clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The star-crossed history of In the Heights and West Side Story

New film adaptations of the two hit musicals from very different eras are 2021’s fascinating cinematic call-and-response.

Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, Stephanie  Beatriz as Carla, and Dascha Polanco as Cuca in Warner Bros. Pictures’ In the Heights.
Macall Polay for Warner Bros.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

When In the Heights premiered on Broadway in 2008, it was a minor revelation. Through its exuberant, multicultural tale of community and economic struggle in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, seemed to be trumpeting his arrival onto the Broadway scene — and the entrance of his first show into the musical theater canon.

Miranda declared In the Heights’ cultural significance from its very first notes: In the show’s opening number, in which Miranda’s semi-autobiographical character Usnavi introduces himself and his neighborhood to the audience, the first thing we hear is a rhythmic motif borrowed from another musical altogether.

It’s the same opening riff as that of “America” from West Side Story — Broadway’s other iconic tale about Latin American immigrants and migrants living in upper Manhattan. Those borrowed five notes were more than a homage to Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 masterpiece, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest musicals ever written. They draw a direct link between the two musicals, announcing In the Heights as West Side Story’s spiritual successor.

They also deliberately set up a call-and-response between the two musicals. The song “America,” specifically, is about the type of American immigrant and migrant experience that Usnavi still struggles with half a century after West Side Story: The conflict over whether to return to his Caribbean roots or settle down and fully embrace his life and his identity as a New Yorker.

In 2021, that call-and-response has been inverted in a fascinating way. This year, audiences will be treated to lavish film adaptations of both musicals, with the highly anticipated In the Heights arriving first. The film debuted in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11, directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon Chu, sporting a screenplay by Pulitzer-winning Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the original stage script), and starring Miranda’s Hamilton protégé Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, it has already drawn raves from critics and fans, and it stands poised to be the hit of a parched post-pandemic summer.

Months later, in December, arrives Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. From all appearances, the new film is a painstakingly crafted re-conceptualization of director/choreographer Jerome Robbins’s original iconic staging of the 1957 musical, with many visual homages to Robert Wise’s 1961 film adaptation. It’s still a ways off, but anticipation is already bubbling — and inevitably, the year’s two Latin American movie musicals are already being paired and pitted against one another, Thunderdome-style.

But is that comparison fair to either musical? Will In the Heights eventually be overshadowed by the much larger cultural legacy of West Side Story and Spielberg’s prestige as a director? Will West Side Story’s outdated storytelling undermine its ability to speak to audiences in the 21st century?

Are the two musicals even that similar?

In a word, yes. Both stories deal with an inherent identity conflict that continues to resonate within America’s diverse urban communities. Not only that, but West Side Story’s ongoing legacy is one that Miranda himself is directly tied to. Far from canceling each other out, understanding how the musicals are linked can deepen our appreciation of each one.

West Side Story is beloved — but it has an inherent authenticity problem

West Side Story is a modernization of Romeo and Juliet that depicts Shakespeare’s rival clans as warring New York street gangs. Staged by a team of Broadway legends, the show was hailed as groundbreaking and “radioactive” — in a good way — upon its premiere. Today, it’s beloved largely for two things.

The first is its magnificent Bernstein-Sondheim score, almost every song of which is a well-known hit, from ballads like “Somewhere” and “Maria” to upbeat bops like “I Feel Pretty,” “Cool,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke!” Really, every song in West Side Story is a banger, showcasing Bernstein’s ability to create jazz that sounds like New York — and you’ve probably heard them all at least once.

The second is Jerome Robbins’s staging and choreography. Equally important to the show’s legacy, it’s a fierce combination of contemporary jazz and ballet. Not only did Robbins’s dance moves drive the story’s characterization and plot, but they produced movements so successful, so well known, and so indelibly associated with West Side Story that the show is almost never performed without the original choreography. Reviewing the 2020 Broadway production (now set to reopen later this year), which did dare to remove and replace Robbins’s work, the New York Times’ Gia Kourlas scolded, “What Robbins created wasn’t just a series of dances, however peerless, but an overarching view of how, beyond anything else, movement could tell a story.”

No matter how sacrosanct Robbins’s choreography is, however, the impulse to replace or revamp it has grown over time, as part of an ongoing cultural push to reconfigure West Side Story altogether. That’s because while West Side Story is brilliant, it is decidedly not a realistic representation of street gangs or migrant communities. Though the show provides a reliably thrilling stage experience, its storytelling has always been the weakest spot in its otherwise impenetrable creative armor. And, increasingly, audiences and critics have regarded its narrative weaknesses as a byproduct of its real problem: a lack of cultural authenticity.

The men who created West Side Story, a true mid-century Broadway dream team, did have strong ties to immigrant culture. In addition to Robbins and Bernstein, veteran screenwriter Arthur Laurents (Hitchcock’s Rope) wrote the book (the stage script), and a 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim made his Broadway debut as the show’s lyricist. All four men were the sons of Jewish families; three of them were lifelong New Yorkers. Robbins, who came up with the idea for the show, initially had in mind a story based on Irish and Jewish families on the Lower East Side — which Laurents then drafted as East Side Story in 1949, before he and Robbins decided it was too generic.

