The West Side Story Subtitles Controversy Explained

The West Side Story Subtitles Controversy Explained
20th Century Studios/YouTube

Some reacted with surprise when Steven Spielberg first announced his intention to direct a fresh film adaptation of the late Stephen Sondheim play “West Side Story.” The original 1957 stage production served as Sondheim’s introduction to the world of Broadway and, less than a month after his death, will now bookend a long and illustrious career in musical theater.

During the initial casting call in 2018, it was reported by a variety of outlets that Spielberg was seeking Spanish-speaking actors and actresses to play the roles of Maria, Anita, and Bernardo. In the 1961 version of the film, these roles were played by Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, and George Chakaris, respectively (via IMDb). In Spielberg’s upcoming version of the film, these roles will be filled by Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, and David Alvarez. Additionally, Rita Moreno will now play the role of Valentina (also per IMDb). 

With the new film’s wide release date less than two weeks away, many fans are looking forward to seeing what Spielberg has put together. The film’s premiere was held at the Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City on November 29 (via Vanity Fair) and plenty of people who got an early look at the film are already sharing their views online, including an interesting choice made for the Spanish dialogue. 

Many of the Spanish lines are not subtitled

The West Side Story Subtitles Controversy Explained
20th Century Studios/YouTube

According to a tweet from Kiara Alfonseca, a reporter for ABC News, much of the Spanish dialogue spoken by the Puerto Rican characters is not subtitled, nor is it repeated in English. Alfonseca called the choice the “most notable thing” in the film and said, “Viewing audiences as culturally nuanced makes your stories more authentic.”

Contrastingly, Andrew Strauser, the vice president of content at Magnolia Network, called the decision an “odd choice,” but also tweeted praise for the film’s direction and cast, calling both “incredible” and adding “#Oscars.” 

Spielberg’s choice to forgo subtitles for the foreign language sections of the film follows a similar choice made earlier this year for “Jungle Cruise.” In that film, a conversation between three Spanish speakers is not subtitled, nor is another scene featuring German dialogue. In an interview with Cinema Blend, “Jungle Cruise” actor Edgar Ramirez said, “We thought that doing it in Spanish and keeping the mystery of not having it subtitled would help to feel that you are completely removed and that you are invited into a journey to a world that is detached from your own world.”

While Spielberg has yet to comment on this creative choice, it will be interesting to eventually see what his reasoning was for the lack of subtitles. Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” will be released in theaters throughout the United States on December 10.

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