Why did we need a new cinematic version of the ‘West Side Story’? Same reason that we need new versions of this musical on stage or theatrical versions of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Because they are unfortunately still relevant nowadays. Hate still divides people. There are still wars. Here we watch the war of two gangs: mixed white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks. Their members come from two underprivileged groups that fight each other instead of uniting and fighting the system that evicts them from their homes and gentrifies their neighborhood. Somebody else makes profit from their misery and division.
Another reason is because minority groups need representation. It is very important for them to be able to see themselves on the big screen. The first version of the musical was filmed in 1961 and most of the Puerto Ricans were played by white actors with Greek or Turkish roots. One of the few Puerto Rican cast members was Rita Moreno who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Anita. She was a hero to her community and she comes back in the new version as Valentina, Doc’s widow and the current owner of his general store.
The story of Tony and Maria is a love story. Love is blind, as they say, and in a way Tony and Maria are blind because they do not seem to see all the problems around them or the difference in the color of their skin. They only have eyes for each other. But at the same time they actually see much better than everybody else around them. They see that they are one. One hand, one heart, one life. Their story mirrors Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet up to the point when she chooses life. As Valentina says: Life is more important than Love. As long as you live, you can love again. So Maria is wiser than Juliet and she lives on.
That gives us hope for the future. If Juliet can learn over the centuries, and society can change over the decades, then not everything is lost. Our society is not the same as it was sixty years ago. Yes, there are still problems but we do slowly make progress. Misrepresented groups start to have their voices heard. And if everybody starts to see the truth, as Tony and Maria did – that deep inside we are all the same and we just want to love and be loved – then together we can build a better world than the one we found. ‘United we stand, divided we fall’.
Let us hope that the third version in 60 years doesn’t need to be made again. Let us hope that Love truly can conquer everything. And let us hope that we all can get blind to these small differences that make us unique and use them to unite us and not to divide.