Tony is a pickup-driving Trump supporter with a gun rack and a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker. Maria is a New York liberal with a MetroCard, a pussy hat from the Women’s March, and a “Black Lives Matter” sign in her Williamsburg window. They fall for each other, but their respective tribes push them apart, yielding a tragic end for the star-crossed lovers.
Now, that’s the West Side Story revival that we need. But don’t hold your breath for it. In Hollywood, race remains our primary dividing line. For the movie studios, it’s always Jets versus Sharks, the mythical gangs of Leonard Bernstein’s and now Steven Spielberg’s imagination: street-brawling Puerto Ricans fighting a mash-up of Poles, Italians, Irish, and other European immigrants. But in real life, the conflict that divides present-day America is, of course, reds versus blues, a battle not just of political ideas but of personal identities that are woven into what we buy, where we live, and how we view ourselves and our country. It’s Cracker Barrel v. Whole Foods and Prius v. Pickup. We’re still looking for the artist—and the storyteller—that can bring them together.
Many of the great, popular pieces of mid-20th-century art elicited compassion for the downtrodden and the excluded: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath about the Okie migrants from the Dust Bowl; Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun on the brewing rage in Black America; and, yes, Leonard Bernstein’s Romeo and Juliet reset amid waves of post–World War II Puerto Rican migrants, clustered in tenements near where Lincoln Center now stands. (The new film has a well-placed sight gag and pointed references to the gentrification to come.)
High art can trigger empathy. Gentle and wicked humor can be even more of an elixir. See Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, sparing no one in its send-up of 1980s New York, with its pre-MSNBC Al Sharpton–like rabble-rouser and nauseatingly rich “social X-rays” and “Masters of the Universe.” Or You Can’t Take It With You, the Depression-era George Kaufman play and film about a man from a family of elite snobs who marries into a decidedly downscale and eccentric clan and learns a thing or two about how the other half lives. It poked fun at the rich without villainizing them.
Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of West Side Story retains the racial frame of the original 1957 Broadway hit. And it uses the same unforgettable lyrics by the recently deceased and universally mourned Stephen Sondheim as well as dance inspired by the original Jerome Robbins choreography. It’s a glorious production, with enough differences from the 1961 Oscar winner for best picture to make it a truly new film. But the racial tableau of the original, mid-20th-century West Side Story hasn’t changed. Tony is still a white ethnic (Polish), Maria is Puerto Rican, and New York cannot—or will not—allow them to love each other, because of its impermeable ethnic fault lines. In a recent interview, Spielberg said that America’s “racial divides” were “more relevant to today’s audience” than they were in 1957.
Yes and no. Race is obviously the great American dilemma, as the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal put it in his landmark 1944 study of the color line. From the arrival of enslaved people from Europe in 1619 through the Civil War and from Jim Crow and the civil rights movement into Black Lives Matter, it has been the most important skein in the American tapestry. But racial tolerance as measured by Tony-and-Maria-style romances is growing all the time. Americans are less divided on matters of the heart than they have ever been, especially when you consider that many states barred interracial marriage until the Supreme Court’s aptly named 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision struck down these prohibitions.
By 2017, 17 percent of all American newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, up from 3 percent at the time of Loving. Among Hispanic Americans, 27 percent of newlyweds in 2017 married non-Hispanics. And of those born in the U.S.—like the Puerto Ricans depicted in West Side Story—the intermarriage rate was a whopping 39 percent. For U.S.-born Asians, the rate was even higher, at 46 percent. Racial intermarriage is no longer a taboo; instead, it’s utterly common. Joe Biden got ridiculed for noting what would have once seemed like an eye-popping number of interracial couples on television commercials, but he was right to point it out as a welcome metric of change. Corporate America wouldn’t bet on a message that doesn’t sell or, even more importantly, that might offend.
At the same time, social scientists find that we’ve become less likely to wed across our political divides. In 2015, 30 percent of married couples did not share a political affiliation. Just five years later, it was down to 21 percent. Most remarkably, only 4 percent of those unions were between Democrats and Republicans. The rest joined an independent voter with a member of one of the major parties.
Meanwhile, 35 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats say they would be somewhat or very unhappy if their child married someone of the opposite party, up from 10 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of Democrats in 1958. By contrast, just one in 10 Americans now says they would oppose a close relative marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity.
If a middle-aged father from 1958 arrived in America today to discover that same-sex and interracial marriages are widely accepted—but Democrats marrying Republicans isn’t—he would be shocked, if not outraged. But the political fabric is different now, of course. In the 1950s and ’60s, there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans aplenty, including anti– and pro–civil rights forces in both parties.
So if we remade West Side Story to reflect today’s most profound divisions, Tony and Maria would meet-cute at a purple-state rest stop, maybe in Pennsylvania. He’s on his way to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., and she’s visiting Washington for the Biden-Harris inaugural.
Waiting in line, he’s getting a Black Rifle Coffee and venison jerky; she’s ordering a Starbucks Iced Passion Tango Tea and a Lärabar. Their eyes connect. And we can tell that their bodies will, too. Cue the orchestra.
Later that week, Maria texts her sister Anita that she has met a new guy. He’s handsome, kind, but “a little different,” Maria writes. Anita asks how, and Maria sheepishly tells her: He’s a Trumper.
Anita is appalled. And so is Riff, Tony’s best friend, when Tony admits that his hot new lover is a liberal. “Don’t you know who these people are?” Riff asks. “They want to take our guns, raise our taxes, and teach our kids to hate America. They look down on us and call us racists.”
Riff is right, in that the hate goes both ways. Eventually, Tony is killed by an angry relative of Maria, just like in the original and the Spielberg reboot. (Perhaps in our red v. blue version, Tony is slipped a poisoned acai smoothie, a blue slayer.) But in the final scene in all versions, we see mourners from both camps lift Tony’s corpse and carry him off in a funeral-like procession. Hatred split them, but tragedy unites them.
It’s an old story, Spielberg recently explained. “One of the chief values of art for all humankind is that art explores empathy,” he said, “even empathy between people who have absolutely no connection with each other … Why can’t we find the thing we have in common?”
But Cain and Abel is an even older story. They have lots in common, and they hate each other anyway. So do we. How many people thrilling to West Side Story would be equally charmed if the romance crossed the Trump line? You know the answer. We lack empathy for people on the other side of the political aisle, unless it’s someone we know and have grandfathered in, often literally—crazy Grandpa Fred with his MAGA hat, or nutty Aunt Jane with her “Defund the Police” button.
It wasn’t Spielberg’s charge to make the musical for the Trump era, of course, and maybe it’s too soon for a Toby Keith–Tom Morello collaboration. But hopefully, other artists will find the thing we have in common, no matter what we think of Donald Trump.