What Happens to “West Side Story” When You Remove Race?

Dharon E. Jones, Amar Ramasar, and the cast of “West Side Story.” (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

West Side Story is a musical that wears its liberal heart on its sleeve. Created by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story took a play that was relatively apolitical, Romeo & Juliet, and turned it into a look at racism, gang warfare, assimilation, and poverty. The musical ends with its heroine Maria, a Puerto Rican woman who had tried to be a peacemaker, pointing a gun at a group of Latinx and white teens shouting, “You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate!”

When the musical first premiered, in 1957, it was inspired by both Romeo & Juliet but also by news headlines at the time about turf wars among teenage gang members. The Montagues and Capulets of R&J then became the Jets and the Sharks of West Side Story—a white gang versus a Puerto Rican gang, who hate each other not because of some “ancient grudge break to new mutiny,” but a very contemporary grudge: racism. In creating West Side Story, Robbins and co. were reviving Romeo & Juliet and making it relevant to a mid-20th-century audience.

Or at least, as white men, they tried. West Side Story has always had a fraught relationship with Latinx people. Said Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2009, as he was working on that year’s West Side Story Broadway revival: “I think West Side Story for the Latino community has been our greatest blessing and our greatest curse…As a piece of art, I think it’s just about as good as it gets. It also represented our foot in the door as an artistic community on Broadway. At the same time, because it’s just about the only representation of Latinos on Broadway and it’s about gangs, that’s where it gets tricky.” 

Which brings us to 2020, where two different versions of West Side Story are being released. One is the new film by Stephen Spielberg, scheduled for a December 18 release. Like the original musical, the film is set in the 1950s. Meanwhile on Broadway, Belgian director Ivo van Hove helmed a revival of the musical that began performances in December 2019. This version was set in the modern era, with the Sharks and Jets filming the action on their phones which is then projected onto a giant screen behind them. West Side Story on stage was shut down on March 12 when Broadway shuttered because of COVID-19. But once again, a musical about racism and the lives of people of color in America are directed by white men. 

Despite its sometimes questionable qualities, I have always had a soft spot for West Side Story. I own a box set of the 1961 film that came with a bound script. The mambo scene, in all of the iterations I’ve seen of the show (I’ve seen three), never fails to make me breathless. It’s because even though West Side Story is a tragedy, it uses music and dance to remind all of us that there is still hope and beauty in the world, if we can only move past our racial differences to see it.

Which brings me to the 2020 Broadway revival of West Side Story, which I saw twice earlier this year (both times for work). I had come into this revival with misgivings (which I will discuss later), but I wanted to like it. And I left feeling like I’d been hollowed out. 

“But What About Black-on-Black Crime?”

I’m not the kind of person who believes you should preserve theater in amber. I think if you’re going to revive a classic play or musical, you should have a reason for doing the show now. And creators shouldn’t be beholden to tradition when reviving a show; they should be allowed to re-imagine it. If Shakespeare can be recontextualized in seemingly unlimited ways, why can’t West Side Story?

This version of West Side Story wanted to be modern; van Hove said he wanted to set it after the 2016 election, when America is “a much rougher world…where people don’t listen to each other’s arguments, but just react to each other, and blame each other for what they are missing in life.” And he also made it multiracial: the Jets are now a Black and white gang, led by a Black teenager named Riff (Dharon E. Jones). If their hatred isn’t along racial lines, then what is it? Said choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, “But I do think that both Jets and Sharks are young and are looking for identity. And it’s also about violence, poverty and exclusion.”

On the one hand, the violence should not make sense because hatred and violence is senseless. On the other hand…we’ll get to that momentarily.

The revival also cut out some elements of the original which, on the surface, seem innocuous. It cuts Maria’s only solo song “I Feel Pretty,” and the all-women scene preceding it. It also cuts the ballet that usually accompanies the song “Somewhere.” And it cuts this line from Maria (Shereen Pimentel) in the show: “You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate!”

These cuts may seem innocuous but what it does is remove any sense of lightness, joy, and hope from the musical. Maria is the sole voice in the musical who calls for the end of violence and for peace. What her song “I Feel Pretty” shows is a girl who looks at the world with optimism. In a world where Latinas are made to feel invisible and ugly, she chooses to feel pretty. Maria is hope personified. Cutting that song cuts a crucial character moment for her. 

