Finally, a Latino West Side Story

A 'West Side Story' That Finally Speaks to Latinos
National's Staging Is Truly Bilingual
By David Montgomery Washington Post Staff January 3, 2009

Many Latinos remember the first time they saw "West Side Story." Their memory of that musical reworking of "Romeo and Juliet" by way of Hell's Kitchen is bittersweet.

One of the things to accept but not exactly love about the show was the language -- the sometimes clumsy accents, the random sprinkling of Spanish -- "Okay, Sharks, ¡VĂ¡monos!" -- which gave a veneer of cultural savvy to the tale of gangs, lovers and immigrant dreams.

Now we're in an age when Dora the Explorer and George W. Bush speak more Spanish than do Maria, Anita, Bernardo and the Sharks. The musical seemed less savvy all the time.

But in a new production at the National Theatre, "West Side Story" is finally displaying a PhD in linguistics from the streets. The Puerto Rican characters now speak and sing in Spanish.

For audience members who do not understand Spanish, the bilingual revival must at least seem more authentic.

But for bilingual theatergoers -- Latinos in general, but especially Puerto Ricans -- the meaning of the translation is more than what's found in a dictionary. When Maria sings "Siento Hermosa" instead of "I Feel Pretty," it marks a fitting resolution of the complicated 52-year relationship that this once-revolutionary musical has had with Spanish-speaking audiences.

"I was just blown away by it," said Cesar Huezo, a concierge from El Salvador who works at the Fairfax at Embassy Row. "I'm a fan of the play, a fan of the movie [the 1961 film starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno]. It's the first movie that I really felt like, Oh my God, Hispanics can do it! I think Spanish adds more interest to the play. When one [gang member] is singing in Spanish and one in English, even without a translation you can see both sides of the story."

"I thought it made it more authentic and probably less offensive and less comical, for somebody who might find it offensive," said Mercedes Lemp, director of the D.C. Office on Latino Affairs, who grew up in Spain.

The 1957 Broadway hit by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins provided a stunningly high profile to often-ignored Latinos in a landmark work of American pop culture. The movie and the play helped launch the careers of Latinas Moreno and Washington-born Chita Rivera.

But many of the actors in the early productions were non-Latinos wearing dark makeup and putting on fake accents, so the showbiz opportunities for Latinos were limited.

And the portrayal of Latino males exclusively as gang members has stung -- even though they're paired with a rival non-Latino gang. Also, because the non-Latino Jets sing more songs than the Latino Sharks, the play can seem weighted against the Latino characters.

For these reasons, the play occasionally has been the target of parody and protest by Latinos over the years. CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

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