West Side Story won’t be making it to the Middle East, due to strict censorship protocols that frown on sexual immodesty, especially in a same-sex context. Because of the presence of a cast member played by a non-binary actor, the Disney/20th Century film, which opens elsewhere in the world this week, will be off limits to audiences in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Disney reportedly refused to make the cuts that would have granted access to audiences there.
The objectionable cast member, Anybodys, is played by Iris Menas. Their inclusion represents a breakthrough of sorts for the musical, whose original story was rooted in the heteronormative milieu of Eisenhower-era America.
The new film had its premiere in New York on November 29, several days after the death of 91-year-old Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist for the original Broadway production of West Side Story in 1957.
This is not the first time a Disney product has run afoul of the region’s strict censorship regulations. Last month, its animated film Eternals was banned through much of the region because it featured a kiss shared by a same-sex couple, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and Ben (Haaz Sleiman).
The new West Side Story flick was timed for release some 60 years after the original film, which opened in 1959. That earlier version, which starred Oscar-winning Rita Moreno in the role of Anita, opened in 1961. Interestingly, Moreno confessed that she almost pulled out of the role because of her objection to lyrics denigrating Puerto Rico as “you ugly island/island of tropic diseases.” The lyrics were rewritten and Moreno, now 89, continued in the role.
The cast of the Spielberg-directed version stars Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort as the star-crossed lovers loosely modeled after Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.