By John Schilling and Michela Arlia
The “West Side Story: The Brooklyn Connection” educational lecture series came to an epic conclusion on Wednesday, Dec. 8, with a surprise lecture from world-renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
The lecture series, hosted remotely by the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Department (PRLS) throughout the semester, previously featured live lectures with guests like Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori. This time around, however, Spielberg’s lecture was a pre-recorded interview conducted by Associate Professor María Pérez y González and Dr. Virginia Sánchez Korrol that was presented to the Brooklyn College community yesterday morning. Questions had to be submitted to PRLS Deputy Chairperson and Associate Professor María Pérez y González prior to Dec. 7.
This, of course, came as a surprise and disappointment to many in attendance who expected the lecture to be live, like the previous ones, and put their questions in the Zoom chat, not realizing at first that it was pre-recorded.
Back in September, The Vanguard reported that Spielberg could join the lecture series but nothing had been set in stone and it was “a matter of his availability,” according to Pérez y González. The idea of pre-recording the lecture, therefore, had been a possibility from the beginning, as Spielberg did not want to miss being part of the series.
Known for his work on “Jaws” (1975), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “Back to the Future” (1985), the “Indiana Jones” franchise (1981-2023), “Ready Player One” (2018), and much more, Spielberg’s most recent work comes with “West Side Story,” his first musical which releases officially on Dec. 10, but has already been screened for some audiences and received rave reviews.
In this new adaptation of “West Side Story,” which focuses on an ongoing turf war between two gangs in New York City during the 1950s, Spielberg knew from the start he wanted to hire Latinx actors and actresses to play the Sharks, the film’s Puerto Rican gang. This led Spielberg and his casting director to sort through 32,000 audition submissions to fill four roles.
Spielberg cited Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 version and returned as Valentina for his version, as one of the inspirations for this decision.
“When Rita Moreno first appeared in the 1961 ‘West Side Story’ that opened doors. That inspired young Latina girls to say, ‘Oh my God, that could be me someday,’ and…that did open a door, but it didn’t open a door to a Hollywood soundstage. It opened a door and simply raised awareness,” said Spielberg. “What we hope happens with ‘West Side Story’ is that [the] door gets kicked open a little wider.”
Despite this decision, however, Spielberg did not mince words about the original film’s controversies, but his main focus was simply to just make the film and perhaps continue raising that awareness.
“I was not trying to apologize for anyone’s past version of ‘West Side Story.’ That’s not my responsibility,” said Spielberg. “There needs to be more stories that invite these very talented communities to have more opportunities cause I always say it’s gotta be on the page before it’s on the stage.”
Beyond this aspect of the film, however, “West Side Story” was something that Spielberg had been a fan of since he first listened to the original album when he was only 10-years-old. Despite his love for the show, however, he knew that directing this film version would still pose a significant challenge for him.
“‘West Side Story’ to me is the greatest musical ever written for the Broadway stage…If I was going to make a musical it was only going to be ‘West Side Story,’” said Spielberg. “I never made a musical before. Ever. I didn’t even know I’d be any good at it. I just knew I loved the idiom and the genre of the musical…[but] just cause you love musicals doesn’t mean you should do one.”
For Spielberg, however, there was a specific pull that “West Side Story” had on him that went beyond personal taste. He recognized that some of today’s younger generation may not be familiar with “West Side Story,” and he wanted young people to find this story to be worthwhile even in 2021, 60 years after the original film version.
Spielberg, nonetheless, did not think it would be the right approach to take the story out of the 1950s in favor of a more current setting. In his eyes, Spielberg felt that today’s audiences could still resonate with a story from decades ago.
“To have set it today would have politicized it and basically completely hijacked the themes, the story, the joy of the tragedy. There’s not as much joy today as there was in the 1950s,” said Spielberg. “If you set it today, it wouldn’t be a divide of a neighborhood. It would be a divide of a state, of a district, of an entire country that is more divided today than ever dreamed of being in 1957.”
An additional inspiration to stay true to the setting also had to do with Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for the music with the 50s in mind. Spielberg and the rest of the creative team did not want to change the lyrics at all, except in the infamous “America” song to ensure that it would be more respectful of Puerto Rico.
In addition to this, Spielberg revealed that there are various instances in the film in which Spanish is spoken but no English subtitles are provided. This, according to Spielberg, was very deliberate.
“I felt that subtitling ‘West Side Story’ would have doubled down on the English and put English in a vastly superior commentary against the Spanish language,” said Spielberg. “There is already so much pushback in this country about Spanish-speaking individuals that I just said we can’t do that.”
In order to do full justice to the film, according to Spielberg, he traveled to Puerto Rico with Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, and knew it would be necessary to surround himself with people who have sung and danced in the genre for years and allow them to “mentor” him. This was a daunting but rewarding experience.
“Probably the hardest job I’ve had in many many years, but also the most rewarding,” said Spielberg. “The most beautiful thing about this picture is that we all became a family.”
This idea of mentorship became a larger theme of the conversation, and according to Spielberg, has been paramount throughout his career. Spielberg remarked that Universal Studios became his mentor when he was 16-years-old after leaving a tour and hiding in the bathroom, observing the action on the studio lot. He also remembers all the people, during that time, who took a vested interest in his aspirations and encouraged him along the way, something he has tried to pass on to the next generation of filmmakers.
“When you find someone who is willing to take you under their arm and share their magic, you know a magician never shares their tricks except to young apprentice magicians, and I think that anybody that wants to be in this business we should consider them young apprentice magicians, and yes, it’s fine to share your tricks,” said Spielberg. “You should always remember the people that help you, and you should always be grateful, but you should absolutely be ambitious and don’t be shy because if you have a dream, you have to work to achieve the dream…Dreams only come true in Walt Disney movies. They don’t come true without a lot of hard work.”