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Culture

Two Sides of West Side Story

The cast of “West Side Story” performs during the 63rd annual Tony Awards ceremony in New York June 7, 2009. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

Carina del Valle Schorske pens an extremely woke reassessment of West Side Story, focusing on the way it portrays New York’s Puerto Ricans. The political theories she sprinkles in throughout are a little zany. In a bravura section, she dings the current Broadway revival production for having African Americans among the Jets, because she finds it “unlikely black New Yorkers would seek (or find) security among white Americans rather than among their Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Central American neighbors.” But she ends this larger thought about white supremacist violence by invoking “the Pulse club massacre [which] happened on Latin Night,” an incident that should trouble the simple morality tale of all people of color uniting against white evils. There’s plenty of grist here for conservatives who want to joke about how West Side Story is “problematic” now.

But, when she writes as a theater critic, I think de Valle Schorske has a few justified gripes and complaints. She supports her contention that “the show’s creators didn’t know, or didn’t seem to care to know, much about their own material.” And it shows. “The gym scene ‘mambo’ is not, rhythmically, a mambo,” she writes, “and the famous rooftop number ‘America’ has the Sharks dancing a Spanish-from-Spain Paso doble mishmashed with whitewashed showbiz jazz.” All true. And I think she’s onto something about how revivals have tried to enliven things by “doubling down on the plot’s brutality.” It is a cheap technique of substituting moral revulsion with simple physical disgust and discomfort that through repetition become creepy and exploitative. When I clicked over to the piece, I was ready for a delicious hate-read. And though I rolled my eyes once or twice, I think she’s mostly right about this show’s merits.

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