In 1955, however, a random Los Angeles Times article sent the nascent show’s story in a drastically different direction. The article dramatized the rise of teen gangs and described “rumbles” happening in immigrant neighborhoods all over LA and Manhattan. In Robert Emmet Long’s 2003 book Broadway, The Golden Years, Laurents mentions the article as the inspiration for a rethinking of East Side Story.

“I suggested the blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York,” Laurents recalled to Long, “because this was the time of the appearance of teenage gangs and the problem of juvenile delinquency was very much in the news. It started to work.”

“It” was the story that eventually became West Side Story. The central gang conflict was transferred onto a white gang and a Puerto Rican gang: the Jets versus the Sharks.

Not only were Laurents and Robbins not gang members, but they also seemed to be basing West Side Story on what is now understood to be the racist assumption that the gangs of the West Side must surely have racial conflict. (At least one later anecdote suggests they were all white and only mildly criminal, nothing like the dangerous delinquents depicted onstage.) Laurents invented the onstage slang to approximate street lingo. And despite half the characters being Puerto Rican, almost no Spanish was spoken onstage in the original production.

Writing for HowIRound in 2017, Yura Sapi explained the impact of West Side Story’s fabricated storyline:

Not only was this mainstream story that depicted Puerto Rican migrants created and written by four white men, the story they chose to tell linked the Puerto Rican plight in New York in the 1950s to issues of gangs, not of migration, and the lead Puerto Rican character was played by a white Italian American actor. The Puerto Rican voice of the 1950s was stolen and rewritten for appropriated consumption. Meanwhile, the real issues the community faced as people looking for another shot at life as US citizens coming from a territory were ignored and essentially erased in the eyes of US American mass culture.

Criticism of West Side Story’s lack of authenticity has sharpened and become more prevalent over the decades as a broader cultural understanding of West Side Story’s flaws and weaknesses has grown. In 2008, that understanding became part of the conversation around a brand-new musical — when In the Heights became the toast of Broadway.

In the Heights presented itself as West Side Story’s down-to-earth polar opposite

A half-century after West Side Story, Miranda’s own musical about intertwined lives and dreams in one Manhattan neighborhood presented itself as an example of authentic Latinx culture. Conceived and written by Miranda while he was still in college, the show was based loosely on people and events from his own life.

He joined with another creator of Puerto Rican descent, playwright and future Pulitzer-winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, to write the book. Miranda, a lifelong New Yorker, contributed the score, showcasing his unique talent for rapping, rhyming, and mixing musical genres in a way that reflected his own melting-pot community, Washington Heights — not unlike the way Bernstein famously fused jazz with pop, classical elements, and other genres to create West Side Story’s distinctive urban soundscape.

West Side Story, like Romeo and Juliet, is a full-blown Shakespearean tragedy. Where its dramatic conflict was larger than life, most of the dramatic conflicts that move In the Heights are deliberately small scale. In the Heights is, in many ways, akin to the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, in that its goal isn’t to present an epic, operatic drama but to thread the language of musical theater through a plot about realistic characters in everyday situations. Its characters deal with modern conflicts: struggles to make ends meet, fears of disappointing their parents, and conflicts between wanting love and wanting success.

It’s a sprightly, uplifting musical whose characters are reflections of Miranda himself: resilient, passionate, optimistic, and upbeat. The factors that render the community unstable are largely systemic: Money is tight. College is expensive. The power keeps going out in Washington Heights.

The rickety neighborhood infrastructure underscores a fact that is called out in the opening song with a direct address to the audience. Miranda’s character Usnavi (now played in the movie by Anthony Ramos) sings: “Now you’re prob’ly thinking, “I’m up shit’s creek / I’ve never been north of 96th Street” — invoking the truth that most of Broadway’s traditional viewership has little awareness that Manhattan exists above Central Park. Part of Miranda’s experiment with In the Heights involved inviting and engaging floods of new audiences, an approach he would later perfect with Hamilton in 2015. His efforts seemed to be a success: The show easily nabbed a Broadway run off the back of a hit off-Broadway engagement, and most critics were effusive about the show’s energy, ambitions, production, and performances. In the Heights went on to snag four Tony awards, including Best Score and Best Musical.

Where In the Heights lost fans was in the smallness of its storytelling. “Mr. Miranda and Ms. Hudes’s panorama of barrio life is untagged by any graffiti suggesting authentic despair, serious hardship or violence,” the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood chastised the off-Broadway production, as if unable to imagine a Latin community untouched by hardship and at peace with itself. The Daily News pined for “a show that had something to say that resonated beyond the 181st St. subway stop.”

Increasingly, modern audiences understand that these are the kinds of criticisms often used to gatekeep and stereotype diverse creators and prevent them from telling their own stories and sharing their own experiences. (“We should be able to be onstage without a knife in our hand,” Miranda said in 2015.) In 2008, In the Heights’ popularity helped galvanize a new generation of theater fans to tell their own stories.

