The screenwriter for the upcoming remake of West Side Story, Tony Kushner, described the film as an “anti-racist, democratic musical.”
Kushner’s comments came in a lengthy interview with Seth Abramovitch of The Hollywood Reporter (THR) promoting the Steven Spielberg directed remake.
While answering Abramovitch’s first question about what his initial thoughts were when he found out that Spielberg wanted to remake West Side Story, Kushner revealed he got excited about a number of things Spielberg was telling him.
When asked to elaborate, he stated, “Steven has a real knack for figuring out where the fault lines in society are, what’s in the zeitgeist right now, what are people concerned about.”
He continued, “And the inclusiveness that is at the heart of the American democratic experiment and willingness to expand the franchise and the enormous importance of multiculturalism to the American democratic experiment — these are all really near and dear to Steven’s heart and to mine.”
Kushner then touched on the film’s source material, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, saying, “The source material, Romeo and Juliet, is about hatred between two groups that are sort of two sides of the same coin. Nobody even knows why the Capulets and the Montagues hate each other.”
“That’s given a misimpression about West Side Story, which is that the Jets and the Sharks are the Capulets and the Montagues. They’re not,” he stated.
Kushner asserted, “The creators believed very deeply that race hatred and bigotry and oppression and discrimination are profoundly malevolent aberrations and can lead to cataclysmic consequences. And I think that is the tragedy of West Side Story. It is an anti-racist, democratic musical.”
Not only did Kushner claim that West Side Story is an “anti-racist, democratic musical,” but he also revealed he’s changed the backstories of numerous characters for this new film.
Kushner revealed, “There are things in the [new] screenplay that are true to what Arthur wrote, or actually lines that Arthur wrote. And then there’s an enormous amount that’s different.”
“I was sort of surprised to find that there was a lot of room for expanding certain aspects of all the characters, changing certain things, like Tony’s backstory, Maria’s backstory for that matter, Bernardo’s backstory, Riff’s,” he relayed.
He then revealed he created a new Puerto Rican woman to replace Doc, “We changed one major character — my husband’s idea. I told him I was going to do West Side Story. He said, “What are you going to do about Doc?” Ned Glass is a wonderful actor, but we always found the Doc character in the movie a little Borscht Belt.”
“So he said, “I have a great idea: Change Doc into a Puerto Rican woman and offer the part to Rita Moreno,’” Kushner told THR.
He continued, “So I created this new character who was the widow of Doc, but who was Puerto Rican. And we offered to Rita, the first person we offered a part to, because I met her several times before I started working in the movie and I revere her.”
Kushner also revealed there is a third party involved in the gang war between the Jets and the Sharks.
He explained, “I wanted to try and set up a slightly different premise — that this territory that’s being fought over is actually being taken away by a third party, by the Committee for Slum Clearance, using eminent domain.”
He also revealed a number of the songs and who sings them have been changed, “Then I took the permission that I was given by the very generous rights-holders, and by Sondheim himself, to think about some of the songs slightly differently, and who sings them. And I can’t give away secrets, but there are some big, I hope agreeable and effective, surprises in that.”
Finally, Kushner revealed he had racial quota for the casting. Abramovitch asked, “In the Heights is a similarly themed musical — Latin cast and Latin themes. But it came under fire unexpectedly for not having more diversity in the casting. Did you and Steven discuss that?”
Kushner answered, “Oh, absolutely. I began reading a ton of books about Puerto Rican and Nuyorican experience. And the first thing I ran into was the question of the color line and Afro-Puerto Ricans and those issues. I said to Steven, “I think we should really try to have either Maria or Anita played by a Black Latina actress.'”
“And in walked Ariana DeBose, who is just a miracle of an actor. I think that was an important decision that we made. I would hope that when Nuyoricans or Puerto Ricans look at the community that we created in the movie, it will look to them like a 1957, Upper West Side, Nuyorican community and that the Sharks in general will feel authentic,” he continued.
Kushner concluded, “I believe, to my non-Puerto Rican eyes, it looks very, very good. And I guess we’ll hear. That conversation will continue.”
According to The-Numbers, West Side Story had a $100 million budget. The latest predictions from Box Office Pro claims the film will earn between $14 and $22 million in its opening weekend. They go on to predict it will make between $55 and $85 million in its entire domestic run.
YouTuber and movie critic Odin of Odin’s Movie Blog reacted to these predictions stating, “That is abysmal. This is a Disney 20th Century Studios production. This is a film that also cost $100 million to make meaning that the break even point is relatively high, a lot higher than the number it is projected to make.”
“And if one sees a typical maybe, 50/50 or 60/40 split, with this and international market it is not likely to make its money back,” he asserted.
The official synopsis for West Side Story reads, “Directed by Academy Award® winner Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Tony Kushner, “West Side Story” tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City.”
The movie hits theaters on December 10, 2021.
What do you make of Kushner’s comments about West Side Story?