Maria, Maria . . . you remind me of a West-Side Story

The classic play West-Side Story is going to be back on Broadway, but this time around there will be a couple of twists. This revival, directed by West Side Story librettist Arthur Laurents himself, is a bilingual.

A retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set against a background of gang warfare, pits the Puerto Rican Sharks against white juvenile-delinquent Jets. In the new version, the Jets speak and sing in English, the Sharks in Spanish with English surtitles. . .

Another change: Laurents has re-framed “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a hilarious vaudeville number in the original. In this grittier West Side Story, after two of their friends are killed, the Jets’ taunting song sounds darker.”I don’t know how funny it is, and I don’t care,” Laurents says. “It’s another expression of the kids who understand what society thinks of them.”

Even though they don’t speak Spanish, the Jets understand what the Sharks think of them. Cody Green, who plays Jets leader Riff, says the language barrier adds to the friction.”If you don’t understand what’s being said, it gets a rise out of you,” Green says. “It creates this tension between the two gangs. … They don’t speak the same language.”


The adaptation of West-Side Story premiered at the National Theatre in Washington, DC on December 15, 2008 and played through January 17, 2009. There will be a Broadway preview at the Palace Theatre on February 23, 2009 and an official opening night on March 19, 2009.

I am a fan of West-Side story, though I have only seen it once. Although some aspects of the play – and film – are unbelievable and perhaps a little inaccurate, the play touches on issues of immigration, diversity and interracial love.  In this new adaptation  the tension between the sharks and the jets will be thicker and the whole essence is supposed to hold considerably more grit.

The casting of Latinos and the bilingual script will also give the play greater authenticity, this time there won’t be any fake, cliche accents – though the Latino cast had to work on speaking Puerto Rican Spanish.  Albeit these changes have been made, over at CoobySnacks the adaptation is critiqued because of the lack of a modern day feel and appeal.

And I am by no means ageist. But a revival is only as successful as its ability to connect with new audiences. When we’ve seen innovations on stage and screen since the original’s debut on Broadway, this entire production seems enormously dated. Even Step Up and Step Up 2 seemed to pull off the age-old Romeo and Juliet story more successfully.

Regardless of critique, which is probably correct.], an exciting aspect about this adaptation is that it is trying to correct the wrongs on an incorrect culture. Originally West-Side story was basically a white guys perception of multi-racial urban issue, now it seems that there has been a realization that that perception was not complete and needed adjusting.

The new adaptation is probably lacking as well, but it is, at least, an attempt to have an more holistic view on issues concerning race, ethnicity, love, conflict etc. I would love to see this occurring in a number of arenas. Not to just be “multi-cultural”, but to accurately display the landscape of the US.

Is this something the church can do? It should, but can we? Are we willing to do realize that we have done this exclusively and incorrectly in the past?

I am not emergent, and have several issues with the movement, but I also believe that is is bringing up some important issues (some of which are also being propagated by leaders outside of the emergent church). However, none of this is new. The focus on the Kingdom of God is not new. Social Justice is not new. Community is not new.  Minority pastors and theologians have had they orthodoxy and orthopraxy for a long time. Not just Martin Luther King, but Vernon Johns, Richard Farmer, James Cone, Ralph Abernathy. The African-American church tradition has already been exhibiting some of the new/radical characteristics of post-modern Christianity.

Additionally we look at contemporary icons – Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis etc. and we see a great “advancement” in Christianity. I value all of them, but I also think that we miss other important minority leaders who say and have for years said the same thing.

West-Side Story is attempting to right some of the wrongs of the past. It has been made clear that the perception and representation of White/Latino gang war needed to be shown in the correct light. Likewise, we, as Christians, must embrace the wholeness of our history and of what makes up faith. We must work together, have a multi-cultural picture of faith, and realize that in our white-dominated history much of the blessings of diverse theology and orthopraxy has been shadowed.

Only in reconciliation will we be able to put together an accurate picture of the Christian faith. I will be waiting for West Side Story to come to the Midwest – maybe I’ll get tickets to NY. But more importantly, will be actively waiting for the church to be reconciled.

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