The touring company production of West Side Story that’s currently at Proctors is wonderful entertainment, and I recommend it with few reservations: the performers are dynamic, the choreography is legendary, the music is beautifully played and it’s great theater. Go see it: It’s playing tonight (Friday) at 8 PM, Saturday (Aug. 20) at 2 and 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM. I just wanted to put in my 2 cents about the show’s semi-controversial changes, namely, having most of the Puerto Rican characters speak some lines in Spanish, and giving one of the show’s major songs to a minor character.
The jaded critic in me thinks, “well, they can’t change a note of Bernstein’s music or a step in Robbins’ choreography, so they have to change something else to make it new.” But the intent of he changes is sound.
Given the fact that America was an overwhlemingly caucasion, English-speaking place for a long, long time, it’s not surprising that sensitivities to the portrayals of everyone not caucasion have evolved, and the necessity for changes recognized. But aging white dudes like myself, no matter how enlightened we may think we are, tend to forget how whitedudecentric things have been. Example: I was flabbergasted to learn, watching a “making of” documentary about one of my favorite films, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, that the casting of the extras was color-coded. Shot on location in Mexico, all the extras for the scenes set in South Texas were (of course) Mexican, but the lighter-skinned Mexicans were cast as Texans and their darker-skinned neighbors were cast as Mexicans.
Peckinpah was no racist—a misogynist, sure, but not a racist—and the villains and heroes of The Wild Bunch are distributed impartially across nationalities and ethnicities. But Peckinpah and his casting director knew American audiences, and segregating the cast by color was a form of visual shorthand.
So it should be considered progress that, in the opening ensemble dances in the production of West Side Story at Proctors, there were moments when I couldn’t tell the Jets from the Sharks. The casting of the film version of West Side Story was obviously color coded, as the the movie’s Jets are recognizably “white” and those Sharks recognizably “brown.” The revival’s producers’ intent clearly is to achieve a greater realism, and that’s a fine intention. Though the fact that, from my balcony perch, I had trouble distinguishing the two gangs is a problem in itself. Maybe the clothes could be color-coded.
I think the revival’s attempt to add realism by having the Sharks speak Spanish is a mistake, however, for two reasons. . .