When Steven Spielberg asked Kushner, America’s most important living playwright, to take on ‘West Side Story,’ he thought, ‘He’s lost his mind.’ But he dared.
By A.O. Scott, November 30, 2021
“MY FAVORITE QUOTE,” Tony Kushner says, “is from an American anarchist named Voltairine de Cleyre.”
It’s a warm Tuesday in October, and we’re talking on a bench in a quiet patch of Central Park, right behind John Quincy Adams Ward’s statue of William Shakespeare, which has stood since 1872 at the bottom of the park’s Literary Walk, a popular promenade dedicated to writers. Kushner is an enthusiastic quoter, citing famous and obscure people from the past as if they were old friends; de Cleyre, an associate of the turn-of-the-20th-century American revolutionary Emma Goldman, was a fervent advocate for workers’ rights and sexual equality — exactly the kind of little-known but nonetheless consequential figure that occasionally shows up in Kushner’s writing. The sentence in question, it will turn out, may or may not be from de Cleyre, and may or may not be exactly as Kushner cites it — we were on a park bench, after all, not in a library — but whoever said it first, it’s now among my favorite Kushner quotes: “Dare to participate in the great historical mistake of your time.”
The particular mistake he has in mind is “West Side Story,” a new movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the beloved, problematic 1957 Broadway musical set among the white ethnic and Puerto Rican youth gangs of Manhattan. The screenplay, which revises Arthur Laurents’s original book, is by Kushner, who has been collaborating with Spielberg for nearly 20 years, through “Munich” (2005), “Lincoln” (2012) and other unconsummated and upcoming films.