West Side Story is about Los Angeles
That's why it has no Blacks, and why the story doesn't quite make sense.
The Los Angeles zoot suit riots, June 1943.
The new West Side Story is set in San Juan Hill, which was bulldozed to make way for Lincoln Center. But that makes no sense, because San Juan Hill was a Black neighborhood of longstanding (Thelonious Monk grew up there) with no significant youth gang activity in the 1950s. It had Puerto Ricans but no white teenagers to speak of. If Tony and Riff or any other Jets found themselves in San Juan Hill, that would only be because they got off at the wrong subway stop.
My latest piece for the New Republic investigates why West Side Story’s plot (both the remake and the original) omits African Americans. The remake addresses this deficit indirectly by casting an Afro-Latina actress as Anita and adding a Black version of Shakespeare’s Apothecary (“Such mortal drugs I have”) who sells Riff a gun. But by 1950 New York City was already 10 percent Black. Where are the Black gangs?
The omission makes more sense when you realize West Side Story is really—bear with me—about Los Angeles. You can read my piece here.
(For the record, I did like the West Side Story remake, despite my sociological critique, with two reservations. One is that the dancing is too abbreviated—Jerome Robbins’ wonderfully stylized dances were about 80 percent of the reason to see the original. The other reservation is that all the playfulness and wit in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” my favorite song in the show, drowns in a sea of Spielbergian bombast.)