Stephen Sondheim passed away last weekend. He wrote enduring and transformative Broadway musicals, including Sweeny Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. He also wrote lyrics for West Side Story, a classic retelling of Romeo and Juliet that uses tensions between whites and Puerto Ricans as a context for star-crossed lovers and and an illustration of the utter fruitlessness of racial enmity.
Watching West Side Story in 2021 can seem cringy. Male characters feel no qualms about the idea that women belong at home raising children, and female characters embrace that stereotype. The play and film depict all the Puerto Rican men as violent gang members. The Puerto Rican women are either piously Roman Catholic or festishized as passionate and wild because of their darker skin. Although stage and film productions launched actress Rita Moreno into international stardom, she was the only Latin American performer in the original cast. The other “Puerto Ricans” had their skin darkened for performances.
Nonetheless, many people of Puerto Rican descent, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Hamilton composer Lin Manuel-Miranda, see important truths beyond the stereotypes. Sondheim and Manuel-Miranda also counted each other as friends.
West Side Story won more Oscars than any other Broadway musical adaptation. Its choreography and themes merit attention even in the 21st century. How would you advise 21st century audiences to watch it? At what point does our revulsion to old stereotypes prevent us from seeing artistic merit?