When at the end, Maria holds a gun and says “now I have hate,” that hope is seemingly broken and that is the true tragedy. But when Maria chooses not to use that gun, it’s supposed to be the triumph of love over hatred. In the movie, the final line is “Te adoro, Anton,” and the final shot is of Maria, resolute and moving forward. You get the sense that there will be a better world somewhere, and Maria will help build it.

The 2020 West Side Story revival sidelines Maria and the other women, in order to center the violence of the men. The men are also centered in the marketing campaign for the show as well as the images on the marquee. The women do not push back against the hate, or give a hopeful alternative to it. At the end, Maria doesn’t break away from the violence, she just stands on the stage, next to the Jets and Sharks, looking exhausted and depleted. Another Black woman whose lover was killed by gun violence (Pimentel is Afro-Latina). The revival took away what made Maria special. 

And who is responsible for the violence? In the scene where Anita (Yesenia Ayala) is almost raped, we see a close-up camera shot of her jeans being unbuttoned, and then a Black man on top of her. During the song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” usually sung by white Jet members, it’s instead sung by mostly Black actors, who are then shown in a jail cell.

During the rumble, Bernardo (Amar Ramasar) kills Riff, who is Black in this production. Tony—played by Isaac Powell who is part Native American, Black and white—then kills Bernardo.

Van Hove may have made the Jets multiracial, but he also took out white supremacy and institutional racism as a source of violence in West Side Story. As theater director Schele Williams put it:

“It’s a very specific story about white people making Puerto Ricans other. The story changes considerably when you make it brown on brown…You put all brown people on stage to show danger and you took the whiteness out of a story that is about a group of people saying, ‘This is America and you don’t belong here.’ In a moment when America is having a whole conversation about putting children in cages on the border and saying, ‘you don’t belong here,’ but you’ve taken whiteness out of that story.”

Schele Williams

 

“In addition, you have cut, ‘I Feel Pretty’ away from a community that so desperately needs to say out loud, ‘I feel pretty and witty and bright.’ How often does that group of people, those women, those Latinx, Puerto Rican women, get to say something affirming about themselves on the American stage? And that song was cut. Who was behind the table for that conversation? And who thought that only brownness can be dangerous? Because I fear the white boy who comes into my kids’ school and shoots it up. I don’t fear the brown one.”

Schele Williams

Even before summer 2020, America was experiencing a reckoning around race. Black people were getting murdered with impunity by white police officers, the president called a group of white supremacists “very fine people,” Latinx children were being put in cages by white immigration officials. In the original West Side Story, the police officers treat the Puerto Rican Sharks much more harshly than they do the white Jets. That nuance is gone from the revival. Van Hove wanted to make his West Side Story relevant to American audiences today. But by taking away the race element in the musical, he made his version irrelevant, the theatrical version of “all lives matter.”

But this is how white supremacy wraps itself up as allyship. Because you can hire a group of Black and Latinx actors and have them act in a beloved Broadway musical about how hate and violence is destructive. But how you position them onstage matters. In this new West Side Story, young people of color are senselessly violent, and police intervention is justified, because otherwise, these mostly Black and brown youths would keep killing each other. It’s no different than the fear mongering on Fox News.

Said Williams: “That’s why cops shoot first and ask questions later, because brown is scary and white is fine. In this platform with all of these thoughtful, kind, liberal humans, we are reaffirming the prejudices of our nation on the American stage.”

And I’m not saying Van Hove and his predominantly white creative team meant for West Side Story to say those things. But they didn’t even assemble a team that could even ask the right questions.

The cast of ‘West Side Story.” (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

The Ethics of Consumption

West Side Story is the first Broadway show in a long time to be met with protests on its opening night. That’s because it had cast Amar Ramasar, who was fired (along with a number of other male ballet dancers) from the New York City Ballet for sharing nude photos of female ballerinas. In all of the ensuing media coverage, Ramasar did not apologize. The West Side Story protests were organized by Paige Levy, a senior at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan. Ballet dancer Alexandra Waterbury, whose photos were also circulated, also joined the protests. 

A member of the West Side Story cast also wrote anonymously to OnStage Blog, saying: 

“I hate that I have to share the stage with him. I hate seeing him smile or laugh backstage. I hate seeing him reap rewards of adoration from audiences who don’t know or who haven’t bothered to look up what happened.

“But most of all, I hate that I can’t say the things I want to say freely. I’m young. I’m at the beginning of what I hope is a long career and as passionate as I am about wanting to scream from a soapbox about this, I’m just as passionate about wanting to continue to work on Broadway and I know people have been blacklisted for saying less.” 

