Jews in the News: Steven Spielberg, Stephen Sondheim & Sarah Jessica Parker

Mostly West Side Story, Some Sex and the City

 A film re-make of “West Side Story” opens on Dec. 10. It was directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG, 74, and the screenplay was written by TONY KUSHNER, 65. They first worked together on Spielberg’s acclaimed film “Lincoln” (2012). Kushner was Oscar-nominated for his “Lincoln” screenplay, and Spielberg earned a best director nomination. They also teamed-up for “The Fabelmans”, a semi-autobiographical film about Spielberg’s “coming-of-age” years that will open in 2022. Spielberg directed and he co-wrote the original screenplay with Kushner.

Here’s West Side Story’s “very Jewish” origin story. Around 1955, choreographer JEROME ROBBINS “pitched” the idea of a modernized musical version of “Romeo & Juliet”. Romeo would be a young Irish Catholic guy, and Juliet would be a Jewish teenage Holocaust survivor. "Everybody" eventually agreed that this update didn’t work. It was too much like “Abie’s Irish Rose”, a schmaltzy hit play about a Catholic/Jewish couple. Not long after, news stories appeared about gang fights between “white kids” and recent Puerto Rican immigrants. They decided to make Juliet (Maria), Puerto Rican, and Romeo (Tony), a native-born white guy.

The Broadway creative team was “all Jewish”: Robbins directed and choreographed; ARTHUR LAURENTS penned the “book” (story, dialogue); LEONARD BERNSTEIN wrote the music; and STEPHEN SONDHEIM, who died on Nov. 26, age 91, penned the lyrics. The Broadway musical (1957) was a hit, as was the 1961 film. The new film is “still” set in the ‘50s and it retains the original score.

COREY STOLL, 45, has a supporting role as police lieutenant Schrank and Ansel Elgort, 27, co-stars as Tony. Elgort has an “interesting” Jewish background. My sense is that he’s secular.  Ansel’s mother is of non-Jewish background. His mother's mother was sent to a Nazi concentration camp for saving Jewish children. Ansel’s father, ARTHUR ELGORT, 81, is a well-known fashion photographer. Arthur’s father was Jewish and his mother wasn’t born Jewish. Arthur made comments in an interview that make me believe he was raised Jewish and that’s its possible his mother converted to Judaism.

SAM MENDES, 56, an Oscar ("American Beauty") and Tony winning director, spoke to the British newspaper, "The Guardian", about Sondheim right after his death. Mendes directed revivals of several Sondheim musicals and he eloquently described the things which made Sondheim so great. (Interview on-line; no "pay wall").

Mendes dropped one nugget which makes me think that the script of the new “West Side Story” film may have many changes from the original Laurents’ “book”. He said that Arthur Laurents had legal veto power over script changes in “West Side” until his death in 2011. He didn’t allow any changes and, in Mendes’ opinion, stage revivals became very stale. Last year, Mendes said, there was an innovative stage revival and, he implied, the new film will also have interesting changes. By the way, Mendes, a Brit, was knighted on Nov. 30, and he’s now “Sir Sam”.

Right after Sondheim died, I looked up how many Tonys he won (7) and how many he was nominated for (11). While doing so, I came across a list of all the winners of the Tony for best musical and I did a quick check: 71 musicals have won the “best” Tony since 1949. 51 of these winners had their score (music) and/or their lyrics written by a Jew (including two Jewish women). Clearly, the Broadway musical theater is a crown jewel in the history of Jews in the Diaspora and more people should know this.

This “gentle dominance” explains Stephen Sondheim’s reaction when asked in a documentary (many years ago) if he ever faced anti-Semitism in his work. He was taken aback and he asked “You mean in the theater?” The questioner said, “Yes”. He replied, “No”. You could tell that Sondheim found the question absurd. It was like asking a guy who works at a famous Jewish deli if he faced anti-Semitism at work.

The HBO Max series “And Just Like That” (a “re-boot” of “Sex and the City”) begins streaming on Dec. 9. SARAH JESSICA PARKER, 55, who plays star character Carrie, is in the re-boot, as is EVAN HANDLER, 60, who plays Harry, the Jewish husband of star character Charlotte (who converted to Judaism before marrying Harry). Sad to note: WILLIE GARSON, who played Stanford, Carrie’s gay friend, was reported to be in the re-boot earlier this year. But it’s unclear if Garson filmed any episodes before he died (Sept. 17) of pancreatic cancer.


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