West Side Story and The Puerto Rican Thing

On November 9th at 7pm, in select theaters nation-wide, both TCM and NCM Fathom will screen a digital restoration of West Side Story to celebrate the film’s 50th Anniversary. This incredibly successful and highly acclaimed musical marked the first time Puerto Ricans were the focus of a mainstream cinematic production. This fact is not lost on film scholar Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, who grew up in Puerto Rico and credits a viewing of West Side Story from his childhood as a primary reason for his academic interest in film. Acevedo-Muñoz is currently working on a book about West Side Story and, as part of his research, he was recently given access to the Robert Wise papers at U.S.C. I caught up with him upon his return to sit down for an interview, to discuss his book, and to share some of the discoveries he made while accessing the Robert Wise archive. 

PK: Describe to me what it was like to go through the Robert Wise papers at U.S.C.

EAM: For a historian there’s nothing more exciting than seeing original documents, letters, story-boards, and inter-office memos with actual hand-written notes on the margins or the work copy of the screenplay that was used in the movie.

PK: What would be an example of a hand-written note you might find going through the papers?

EAM: One really interesting thing was how the work-script, which is color-coded for revisions, also had handwritten notes using four different color grease pencils, which were clearly color-coordinated for very different reasons that I’m still looking into. Blue. Red. Green. And purple. Each used for different kinds of notes.

PK: Any cool photos?

EAM: Seeing photographs of Natalie Wood rehearsing songs, and recording songs in front of a microphone – songs that were never going to be used, and that everybody in the production of the movie knew were never going to be used because they were recording Marni Nixon at the same time is both interesting and mysterious.

PK: How much material did you go through?

EAM: Three milk-crate sized boxes full of papers, broken down into different folders. Letters to Robert Wise. Contemporary reviews. Notes exchanged between the production designer and director. Research Robert Wise did on New York, on gangs, on Puerto Ricans, on lighting, color, and more. These are materials that help me decipher, as a historian, the thought process that goes into making a movie that is as visually complicated as West Side Story, including photographic special effects that go into transitions, creating moods, and liberating it from the stage. The usual reason that Singin’ In the Rain comes out on top as the greatest Hollywood musical, and West Side Story comes in at number two, is because West Side Story wasn’t originally a film – but formally speaking West Side Story is much more interesting.

PK: How will the research you’ve done on the Robert Wise papers feed into your book?

EAM: I’ll be presenting a history of the production of West Side Story, as well as defending West Side Story with a chapter titled The Puerto Rican Thing, where I argue that however problematic the representation of Puerto Ricans might be, in West Side Story we come out looking better than the other gang. This comes down to the use of language where the Jets speak in fragmented slang that is incomprehensible, mispronounced, whereas the five Puerto Ricans that have full lines of dialogue speak in full sentences with proper phrasing, grammar, and pronunciation (with the exception of the accent). Only the Sharks are given representation of family and neighborhood. They work and have jobs. We don’t know anything about the Jets except, mostly, what we learn from the Officer Krupke song, which is not very flattering. The Jets are the real juvenile delinquents.

PK: What was the Puerto Rican response to the original release?

EAM: There was always some controversy, with some complaints from sociologists and people like that, but the overwhelming majority of reviews were positive.

PK: You’re Puerto Rican. How do you feel about the fact that Natalie Wood, a white woman who couldn’t even sing the parts and had to be dubbed, was doing what some might call a brownface performance for her role as Maria?

EAM: It is brownface, and in the case of Rita Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, quite literally so. She had dark make-up put on her, as did George Chakiris, and all the others, with the same shade of brown to make them look the same – except for Natalie Wood. She wasn’t in brownface, although it is “brownface” in the sense that she’s someone of Eastern European descent, a known white actress here playing a different ethnicity, a New York Puerto Rican; a Nuyorican. Is that a problem? Only in the theoretical sense that there may have been other actors they could have gone to. But not really… because in Hollywood at that time the only Puerto Rican actors we knew from going to the movies were José Ferrer and Rita Moreno. But even though Moreno had been doing her thing in MGM since the mid-50′s she wasn’t a big movie star. Natalie Wood was hired to “play” a Puerto Rican, to act; and acting is what actors do.