Perhaps even more impressive, it helped galvanize the then 91-year-old Arthur Laurents to revise his own musical masterpiece.

The two musicals have had intertwined legacies since In the Heights debuted

“Puerto Ricans, West Side — ring a bell?” New York magazine asked its 2007 review of In the Heights, then opening off-Broadway. The review’s title, “Something’s Coming,” was a direct reference to the song of the same name from West Side Story and demonstrated how linked the two shows were in the minds of Broadway audiences from the start.

That link further cemented itself in 2008 when In the Heights’ success spurred Laurents to invite Miranda to take part in his radical new project: revising and directing an unprecedented bilingual revival of West Side Story. The production, which Laurents directed just three years before his death, was reportedly inspired by an all-Spanish production of the show in Colombia. In a feature story promoting the 2009 production, producer Jeffrey Seller described Laurents’ motive:

As Seller tells the story, Laurents’s former lover, who after years of study had become bilingual in Spanish, traveled to Colombia and attended a production of West Side Story performed entirely in Spanish. Upon returning to the States, he relayed to Arthur that for the first time it seemed as though the heroes were the Sharks, not the Jets. Arthur determined that it must have been because the Sharks were speaking their own language and had “home court advantage.” This led to the question: “What would happen if [someone] did West Side Story in English and Spanish, in which all of the characters could speak in their native tongue?” And in that question was the answer to “Why do West Side Story?”: “To give cultural integrity back to the Latinos — back to the Puerto Ricans.”

And thus the new bilingual revival of West Side Story was born.

Hoping to bolster the realism, rewrite Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish, and add more Puerto Rican flourishes to the script, Laurents and Sondheim turned to Miranda, who was still enjoying his hit Broadway debut that same season. In a 2009 interview about the revival, Miranda neatly summed up the longstanding criticisms and contradictions of the show.

“I think West Side Story for the Latino community has been our greatest blessing and our greatest curse,” he said. “As a piece of art, I think it’s just about as good as it gets. It also represented our foot in the door as an artistic community on Broadway. At the same time, because it’s just about the only representation of Latinos on Broadway and it’s about gangs, that’s where it gets tricky.”

Laurents’ interest in making a bilingual West Side Story that restores agency to the Puerto Ricans now seems entirely in line with the way we think about these kinds of narratives in 2021; after all, over the last decade, Broadway has welcomed several major productions that expanded their authenticity by daring to be multilingual, like the 2015 Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening, which prominently featured sign language, and the popular 2018 all-Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof.

In 2008, however, the notion of swapping out up to 20 percent of West Side Story’s original script proved a hard sell for Broadway, even though the change was sanctioned by the original writer. When the bilingual production finally premiered on Broadway in 2009, critics seemed baffled by the need for revision, with Reuters reviewer Frank Scheck describing the changes as “gimmicky.” He added, “The idea that a musical as brilliant as ‘West Side Story’ would require reinventing seems a bit dubious.” Audiences resisted the changes too and, eventually, despite the hype surrounding the project, most of Miranda’s carefully spun Spanish lyrics were quietly changed back to English.

Today, we recognize that reinvention is a way to update legacy works of media so they may stay fresh and relevant, especially to new generations of audiences. Reinvention has, more and more, become the story of West Side Story’s subsequent revival attempts.

But West Side Story is a creaky legacy work that resists easy updates. Beginning with Laurents’s efforts to inject more realism into the gritty lives of the show’s characters and continuing with the latest 2020 Broadway production, those update attempts have only made it clear how unwieldy such overhauls can be. “The problem with treating the musical’s stylized representations as documentary realism is that it presents ethnic caricatures as news footage,” the Atlantic’s Daniel Pollack-Pelzner explained. “[T]o accept the musical as an account of contemporary migrant trauma is to verge on parody. ... As a Latinx musical, West Side Story is incoherent and insulting. As the mid-century fantasy of queer Jewish artists, however, it’s surprisingly compelling.”

It’s not yet clear how Spielberg’s film will deal with these tensions. Certainly, the 1961 film adaptation has its own set of problems, including a largely whitewashed cast. What does seem clear is that In the Heights is now poised to enter the cultural conversation on a similar scale as West Side Story — not overriding the earlier work but expanding and continuing the conversation around it as the show and its adaptations continue to evolve. Perhaps, the best way to approach West Side Story, then, is neither to “cancel” it for being imperfect nor to overhaul it into a parody of itself and a parody of contemporary politics. It’s to simply allow various versions of it to exist, flaws and all, and to make space for more creators like Miranda, with more stories and perspectives.

In other words, as the lyrics of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” attest, it’s to make “a place for us” — the new alongside the old. In the case of these two film adaptations, that happened literally: Both productions were shot in the summer of 2019, literally right next to each other. “It was a surreal moment, to walk basically 60 years through musical-theatre history in the space of two blocks,” Miranda told Empire in May. That physical closeness also underscores the films’ interconnectedness — and reminds us that stories with complicated histories can coexist with newer stories whose histories are still unfolding.

Correction: This article originally cited the casting of Rita Moreno in In the Heights (2021). Moreno does not appear in the film.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.