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December 15, 2021 10:50 am

What if Jewish Creators Made ‘West Side Story’ About Jews?

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avatar by Alan Zeitlin


Leonard Bernstein. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Many people that are excited about the film remake of “West Side Story” that arrived in theatres over the weekend, might not be aware that the original concept was supposed to be “East Side Story,” featuring a rivalry between Jews and Catholics.

In his book “West Side Story: the Jets, the Sharks and the Making of a Classic,” Richard Barrios writes that director/choreographer Jerome Robbins toyed with the idea and contacted Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein about a modernized “Romeo and Juliet.”

About six years later, according to Robbins, it was “beginning to be clear that conflicts arising between rival teen gangs were based less in religion than ethnicity.” He adds that the creators “took their cue from the California stories [of gang violence] and changed its hostilities from Jews versus Catholics to Latinos against Anglos,” and placed the action on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

What if they’d gone with their original concept? And what if director Steven Spielberg had gone with it? Would he be praised or vilified? At a time when critics are unfairly calling “West Side Story” racist, saying it vilifies Latinos (when it actually makes clear that both sides are to blame), would the same be said about Jews? Would it have led to more antisemitism?

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“As far as where antisemitism is today there is no way Spielberg could have done it,” Isaac Zablocki, Director of Film Programs at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, said. “I think he would have also been criticized for changing a classic. Who would we have been? The Jets or the Sharks? The oppressed minority or the poor majority? Neither would have been good.”

Zablocki, who was impressed by the remake, said that had the original film version featured a Jewish gang, it could have led to more antisemitism and or a reduced box office.

According to Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, Spielberg would have been rightly criticized had he changed the film to go with the original concept of Jews against Catholics.

The Fox sketch comedy show “In Living Color” once parodied “West Side Story” as “Crown Heights Story,” with African-Americans facing off against Hasidic Jews, and with an African-American woman singing “Menachem, I just met a boy named Menachem” — instead of “Maria, I just met a girl named Maria.”

While some would argue there is no villain, and both the Jets and the Sharks are combustible, in the opening prologue, the Sharks escalate the violence, as Bernardo uses a knife to pierce Baby John’s ear. During the big rumble, Bernardo stabs Riff — though this is by accident, after Riff (who has also been using a knife) is distracted by Tony.

In an interview with ABC News, Spielberg spoke of the otherness of the musical’s Jewish creators — Laurents, Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, and Bernstein.

“They were four Jewish gay men that understood the whole notion of the immigrant’s journey getting to a country that accepts them for their talent, maybe doesn’t accept them for who they really are,” Spielberg said. “And so, they knew how to write about other outsiders.”

In one of his last interviews before passing, Sondheim told ABC that he “learned so much from those three guys,” speaking of his collaborators.

Both film versions were made by Jews who take the idea of “tikkun olam” — or bettering the world — seriously, and wanted to do so with their art.

“Love endures. Intolerance and prejudice has to be defeated one love story at a time,” Spielberg told ABC. “And this was the one love story that I wanted to tell.”

The author is a writer based in New York City.

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