In my research at U.S.C. on the Robert Wise papers I found out that when the movie went into principal photography by late July or early August of 1960, they didn’t have a Maria yet. They were testing actresses all the time and not taking commitments in terms of production schedule or even studio time. They tried a number of actresses and were looking for “a name” actress to play Maria. Robert Wise and Ernest Lehman were under pressure from the Mirisch brothers and United Artists, who’d put up the cash, to deliver a big name. Now, is Natalie Wood something of a brownface? Yes. But does it matter? No. And the reason it doesn’t matter to me is because outside of West Side Story, which I saw first as a pre-teenager, watching it when it came out on VHS around 1980, I’d never in my life heard the words “Puerto Rico” spoken in a movie. And I’ve heard it very few times after that. Seriously. The fact that they said the words “Puerto Rico” in a movie and there were Puerto Ricans being portrayed on screen – even if only one was a legitimate Puerto Rican that was born-and-raised-on-the-island, Rita Moreno – we didn’t care.

Discovering West Side Story as a child was something that led me to pay attention to movies more closely. It led to me spending more time watching movies than playing sports out on the streets. West Side Story was pivotal to my discovery of movies as something special, and eventually realizing that I understood something about movies that the kids around me didn’t understand. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the reason I’m a film scholar is because of West Side Story – even with all its imperfections and problems.

PK: The lyrics to America were substantially changed from the original Broadway show in response to complaints that they were demeaning to Puerto Ricans.

EAM: So the America song becomes an argument between the boys and the girls that puts Puerto Rico in a much better light than we get from the stage version. It is also much more honest about the immigrant experience. In some way “immigrant” is a misnomer for Puerto Ricans because we are U.S. citizens by birth, but the point is that in that song as it was re-written for the movie Bernardo and the Sharks get to point out some very serious issues about the question of immigration, and the treatment of immigrants, and the prejudice, and the violence that immigrants are subjected to.

PK: What’s the working title for your book-in-progress?

EAM: The Movie Experience of West Side Story.

PK: Did you originally have the 50th anniversary of West Side Story in mind when you came up with the idea for the book?

EAM: Yes I did. But I initially imagined it as a BFI classics short book, which usually run 80 – 100 pages. But I soon realized my book was bigger than that, and I needed to find a publisher who would go with that, which I did, but that pushed it back another year.

PK: How will you structure the book?

EAM: There’s a very brief recount of the history of the stage show, because that’s been done before. Then it goes into the process of adaptation, using my research on the Ernest Lehman papers as well as the Robert Wise papers, how they freed it from the stage and translated to movie form, the re-writing of the narrative structure into a movie structure. The play is divided into two acts, but movies are divided into three narrative acts, which involved the rearrangement of musical numbers in a way that wouldn’t break up the mood. There’s also a chapter there about its reception and legacy. Why are we watching West Side Story 50 years later? West Side Story is still shown today to gangs in the L.A. County jails.

PK: Why?

EAM: As a warning. I just saw this when I was in L.A. at the Margaret Herrick Library going through the contemporary clippings on West Side Story. You’d be surprised how current the movie is in terms of being shown, if nothing else, to start discussions on gang violence. We might not find it very violent, and the body count is really low, but the seed of prejudice is still the same. Yes, it’s tough guys with big tattoos in the L.A. county jails who are probably not very much into I Feel Pretty, but they pay attention to the turf war aspect, which is what gangs do, and people die that shouldn’t have to, and as recently as 2008 groups of inmates in L.A. county jails were still being shown West Side Story.

PK: Did you find anything in the archives that hit you out of left field?

