Here's why Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' reimagined a key character as transgender

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·7-min read
Nonbinary performer Iris Menas (far left) plays Anybodys in the new version of West Side Story (Photo: Ramona Rosales / © 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Nonbinary performer Iris Menas (far left) plays Anybodys in the new version of West Side Story. (Photo: Ramona Rosales / © 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection)

When Steven Spielberg's already-acclaimed version of West Side Story arrives in theaters, fans of one of Broadway's best-known musicals will notice that it looks a little different from the classic 1961 film version. Make that a lot different. Working alongside screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg has made some significant changes to the previous movie musical, including reshuffling the order of songs, exclusively casting Latinx actors as Puerto Rican characters and omitting English subtitles when characters speak in Spanish.

But one of the biggest changes involves a character who has traditionally played a minor role in West Side Story. In the original Broadway production and Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins's film version, the swaggering Jets are followed around the Upper West Side by Anybodys, a young tomboy from the neighborhood who desperately wants to be part of their gang.

Most depictions of Anybodys — including Susan Oakes's portrayal in the earlier movie — avoid dwelling in detail on the character's gender identity beyond the traditional trappings of a '50s-era tomboy: short hair and a spiky attitude. But Spielberg's film firmly establishes the character as transgender, both via dialogue heard in the film and the performer cast in the role: nonbinary Broadway actor Iris Menas, whose previous stage credits include the Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill. (After departing the cast last year, Menas publicly criticized that musical for its depiction of a nonbinary character.) 

Iris Menas attends the Jagged Little Pill after party in 2019  (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)
Iris Menas attends the Jagged Little Pill after party in 2019. (Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)

Spielberg and Kushner's choice to rewrite the role has already had repercussions. In the run-up to the film's release, West Side Story was banned in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations specifically due to the portrayal of Anybodys as trans. Many of those same countries previously banned the Marvel movie Eternals over its inclusion of a gay couple, a move that one of the film's stars, Angelina Jolie, criticized as "ignorant." As in that case, Walt Disney Studios declined to make any cuts to West Side Story, and the Anybodys role remains intact in the version of the film that audiences will see in most countries around the world.

In interviews about West Side Story, Menas specifically refers to Anybodys by both "he/him" and "they/them" pronouns. "He's kind of been disowned by his family … and is following the Jets closely," the actor explains in a promotional video released by 20th Century Studios. "We see this kind of lost soul hoping to join this gang of brother, not only to be accepted into a family … but to be accepted for who they are as a person and accepted in their own skin."

Susan Oakes (far right) played Anybodys in the 1961 film version of West Side Story. (Photo: United Artists/YouTube)
Susan Oakes (far right) played Anybodys in the 1961 film version of West Side Story. (Photo: United Artists/YouTube)

Oakes's version of Anybodys from the 1961 film was similarly seeking acceptance from the Jets, only to be met with dismissal and ridicule at every turn. In a typical exchange, one member of the gang told her, "Go wear a skirt," prompting her to reply, "I got scabby knees!" In another scene, she begs to take part in future Jets vs. Sharks rumbles, telling the crew's leader, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), "I'm a killer, I wanna fight!" That inspires another Jet to pipe up and say, "How else's she gonna get a guy to touch her?"

West Side Story was Oakes's first big-screen role, and also her last. After the film's release, she made sporadic appearances on television shows including The Lucy Show and The Lieutenant before stepping away form the industry in the mid-1960s. Over the years since the film's 1961 release, Anybodys has been cited as an early attempt by Hollywood to depict a trans character onscreen.

In the production notes for Spielberg's film, casting director Cindy Toland remembers the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to reimagining the role. "We had a lot of conversations about it and decided this role could be played best by a trans person," she remarks, adding that Menas was cast after meeting with Spielberg during a casting session for dancers. "Iris said 'We met before when you came backstage at Jagged Little Pill. Somehow we saw then and there that Iris [was] meant to be in the film."

George Chakiris and Susan Oakes at a 50th anniversary screening of West Side Story in 2011 (Photo: WireImage)
George Chakiris and Susan Oakes at a 50th anniversary screening of West Side Story in 2011. (Photo: WireImage)

Meanwhile, David Saint — the executor of the estate of Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original Broadway play — unequivocally remarks in the new film's production notes that the late playwright would endorsed the change. "Arthur was ahead of his time with this," Saint says. "He said, 'Anybodys is a character who was a man born in a female’s body.' End of story. If it were today, he would be a transgender."

Kushner — who penned the pioneering LGBTQ play Angels in America — makes the original Broadway production's subtext part of the new movie's actual text. For the first half of the film, Anybodys is frequently seen on the periphery of the frame, but he takes center stage in an extended sequence that precedes one of West Side Story's best-remembered songs, "Gee, Officer Krupke."

In the scene, the Jets have been hauled into the local police precinct as the cops try to get information about their looming rumble with the Jets. Anybodys is brought in separately and is seated on the benches with the rest of the gang. The Jets proceed to ridicule the late arrival, calling him a "dickless wonder" and teasing, "The girl wants to be a Jet." That leads Anybodys to lash out angrily. "I ain't no goddamn girl!" he yells.

Anybodys makes another attempt to align himself with the Jets in the aftermath of their battle with their rivals, which claims the lives of both Riff (Mike Faist) and the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez). Having learned that Riff's friend and Jets co-founder, Tony (Ansel Elgort), is being targeted by Bernardo's allies in retribution for his death, Anybodys offers to find Tony and hide him. "You done good, buddy boy," one of the Jets says, pointedly implying that they've accepted him as a man — and as one of their own.

In the actor's promotional interview, Menas describes how the tragic love story at the heart of West Side Story might help audiences see beyond their own preconceived ideas about race and gender. "It just shows us how important it is to learn about each other's differences and celebrate them, and learn that we really just fear what we don't know," Menas observes. "We just need to all be a little more open and a little more compassionate toward one another."

That message has resonated with viewers who have gotten an early look at the film — and single out Menas for praise — as well as those excited to see a version of Anybodys that can fully be himself at last.

West Side Story premieres Dec. 9 in theaters

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