Those weren’t the only issues the West Side Story revival faced. Backstage, a number of actors were injured. Isaac Powell was out of commission for more than a month because of a knee injury he got while performing. Another principal cast member, Ben Cook, left the production due to an injury. Multiple actors getting injured within two months of a show’s life is not normal. So besides the sexual harassment issue, there also seemed to be a workplace safety issue.

Maybe that’s why the show rang hollow to me. It’s the equivalent of a corporation saying it supports diversity, but won’t take any actionable steps to make itself more diverse. For a show that seemed to condemn violence in the text, it had little consideration for the humanity and safety of its performers. There’s a difference between saying the words and actually putting those words into practice. A show can have pretty and progressive words, but when there are harmful practices backstage, what value do those words have?

There’s a meme that’s been around a few years now with the phrase, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” If you’re a person living in a developed nation today, everything you consume was probably produced under the auspices of oppression: the people who make our iPhone or pick our vegetables are likely underpaid and overworked, the air conditioning we use or the planes we travel on is contributing to the harming of the planet, Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world because he underpays his factory workers and doesn’t give them bathroom breaks. Oppression and harm is woven into the fabric of a capitalistic society.

For me, it’s become steadily harder to separate the artistic merits of the work with how the work was made. I haven’t been able to enjoy anything Harry Potter related after I found out that J.K. Rowling is a transphobe. That is because living in the now is a constant negotiation of how to put the things that I value—humane and safe working conditions, diversity in storytelling, anti-racism and justice—into active practice in an imperfect world.

That is why I didn’t want this essay to just be about, “I hated the new West Side Story and here’s why.” Because the artistic merits of a show is one thing, we can talk all day about that. But should the conditions in which a piece of art is made impact your enjoyment of that art? That’s the tougher question. 

This is not to shame anyone who enjoyed the Broadway revival of West Side Story. Let me know what you liked about it. But when Broadway reopens again and if West Side Story comes back, I hope we will all be able to have a more open conversation about the way the art is made, in conjunction with talking about the work itself. And how inequitable artistic practices can damage the art itself.

There is a reason why the We See You, White American Theatre demand letter devotes just as much space to artistic practice as it does to the product. Because if we are serious about a better, more equitable environment for artists from marginalized backgrounds, then we need to have a frank discussion about how we treat those artists. And we need to have those discussions in conjunction with whether or not the work is “good.” What happens offstage is just as important as what’s onstage.

And if in the next decade you have to revive West Side Story again, give it to a Latinx person to direct.

4 thoughts

  1. Hi, I really enjoyed this piece and it brings up a ton of great points, I had heard about the issues with Amar Ramasar, but I didn’t know about the cuts or the casting decisions. Just so you know, there is a small typo in this sentence, “Black people were getting murdered without impunity by white police officers,” It should be “with impunity” instead.

  2. This is an amazing article! I agree with you on so many points and I look forward to continuing and normalizing these conversations.

  3. You make important points in your article, but you also cite matters which are in dispute, which weakens your argument. For example, Amar Ramasar did apologize for being the recipient of an inappropriate photo, and he was reinstated at the New York City Ballet. Tellingly the actual culprit, a white male, has managed to waltz away from the chaos he unleashed. That “anonymous” post from a supposed cast member is fake. JK Rowling is not a “transphobe”. She merely expressed concern over what she sees as the erasure of women. She has never said or written anything that’s transphobic and I defy anyone to prove that she has. You may enjoy Harry Potter in peace.
    That said, as far as this production of WSS goes (full disclosure, I didn’t see it), it was problematic from the getgo. Van Hove and his associates are Belgian, with only a flyover knowledge of American racial complexities. The idea that black Americans would join up with first and second generation white immigrants to fight Puerto Ricans is beyond ludicrous. (I’d be willing to bet that Van Hove didn’t know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens at birth.). In his quest to reinvent the wheel, he denigrated Broadway performers. You cite the many injuries of the cast, no surprise considering that he went out of his way to hire inexperienced dancers unused to doing eight shows a week. To be fair, even theatre veterans would have problems sloshing around onstage in water for much of the show. And he covered the Jets and the Sharks in hideous tattoos more befitting members of an international drug cartel than kids on the west side of Manhattan.
    West Side Story is to Latinos what Porgy and Bess is to black Americans – great music, a reliable source of employment for performers of color, but ultimately a creation by white artists of a culture they know little about. It was true in 1957 and it’s still true now.

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