I’m overwhelmed by the news today, and not just today’s set of revelations that the President of the United times is almost certainly guilty of obstruction of justice, many times over, and nobody seems to be doing much of anything about it. No, this news is a reminder that so far, 2018 seems to be yielding as many strange gifts as terrible blows: Steven Spielberg will be directing a remake of the classic Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim musical West Side Story (the original film adaptation of the Broadway production, starring Natalie Wood, was directed by Robert Wise in 1961.) The legendary Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, a frequent collaborator of Spielberg’s on his more intellectually attuned projects (Munich, Lincoln) will write the script.
I have so many questions I can’t wait to have answered. Will it be good? Will it be virtuosic, the way musicals are meant to be? Will they get singer and dancers who are genuinely able to perform the material, or will we be forced to watch movie stars who once, like, gave the the third-most compelling performance in their high school production of Little Shop of Horrors and therefore think they can sing and dance, and nobody wants to tell them otherwise? Will there be a part for Rita Moreno, who became the first Latina actress ever to win an Oscar for her role as Anita, and is currently starring in Netflix’s acclaimed reboot of One Day At A Time? Who will play Doc, the kindly candy store owner, who I, as a child, thought was the twin brother of Mr. Hooper from Sesame Street?
And most of all, what will the Jets vs. Sharks rivalry look like in our current age of extreme polarization and racial animus? Will Spielberg and Kushner be content to explore these themes through the distance of the past, or will they contemporize them, the way Bernstein, Sondheim, and book writer Arthur Laurents did, moving the story of Romeo and Juliet into the slums of racially charged 1950s New York? (In their original conception, the story was to involve rival gangs of Catholics and Jews, but that would have ruined the salsa dancing.) Will we see gangs of MAGA-hatted bullies snapping their fingers dancing in the streets as they attempt to terrorize undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients (they’d have to take some artistic license; the footage I’ve seen of Trump would reveal a prospective cast rather too portly to do justice to the famously exuberant Jerome Robbins choreography.)
But that wouldn’t be West Side Story, I guess, and that’s probably as it should be. Art may hold a mirror up to society, but it doesn’t always reflect it exactly. Still, it’s hard to think of the devastating end of the show, and not remember that the fragile peace it offered, a world where the Sharks help the mourning Jets to carry away Tony’s body in a tentative gesture of brotherhood as Baby John drapes a shawl over the grieving Maria’s drooped shoulders, would not hold. Nobody would really learn anything from this. The Jets, first-generation Americans themselves, would never really accept the Sharks. And somewhere, far from the West Side, in a leafy upper-middle class suburb of Queens, a bratty little blond boy was already planning never to rent to them.