Shortly before West Side Story opened on Broadway in the fall of 1957, the lyricist Stephen Sondheim received an angry letter from a doctor. One of the musical’s standout numbers in its Washington, D.C., tryout had been “America,” a playful debate between Rosalia, who longs to return to Puerto Rico, the “island of tropical breezes,” and Anita, a stateside enthusiast who mocks Rosalia’s nostalgia for an “island of tropic diseases.” As Sondheim recalled in his annotated collection of lyrics, Finishing the Hat, Dr. Howard Rusk, the founder of a New York medical center, complained that the song misrepresented Puerto Rico, which had, in fact, a very low instance of tropic diseases and a lower mortality rate than the continental United States. “I’m sure his outrage was justified,” Sondheim conceded, “but I wasn’t about to sacrifice the line that sets the tone for the whole lyric.” Although editors from New York’s Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa threatened to picket West Side Story for portraying Puerto Ricans as a public-health threat, and Rusk wrote an article for The New York Times headlined “The Facts Don’t Rhyme,” the show proceeded with Anita’s jab intact.
More than 60 years later, the latest revival has opened on Broadway amid urgent debates about Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S., renewing questions about the tension between rhyme and facts, between artistic coherence and authentic representation. While West Side Story’s feuding, leaping, singing Sharks and Jets have long been lauded for lofting musical theater to the lyrical heights of Shakespearean tragedy, the show has also been criticized for promoting stereotypes of Puerto Ricans in the states as exoticized, eroticized gangbangers. Those stereotypes were popularized by the 1961 film, in which the only Puerto Rican star in the cast, Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for playing Anita), was forced to darken her skin with brown makeup: a caricatured, cosmetic distortion of Puerto Rican identity. (A remake of the film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is set to be released in December.)