EAM: Yeah, that Robert Redford was on the list to play Tony, for example.

PK: So was Elvis Presley.

EAM: But he never tried for the part. I was looking at lists of people who were called to try for the part. Jack Nicholson was on the list to play Tony! Among the women there were some pretty crazy ideas. Jill St. John tried for the part of Maria. It doesn’t make any sense. They also had an agent hired specifically because he represented hispanic actors, of Mexican, Peruvian, or Puerto Rican descent, many of whom got parts in West Side Story, albeit small parts. Background parts. But they did appear in the movie. So at least they were looking for hispanic actors to a certain extent. It was also quite surprising to learn how early the co-director, Jerome Robbins, left the production.  He was the choreographer that created the show on Broadway, and everyone knows he didn’t finish the movie, but I didn’t realize how early he’d left it. I saw a memo directly from Robert Wise to the Mirisch brothers, copied to Jerry Robbins’ lawyers, saying that Jerome Robbins only worked on some 40% of the movie. The rest was Robert Wise with Jerome Robbins’ assistants. Months of memos went back-and-forth trying to hash out what credit Jerome Robbins would get, other than co-director – which was always clear. The publicity department worked up the collaboration as a perfect marriage like a Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly kind of thing where everything worked perfectly in the movies they made together.

PK: You teach a class on the Hollywood musical. What else separates West Side Story from other musicals?

EAM: Ultimately, the classical Hollywood musical beats us over the head with the idea that all our problems can be sung away as long as we end up in the arms of a person of the opposite sex. The classical Hollywood musical is based around the presentation of apparent conflicts that seem to be insurmountable, and over the course of the movies narrative they are resolved. Think of Grease. Punk and goody two-shoes, “they’ll never get together.” But there’s no real conflict. It is inevitable that they will get together. Ariel and Prince Eric. She’s from the water. He’s from land. “They’ll never get together.” Obviously it’s an apparent conflict, not a real one. West Side Story is one of the first musicals whose narrative structure is based around a real social problem and a real conflict that cannot be resolved with music. People die. Or go to prison. And we can’t sing our problems away. In that sense there is something really unique to West Side Story, no matter how shallowly it treats the gang violence.

My thanks to Ernesto for sitting down with me for this interview. A short bio for him can be found by clicking on this link: http://www.colorado.edu/FilmStudies/faculty/eacevedo.shtml

36 Responses West Side Story and The Puerto Rican Thing
Posted By franko : November 6, 2011 3:25 pm

. . . one of the most overrated and unintentionably laughable movies ever.

Posted By franko : November 6, 2011 3:25 pm

. . . one of the most overrated and unintentionably laughable movies ever.

Posted By klg : November 6, 2011 4:49 pm

Not sure if this franko fellow above has actually seen the movie. Maybe he was confusing it with Miss Congeniality. If you drink a lot and cover one eye, Natalie Wood looks a little like Sandra Bullock, right? Ugh.

Great interview. I’m excited to see how the book turns out.

Posted By klg : November 6, 2011 4:49 pm

Not sure if this franko fellow above has actually seen the movie. Maybe he was confusing it with Miss Congeniality. If you drink a lot and cover one eye, Natalie Wood looks a little like Sandra Bullock, right? Ugh.

Great interview. I’m excited to see how the book turns out.

Posted By Tom S : November 6, 2011 5:46 pm

Oh, please, I’m as much a grump about white elephant musicals as anybody, but West Side Story is fun. “Unintentionally laughable” presumes you know the intention of the filmmakers- I think laughter, in a certain register, is a totally appropriate response to the dance-fighting, and beyond that is often just the half-assed response to anything that comes from a different cultural context (as most big 50s and 60s musicals do)

Posted By Tom S : November 6, 2011 5:46 pm

Oh, please, I’m as much a grump about white elephant musicals as anybody, but West Side Story is fun. “Unintentionally laughable” presumes you know the intention of the filmmakers- I think laughter, in a certain register, is a totally appropriate response to the dance-fighting, and beyond that is often just the half-assed response to anything that comes from a different cultural context (as most big 50s and 60s musicals do)

