I went to the kind of high school where the annual musical was a huge deal involving literally hundreds of students and staff, and where all seven performances filled the 1,200 seat auditorium. Which, aside from being a humbleflex, makes sense – musicals are crowd-pleasers, and people who never attend other plays or even watch that many movies tend to find things in them they can enjoy.
But, full credit to Mr. Stern, our director, he made a point of choosing shows with a greater element to them than just “singing and dancing” – and he made damn sure we knew it. Highlighting the anti-Semitism in Fiddler On The Roof and Cabaret was of paramount importance, as was making a point about the systemic inequality in West Side Story, where the heart and soul of the main characters’ Puerto Rican community was on full display, but they were fighting an uphill battle.
I thought of him when the long-awaited Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story finally dropped during the Oscars:
Many people commented on how the trailer minimizes Ansel Elgort, who completed the worst possible combination of responses to an allegation of sexual assault, both denying they were true and apologizing profusely in the same breath, which should engender nothing but suspicion and mistrust.
But when I saw the trailer, I didn’t see an attempt to hide ‘the lead’; instead I saw what I was always taught was true about West Side Story – that it was a Puerto Rican story where Tony is the interloper. Everything, from the votive candles at the religious altars to the image of stock-still Tony at the otherwise whirling-dervish dance, tells us this is a story of the vibrant yet overlooked Puerto Rican community in New York, and how the feud between the Jets and the Sharks is fueled by prejudice and racism.
The vibrancy and the colours in the brief sequences are undoubtedly informed by the Technicolour images we remember from the 1961 film, but it remains to be seen how faithful (or not) the story is, as well as how equitable – famously, Rita Moreno (who appears in a new role in the 2021 film) and others darkened their skin in the original film, and the 2020 Broadway revival drew criticisms for glorifying violence against women.
Ultimately the story is dark. After all, it’s informed by Romeo & Juliet. Which is fine … but the 2021 film has been compared for years to the screen adaptation of In The Heights, which – what do you know? – also dropped a new trailer on Sunday night:
Set in the same community, culturally and geographically (though at vastly different times) the comparisons are inevitable, and watching them back to back, it’s clear that what In The Heights has in spades is the most aspirational, unachievable thing – it has joy. There’s a cultural fight at play here too, inequality and ignorance and having to advocate just to exist; but what In The Heights has is possibility – there’s no indication from the trailer that there will be only negative outcomes, that the takeaway will be only dark. Sure, West Side Story is a well-known story, but if you’re going to remake it, you’d think there’d be room for a different kind of narrative… that is, if In The Heights didn’t seem like it capably, comparably had it covered and was going to be more fun to boot.
Again, talking about these two films as a binary implies there’s only room for one, and I don’t think that’s remotely true – it’s more about why we choose to tell the stories we do in 2021, and I suspect the response to ITH (which comes out in just a few weeks! my bias is fully on display!) will confirm which direction we all want to be going in these days.