West Side Story and the Puerto Rican Thing

Pablo “Keelsetter” interviews film scholar Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz on the release of the restoration of West Side Story. The interview appeared originally at MovieMorlocks.com (TCM)

On November 9th at 7pm, in select theaters nation-wide, both TCM and NCM Fathom screened 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 New Yorican. 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 movie’s 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.

4 thoughts on “West Side Story and the Puerto Rican Thing

  1. What a neat interview! I really enjoyed reading this!

    I attended the 50th-year anniversary TCM /Fathom Events West Side Story movie Event here in Boston with a friend, and we both loved every minute of it, plus I also attended a showing of WSS at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, also in the Boston area.

    One thing about Elvis Presley, however; Although Elvis Presley was the first person that Robert Wise approached for the part of West Side Story’s Tony, Elvis was forced to reject the part by his manager, Colonel Parker, who was extremely controlling, because Parker didn’t want Elvis Presley to “play the part of a juvenile delinquent”. When the film version of West Side Story became a hit, Elvis Presley regretted his having turned down the part.

  2. West Side Story continues to be my alltime favorite movie, even now. How I wish that the 50th-year anniversary event that entailed a national re-release of this great classic film had been for more than just one night.

  3. whoah this weblog is great i love studying your articles.
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