HELLER Matthew, I’m going to circle back to you, as a theater artist whose response to the material has changed over time. Among other things, you wrote a play about the play and its impact on a Puerto Rican family. Tell us about it — and was it informed by your new insights into where the original fell short?
LÓPEZ The movie did spark my nascent creative brain as a piece of drama — the music, the dancing — and as cinema. Seeing the revival, though, I realized how much the Puerto Rican characters — and thereby the performers playing them — were not invited to the party, so to speak. A meal had been laid out and half the cast seemed left to go hungry. My family loved “West Side Story,” but as I thought about it, I realized their love for the show wasn’t reciprocated by it.
All of this led me to begin writing “Somewhere,” which is set in the neighborhood that was ultimately destroyed to build Lincoln Center. A Puerto Rican family of dancers and performers who dream of being cast in “West Side Story” (or anything Jerome Robbins created) but who, by the realities of their situation, are only left dreaming. I think in some ways, I was attempting to tell the offstage story that you don’t see.
DEL VALLE SCHORSKE Matthew, it seems like “Somewhere” shows us how to engage with a “canonical” work without reproducing its limitations. I’m interested in the way Puerto Rican artists have creatively navigated the musical’s constraints, but I’m also hungry for … anything else! In her memoir, Rita Moreno wrote about how difficult it was to find substantial roles after “West Side Story”: I’m kind of depressed by the fact that she’s still defined by the show in 2021. I mean, Moreno performed in plays by Lorraine Hansberry, she spent decades in psychoanalysis — doesn’t she deserve to grow?
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LÓPEZ I do have to cop to a bifurcated mind on this. There’s a part of me that really loves “West Side Story” and a part of me that really hates that I love “West Side Story.” I think Lin-Manuel Miranda once called it “a blessing and a curse,” which is a sentiment I understand.
BERSON It makes total sense to have a conflicted opinion of the show, especially if it speaks to you so personally. It’s not equivalent, but as a Jewish woman, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” drives me up the wall! Meanwhile, I can readily imagine Latinx performers might both love and resent “West Side Story” — love the way it has given many employment and its exhilarating use of dancer-actor-singers, but resent it for all the reasons you, Carina and others have stated. Popular culture is often a double-edged sword that way.
GREEN New work from new artists is the lifeblood of the theater. Yet engaging with the old ones, which were new once, can also be pleasurable and valuable — unless they have become the equivalent of Confederate statues that need to come down. Is “West Side Story” a Confederate statue? I don’t think so.
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