Posted By AL : November 6, 2011 6:06 pm

The legends I’ve always heard are: 1) Robbins desperately wanted Carol Lawrence; but it was decided (after allowing her TWO screen-tests) that she photographed too old. 2) “Tony” was OFFERED to Elvis (I guess Colonel whats-his-name wouldn’t allow him to do it–he also refused to let him do A STAR IS BORN with Streisand). 3) Wise screened SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS in order to check-out Warren Beatty; he nixed Beatty, but decided on the spot that Natalie was his Maria.

Posted By AL : November 6, 2011 6:06 pm

The legends I’ve always heard are: 1) Robbins desperately wanted Carol Lawrence; but it was decided (after allowing her TWO screen-tests) that she photographed too old. 2) “Tony” was OFFERED to Elvis (I guess Colonel whats-his-name wouldn’t allow him to do it–he also refused to let him do A STAR IS BORN with Streisand). 3) Wise screened SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS in order to check-out Warren Beatty; he nixed Beatty, but decided on the spot that Natalie was his Maria.

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : November 6, 2011 7:16 pm

Seeing this movie in 1961, and I was 11 yrs. old, opened my eyes and ears! I had never known that Puerto Ricans were Americans and the music of Leonard Bernstein really gave me a clue about classical/modern music. I enjoyed it on many different levels and the dance element was also unique for my sensibilities. Not a perfect world then of now.

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : November 6, 2011 7:16 pm

Seeing this movie in 1961, and I was 11 yrs. old, opened my eyes and ears! I had never known that Puerto Ricans were Americans and the music of Leonard Bernstein really gave me a clue about classical/modern music. I enjoyed it on many different levels and the dance element was also unique for my sensibilities. Not a perfect world then of now.

Posted By Jeff : November 7, 2011 12:07 am

Great interview. As crazy as it sounds, Robert Redford isn’t any worse an idea for Tony than Richard Beymer and might have been better in the part. But the music, choreography and on-location filming is what elevates this above most movie musicals and, of course, the gang-turf race card conflicts and Romeo and Juliet homages keep it both topical and classical.

Posted By Jeff : November 7, 2011 12:07 am

Great interview. As crazy as it sounds, Robert Redford isn’t any worse an idea for Tony than Richard Beymer and might have been better in the part. But the music, choreography and on-location filming is what elevates this above most movie musicals and, of course, the gang-turf race card conflicts and Romeo and Juliet homages keep it both topical and classical.

Posted By suzidoll : November 7, 2011 4:42 am

As someone who has written extensively about Elvis Presley, I can say with assurance he was not offered the part of Tony. His name may have been tossed around by the studio, but he was not officially offered the part. If I listed all the films Elvis was supposedly “offered” but the big bad Colonel turned them down, the list would be about 10 feet long.

Posted By suzidoll : November 7, 2011 4:42 am

As someone who has written extensively about Elvis Presley, I can say with assurance he was not offered the part of Tony. His name may have been tossed around by the studio, but he was not officially offered the part. If I listed all the films Elvis was supposedly “offered” but the big bad Colonel turned them down, the list would be about 10 feet long.

Posted By Kingrat : November 7, 2011 5:22 pm

Thanks for a wonderful piece. I look forward to the book. When I was young, I was simply blown away by this movie and loved the music, dancing, and romance.

Posted By Kingrat : November 7, 2011 5:22 pm

Thanks for a wonderful piece. I look forward to the book. When I was young, I was simply blown away by this movie and loved the music, dancing, and romance.

Posted By AL : November 7, 2011 6:05 pm

Suzidoll–My guess is that you know what you’re talking about. That was a rumor that went around long ago. I can’t forgive that mercenary ColonelDude for refusing to let Elvis grow in any way. I’d love to see that list you speak of. Can you imagine Elvis as Norman Maine???

