The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘In the Heights’ is an award-winning hit. Its predecessor, ‘West Side Story,’ shocked audiences.

Choreographer Jerome Robbins, second from left, leads a rehearsal for “West Side Story” on Broadway in 1957. (AP)
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Excitement greeted “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dynamic paean to the Latin American communities of New York City’s Washington Heights, when it launched on Broadway in 2008. The New York Daily News proclaimed that “Latinos are back on Broadway.” The show garnered 13 Tony nominations and four wins.

When the movie version premiered this week, hundreds of people gathered outside the United Palace theater to try to glimpse the film’s young stars.

Producer Lin-Manuel Miranda attended the movie premiere of "In the Heights" in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York on June 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

But “West Side Story,” a direct predecessor to “In the Heights” for its similar focus on Latinos in New York, was greeted much less warmly when it began its own Broadway run in 1957. Audiences and critics alike were discomfited by the violence and juvenile delinquency portrayed in that musical, an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” that trades rival families for warring street gangs — one Puerto Rican and another White. (A new movie version of “West Side Story” directed by Steven Spielberg is set to be released in December.)

“The radioactive fallout from ‘West Side Story’ must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” critic Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald Tribune. Theatergoers were flummoxed that the show not only lacked the frothiness of other musicals, but featured so much bloodshed. Three characters are killed off during the performance.

“That wasn’t a usual thing,” said Julia Foulkes, author of “A Place for Us: ‘West Side Story’ and New York.” “That wasn’t what people expected. And yet, they were drawn to the story.”

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Influential New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson opened his review by asserting that the musical’s subject matter was “horrifying.” In another column days later, he added that viewers should not expect the whistle-worthy score and ravishing costumes of other musicals. But he praised the show’s creators for their unwillingness to soften “West Side Story’s” ugliness for audiences’ comfort.

The San Francisco Examiner headlined its review, “The West Side Story: A Musical to Exault And to Terrify.” In it, Alexander Fried wrote that hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans had recently “swarmed” to New York. While positing that most of the newcomers were just working hard to make a living, he argued that the musical highlighted the “pot of crisis” created by the mass migration.

“‘West Side Story’ fishes the hottest crisis of all out of the social cauldron, as it shows how a neighborhood of restless, heady teen-age boys shape into a community struggle in their own violent way,” Fried wrote.

One reviewer wryly noted the astonishment of some of his fellow critics.

“Many of the town’s columnists, evidently expecting another regulation hanky-panky for juke boxes, really went after it,” John Chapman wrote in the Chicago Sunday Tribune.

The reaction from Puerto Ricans was mixed. People living in Puerto Rico were more likely to praise the show under the opinion that any attention paid to the island was positive, while Puerto Ricans living in New York tended to be frustrated, Foulkes said. To them, “West Side Story” reinforced the negative stereotypes they combated.

A Miami Herald article anonymously quoted “a prominent attorney closely connected with the Puerto Rican government” who criticized the show’s dialogue as “indecent.”

“I don’t think it contributes to improve the situation,” the lawyer said.

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For White Americans, Foulkes said the musical’s portrayal of anti-Puerto Rican discrimination — and its potentially deadly consequences — contributed to the initial discomfort. The civil rights movement had only recently started directing widespread attention to racism, and U.S. public schools had started to desegregate just days before “West Side Story” premiered.

“That conflict is literally happening in the streets across the nation at the same time we’re being told, ‘Love doesn’t conquer all, and people are killed because it,’” Foulkes said.

Miranda was intimately familiar with “West Side Story.” He played Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, in a production of the musical when he was in the sixth grade and directed a version of it in high school. He wanted “In the Heights” to portray Latinos radically differently.

“I have great affection for that show,” Miranda told the British film magazine Empire of “West Side Story,” “but I think it has over-represented the number of ‘50s Puerto Rican gang members with knives in their hands by a lot in the popular culture, by virtue of its success.”

So Miranda created something new. Where “West Side Story” is about a fight to belong, “In the Heights” is about communities claiming a place as their own, Foulkes said.

“It’s about celebration of belonging, like ‘This is my corner,' ” she said. “The thing that’s so striking about the end of ‘In the Heights’ is it ends with the word, ‘home.’

Gillian Brockell contributed to this report.

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