The Queer Origin Story & Roots Of ‘West Side Story’ Are Revealed

While the battles between the Sharks & the Jets, the burgeoning love story between Tony & Maria, and the star-making turn by the luminous Rita Moreno are what West Side Story is so well-known for, the upcoming re-imagination of the classic film attempts to modify some aspects of the film that the original 1961 version did not get right. Latinx performers play Latinx roles, and some of the film is in Spanish without subtitles. Insider reported that during the film’s virtual press conference, Director Steven Spielberg indicated that the lack of subtitles was “out of respect” to all the people who do speak Spanish in the United States. Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels In America) simply added “we’re a bilingual country.”

Photo By 20th Century Studios

The original West Side Story was the brainchild of book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, and a young lyricist by the name of Stephen Sondheim. Bonded by their love of musical theatre, these four men created brilliance when the outside world at that time, could be absolutely unforgiving to four monumentally creative gay men like themselves. Originally written as a “tomboy”, the character of Anybodys (a tomboy, who strived to be one of the Jets & is subsequently rejected) is clearly written with the kind of vague ambiguity that LGBTQ characters of that time had to be. That has changed in the 2021 version, with 31 year-old actor Iris Menas (an understudy in the Broadway production of Jagged Little Pill) playing Anybodys, who is now written as a transgender character (complete with an extra line written especially by Kushner for the role). “Though never said on screen, in the film’s production notes, David Saint, executor of ‘West Side Story’ author Arthur Laurents’ estate, said that the character is indeed transgender,” according to Insider. “Saint also said it was a choice Laurents would have approved, confirming that Anybodys ‘is a character who was a man born in a female’s body. End of story.'”

The reimagination of the character of Anybodys is not being looked at as a positive step by everyone unfortunately. While West Side Story is being poised to be a global smash, the film will not be showing in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar or the UAE. The Hollywood Reporter recently reported that the splashy musical was not granted the necessary certificate in either Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, and in the remaining countries, Disney would not agree to make cuts to the film that were requested. 

And as the story goes, we may have an iconic gay Hollywood heartthrob to thank for West Side Story in its entirety. The Advocate reports that Russ Tamblyn (who portrayed Riff, the leader of The Jets in the original film) disclosed that Jerome Robbins (who not only is credited with the original conception of the film, but both choreographed it and co-directed it with Robert Wise) indicated that it was actually Robbins’ boyfriend at the time, famed Hollywood heartthrob Montgomery Clift, who came up with the idea that would be come West Side Story“He told us on the set one day that the idea really came from Montgomery Clift, who was Jerry’s boyfriend at the time,” Tamblyn recalled. “He said that he was with Monty at a party on Fire Island … [and Clift said] ‘I’ve got an idea for a musical. Why not have a musical about Romeo and Juliet but make it with gangs in New York?’ And Jerry said that he just couldn’t get it out of his head.”

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6 thoughts on “The Queer Origin Story & Roots Of ‘West Side Story’ Are Revealed”

  1. There are only very small sections of the film in Spanish, and they are very easy to understand through the context, acting, and English words used in some sentences. I hope you reconsider seeing the film, as it is beautifully shot, with fantastic choreography and an amazing cast.

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    • I just saw the movie and felt Spielberg made a big mistake not having the Spanish dialogue translated into English in the subtitles. Numerous times throughout the movie I was frustrated not knowing what was actually being said in Spanish. Of course I can get an idea but I want to know the actual words. When you watch The Godfather, who doesn’t enjoy every colorful Italian word being uttered by the gangsters, but if we didn’t have the translations all that great dialogue would be lost on us. Okay

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  2. I am disappointed in the decision to make Anybody a transman. I always saw Anybody as a young dyke. After all, the story is set in the 1950s; the era of the Lavender Scare and FBI snooping on suspected homosexuals and keeping files on them. Considering this backdrop, having a young female character who did not fit in because she rejected the trappings of femininity, but who wanted to belong somewhere and be accepted for who she was, was a coded message about homosexuality. As I see it, Spielberg changing Anybody from tomboy to transman is absolute lesbian erasure.

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  3. While I disagree with the decision to omit sub-titles, I will see the film for a multitude of reasons. This sounds like an exciting reimagination of this classic musical. I think omitting sub-titles is a misguided attempt to show “respect” or “legitimacy” to the Spanish speaking community. It only serves to compartmentalize and segregate the Latinx groups from those who do not speak or understand the Spanish language. When one watches a foreign language film so much is missed and lost if it does not have sub-titles. Same here.

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  4. I feel Screenwriter Tony Kushner is incorrect, we are a multi-lingual country. Although English is not the national language, it is the language that all immigrants used to have to learn to work and live comfortably in America. With everyone speaking the same language, it has been proven that we unite as a country. The statement made that there will be no subtitles for non-Spanish speakers, will mean that unlike the original, I will not see this version of a classic.
    I believe that because the Speilberg name is behind this version of a classic, people will rush to view it. I’m sure that in many parts of the country where Spanis is spoken, there will be a huge surge at the box office. I hope it is successful for the actor’s sake, but when I go to a movie I want to be able to understand by the English language what the characters are saying.

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