Posted By AL : November 7, 2011 6:05 pm

Suzidoll–My guess is that you know what you’re talking about. That was a rumor that went around long ago. I can’t forgive that mercenary ColonelDude for refusing to let Elvis grow in any way. I’d love to see that list you speak of. Can you imagine Elvis as Norman Maine???

Posted By quicksand : November 9, 2011 7:31 am

I cannot but LOVE thisflick……for sure, it has Natalie Wood, my ABSOLUTE fave actress in it:):):)

Posted By quicksand : November 9, 2011 7:31 am

I cannot but LOVE thisflick……for sure, it has Natalie Wood, my ABSOLUTE fave actress in it:):):)

Posted By Jason Ramirez : November 9, 2011 10:11 am

It is quite a shame that this filmed appropriqation of latinidad is passing for an authentic portrayal of the Puerto Rican experience in New York. I suggest Professor Acevedo-Muñoz goes back and documents the overt racism and prejudice against this group. As West Side Story was being filmed in the “San Juan Hill” section of NYC, Puerto Ricans (Americans by birth) were being abused in both the political and social paradigms of the city. I suggest you read Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez’s “Jose Can You See? Latinos On and Off Broadway” for a well-documented history of this play and film. In addition, as a film scholar, I would suggest you revisit the history of Puerto Rican representation on film. WSS was definitely not the first. Possibly a viewing of “The Young Savages” or “Cry Tough” might change your mind. As a Theatre professor and Nuyorican (correct spelling) I believe you owe it to your readership.

Jason Ramirez
City University of New York

Posted By Jason Ramirez : November 9, 2011 10:11 am

It is quite a shame that this filmed appropriqation of latinidad is passing for an authentic portrayal of the Puerto Rican experience in New York. I suggest Professor Acevedo-Muñoz goes back and documents the overt racism and prejudice against this group. As West Side Story was being filmed in the “San Juan Hill” section of NYC, Puerto Ricans (Americans by birth) were being abused in both the political and social paradigms of the city. I suggest you read Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez’s “Jose Can You See? Latinos On and Off Broadway” for a well-documented history of this play and film. In addition, as a film scholar, I would suggest you revisit the history of Puerto Rican representation on film. WSS was definitely not the first. Possibly a viewing of “The Young Savages” or “Cry Tough” might change your mind. As a Theatre professor and Nuyorican (correct spelling) I believe you owe it to your readership.

Jason Ramirez
City University of New York

Posted By keelsetter : November 9, 2011 1:11 pm

Hi, Jason – Thanks for the Nuyorican correction. I’ve now updated the post. That was my error, not Ernesto’s, as I was unfamiliar with the term and transcribed it without checking the etymology. I’ll also pass along your film and reading suggestions to Ernesto. Best, pk

Posted By keelsetter : November 9, 2011 1:11 pm

Hi, Jason – Thanks for the Nuyorican correction. I’ve now updated the post. That was my error, not Ernesto’s, as I was unfamiliar with the term and transcribed it without checking the etymology. I’ll also pass along your film and reading suggestions to Ernesto. Best, pk

Posted By Diego Santiago : November 10, 2011 12:58 am

Spending too much time analyzing the political sociological implications of West Side Story is an exercise in futility. It was produced 50 years ago. Anyone who thinks it passes as an authentic portrayal of the Puerto Rican experience is ignorant to say the least. It’s a musical, people! It’s a love story based on Romeo and Juliet. I don’t think it demeans Puerto Ricans. Was it stereotypical? Yes. Was it silly at times? Yes. But it’s a musical. It’s not meant to be a serious allegory of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Just enjoy the music. What is demeaning to Puerto Ricans is the lack of opportunities in Hollywood and Broadway today. What is offensive to Puerto Ricans are the empty promises of politicians and ineffective government. Let’s start to tell our own stories and support Puerto Rican/Latino artists. Let’s promote education and small businesses. That’s how we eliminate the ills that plague our community.

