Brian Herrera — former UNM professor, New Mexico native and local theater’s favorite intellectual (even though he’s now at Princeton) — published an article in Theatre Journal last spring that examines problems with the classic musical West Side Story. Even before the show opened in 1957, members of New York’s Puerto Rican community expressed concerns about how they would be portrayed in the Broadway show. The controversy lingers today.
West Side Story, of course, resets Romeo and Juliet in the west side slums of Manhattan in the late 1950s. Instead of two feuding families, the musical pits two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, against one another. The Sharks are Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York for greater economic opportunities.
Complaints centered around two main issues: that actors playing the Sharks were not of Puerto Rican descent, and that the characters as written played to ethnic stereotypes. To the first charge, I think the creators should plead guilty and move on, though I would argue that they did cast Chita Rivera as Anita in a time when casting African-Americans in black roles was still somewhat controversial. West Side Story’s producers showed some courage. Just not a lot of it.
I think they have a better defense against the latter charge. Puerto Ricans argued that Sharks as gang members played to the stereotype of Puerto Ricans as criminals, even though all the teenage characters were gang members and very few of the characters really have much depth. Arguably, the characters we get to know best are Maria and Anita, both of whom are Puerto Rican.
In his article, Brian discusses the most recent Broadway revival of the show, directed by its librettist, Arthur Laurents. The revival was most noted for its inclusion of Spanish translations of the original English text for some of the scenes. However, that decision received mixed reviews in both the Spanish- and English-speaking communities even though the translations were executed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Broadway writer with Puerto Rican roots.
Also important to Laurents, however, was the desire to give the two lovers, Tony and Maria, a deeper emotional connection and a more sexually charged relationship. He said he thought the original production missed cues he wrote into the original script that would give them greater dimension and amplify the passion the two young lovers felt for one another.
According to The New York Times review by Ben Brantley, Laurents’s efforts may have worked. “For the first time I could imagine what Tony and Maria’s marriage might be like,” wrote Brantley.
Ultimately, most of the Spanish got cut from the production. Apparently it did not help to deepen the characters or help the audience understand their cultural isolation. In his article, Brian refers to Laurents’s Spanish insertions as “tone deaf.” He also notes that Laurents attempted to make amends for the casting errors of the past by calling for Spanish-speaking actors to play the Sharks. However, the actors came from all over the Spanish-speaking world; their various accents proved disconcerting to discerning audience members.
The Laurents-directed version of West Side Story comes to Popejoy this March. We get to see for ourselves many of the issues Brian highlights. Hopefully, we also get to see why, whatever its flaws, it’s still a classic.
Terry S. Davis