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West Side Story cultural issue

My advanced high school choir is doing a West Side Story medley of "I Feel Pretty," "Cool," and "America." I have a student of Puerto Rican background who hates the show and doesn't like to rehearse the music. She feels that the show is "racist" and does not portray her cultural in a postive or correct way. I think we can all agree that the show has sterotyping in it but that it's a landmark show with great music. What suggestions do you have for helping her to feel better about the show and the music? I want to honor her concerns and not trivialize or patronize them. I'm particularly interested in hearing from other folks with a Puerto Rican background who may be better able to understand her or help me to better understand her concerns.  Thanks!
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on May 30, 2013 10:23am
Dear Ms. Forness:
 
One way to look at West
Side Story is that it is a
snapshot of the past--i.e.,
it does represent an aspect
of Puerto Rican culture in
New York at the time it
was written/composed--
in that sense, although
adapted for artistic purposes,
it is a more or less accurate
portrayal.
 
Given that, you could affirm
to your student that Puerto
Rican culture has changed
for the better since that
time.
 
Another point is that the
show is not about gang
culture in New York in the
1950s--it is an adaptation
of Shakespeare's Romeo
and Juliet--that uses aspects
of life in NY to move the
action from the sixteenth
to the twentieth century.
 
The best thing you can do
is suggest these and/or other
alternative viewpoints to
your student--then step
back and let her come to
her own conclusions.
 
Best wishes for your performances.
 
 
Cordially,
 
Thomas Sheets, D.M.A.
 
 
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 30, 2013 11:03am
You might start by acquainting her with the bigger picture -- the political climate of the time of its creation and the team that created the musical.  This is a landmark show because of the risks they took to bring themes of gang violence, racial tension, and murder to the Broadway stage...only a few years after Oklahoma! was considered a huge change in musical theatre for portraying the death of a character.  Jerome Robbins' original concept was to do a modern Romeo and Juliet in New York, using the culture clash of WASP vs. Jewish communities. I believe it was Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, who suggested the idea of Anglo vs PR gangs. A young lyricist was chosen to work with Bernstein on the songs -- Stephen Sondheim, who has said that it's hard to listen to some of the lyrics now in retrospect.  In his book "Finishing the Hat" he describes the process of creating the show, and the tension among the creative team as they struggled to agree on aspects of the piece. 
 
 The political background is important, too.  This piece was written right after the McCarthy era, by a man who had been an informer to McCarthy's committee (Robbins) and three men who held very liberal views. All four men were Jewish and understood discrimination, and all four were gay at a time when homosexuality had to be carefully hidden. Gang violence was a daily reality in New York, and while the portrayal in the show may be stylized and verge on caricature, it had a special resonance for the audiences of the time who recognized the "ripped from the headlines" influence.  This article fills in some of the details:  http://www.npr.org/2011/02/24/97274711/the-real-life-drama-behind-west-side-story
 
  I would suggest that your student do some research into the creation of WSS, and read Sondheim's book if she can find a copy. Then if she can think of the show as an allegory for some very serious themes, as well as the relationship to R&J, she might be more comfortable thinking of the Puerto Rican characters as a stylized portrayal designed to appease the conservative audiences of the 1950s, so that they would be open to messages of the story. Her concerns are valid, but perhaps with some insight into the historical context and its impact on the future of musical theatre, she can take a more philosophical attitude about it. (I don't think we would have "Next to Normal", "In the Heights" or "Parade" if it weren't for WSS)
 
   I would also recommend this podcast from NPR:  50 Years of West Side Story  http://www.npr.org/templates/rss/podlayer.php?id=14732874
 
Nancy
Applauded by an audience of 4
on May 31, 2013 7:37am
Nancy - thank you for a really wonderful contextualization of the show, and for providing some resources about the background of the show. I would argue that this information should be part of the teaching of the music to the entire choral ensemble.  It is important not just for your student of Puerto Rican heritage to understand the context, but of all your students to understand the context.  It validates her concerns and takes a step further - bringing a different level of understanding to the larger group. What a message that would bring to that student and her family, and especially, to the members of your ensemble.
 
Joy
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 30, 2013 11:17am
I would suggest that this student (and perhaps your entire class) research the time period when the show was written.  It may allow them to better understand the context of the concept behind the show, and the ideas presented within it.  Also, I would suggest that you have your students know that this is a modern retelling of the classic "Romeo and Juliet," using New York City as the setting.  This isn't really much different than African-American students not understanding the history of the "Negro" spiritual.  But once they learn the reason(s) for them they learn that they were actually quite "race centric" and not meant to ridicule the slaves of the time period.
"West Side Story" is a very good show, even though much of what's in it would be considered politically incorrect in today's society.  But the message at the end of the show is really relevant today- that everyone should learn to live with each other, regardless of where they come from or how they look.
 
David Springstead, Sr.
Theatrical Actor/Director
on May 31, 2013 8:46pm
Knowing that the movie is more often people's first exposure to the musical, a story that NPR ran on the 50th anniversary of West Side Story (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14741275) would be of particular interest.  The playwright Arthur Laurents calls the movie "appalling" and "disgraceful" in it's adaption of WSS, in part, because of it's characterizations of Puerto Ricans. There are a fair number of substantial discussions that could be had about how the movie moved away from the intentions of the musical and how that effects our perceptions now.
on June 1, 2013 7:07am
An interview with Arthur Laurents in which he talks about this issue:  http://www.aarp.org/entertainment/arts-leisure/info-01-2008/laurents.html
on June 1, 2013 7:40am
All of the above is wonderful information and certainly speaks very effectively to the question.  But something else very helpful, I would think, and that no one has mentioned noticing so far, is that ***the White men*** -- not only the Puerto Rican men -- behave abomindably.  
 
Of course it's true that members of a community that has historically been the object of racism will be much more sensitive to anything that might be construed as a negative portrayal of them, while the behavior of the people belonging to the group seen as the norm is typically overlooked.   
But in _West Side Story_, neither side has a monopoly on depravity.
 
Nor on virtue!  One White man knows how to behave.  Maria is above reproach.  And even Anita -- after a tragically bad moment -- comes around to attain a wiser, more compassionate position.
 
There are bigger questions probed by the show -- big, admittedly, for a kid in high school -- that are hinted at in the lyrics to "Office Krupke."  The horrendous behavior we see in West Side Story ciritiques the ravages of capitalism on the working poor, critiques Imperialism, critiques racism and anti-immigrant sentiment (the "Jet" song exposes this in spades!); it shows us how men (of a variety of Colors) respond with violence when they feel these pressures, and it also shows how cultural family and pair-bonding expectations often motivate the women in those same communities to make alliance with "their" men and against other women.
 
To my eyes, these are all very *current* issues, though the contexts in which they play out shift with historical/political context.  In the end, no matter which group we see as representing ourselves, we probably come out looking dreadful unless we spend a lifetime heeding the story's warnings and trying to find better ways to cohabit this planet.
 
Good luck!
 
Kristina
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