Posted By Diego Santiago : November 10, 2011 12:58 am

Spending too much time analyzing the political sociological implications of West Side Story is an exercise in futility. It was produced 50 years ago. Anyone who thinks it passes as an authentic portrayal of the Puerto Rican experience is ignorant to say the least. It’s a musical, people! It’s a love story based on Romeo and Juliet. I don’t think it demeans Puerto Ricans. Was it stereotypical? Yes. Was it silly at times? Yes. But it’s a musical. It’s not meant to be a serious allegory of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Just enjoy the music. What is demeaning to Puerto Ricans is the lack of opportunities in Hollywood and Broadway today. What is offensive to Puerto Ricans are the empty promises of politicians and ineffective government. Let’s start to tell our own stories and support Puerto Rican/Latino artists. Let’s promote education and small businesses. That’s how we eliminate the ills that plague our community.

Posted By cozeph jotton : November 11, 2011 1:37 am

Although I couldn’t agree more with the oft-repeated jab that Natalie Wood comes across as probably “the world’s LEAST Latina person, it’s still a fun and entertaining musical chestnut I find

Perhaps the fact that many people are fascinated enough to wish to project their own naive conception of the Puerto Rican experience — I’M LOOKING AT YOU PAUL SIMON AND LOU REED !!! — should still be taken charitably as tribute, albeit sterotyped

Posted By cozeph jotton : November 11, 2011 1:37 am

Although I couldn’t agree more with the oft-repeated jab that Natalie Wood comes across as probably “the world’s LEAST Latina person, it’s still a fun and entertaining musical chestnut I find

Perhaps the fact that many people are fascinated enough to wish to project their own naive conception of the Puerto Rican experience — I’M LOOKING AT YOU PAUL SIMON AND LOU REED !!! — should still be taken charitably as tribute, albeit sterotyped

Posted By Juana Maria : November 15, 2011 3:34 pm

Although we could get bogged downed in whether or not “West Side Story” is sterotyping anyone. I rather not bother to think about that, it is “Romeo & Juliet” for the modern age. I keep thinking how excited John Leguizamo and his family must be about all the interest in this film lately. It is one of his favorites, his family used to circle it on the TV Guide back in the day. I learned this on “Under the Influence” with Elvis Mitchell.

Posted By Juana Maria : November 15, 2011 3:34 pm

Although we could get bogged downed in whether or not “West Side Story” is sterotyping anyone. I rather not bother to think about that, it is “Romeo & Juliet” for the modern age. I keep thinking how excited John Leguizamo and his family must be about all the interest in this film lately. It is one of his favorites, his family used to circle it on the TV Guide back in the day. I learned this on “Under the Influence” with Elvis Mitchell.

Posted By West Side Story – 50 años después. « cinemaic : November 21, 2011 9:58 pm

[...] West Side Story and The Puerto Rican Thing (moviemorlocks.com) [...]

Posted By West Side Story – 50 años después. « cinemaic : November 21, 2011 9:58 pm

[...] West Side Story and The Puerto Rican Thing (moviemorlocks.com) [...]

Posted By Writeowl : February 17, 2012 9:09 am

Well, if Elvis HAD been offered the part, at least he would have done his own singing!

Posted By Writeowl : February 17, 2012 9:09 am

Well, if Elvis HAD been offered the part, at least he would have done his own singing!

Posted By Writeowl : February 17, 2012 9:13 am

It’s a terrible insult to Moreno and Chakiris that they had to be “Brownface” too. Particularly Moreno, who IS Puerto Rican.

Posted By Writeowl : February 17, 2012 9:13 am

It’s a terrible insult to Moreno and Chakiris that they had to be “Brownface” too. Particularly Moreno, who IS Puerto Rican.

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