_Like_That_Collaborators_Reconsider_Spanish_Lyrics_in_West_Side_Story.
Herrera, Brian Eugenio. “Compiling West Side Story’s Parahistories, 1949-2009.” Theatre Journal 64, no. 2 (2012): 231-247.
Ruiz, Vicki L. and Virginia Sanchez Korrol. Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Wells, Elizabeth A. West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives On an American Musical. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.