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Representation in ‘West Side Story,’ and Why it Matters

By CAMILLE AGIE

When West Side Story made its Broadway premiere in the 1950s, it was revolutionary. The legendary and immortal musical, which opens Pittsburgh CLO’s summer at the Benedum Center, reimagines the age-old story of forbidden love for the present day.

A 1950s twist on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the musical highlights themes of cultural differences that result in tension and violence. Although both Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story share a similar story of forbidden love, they differ in one major way — racial and ethnic representation. One of West Side Story’s major contributions to the arts and society is how its emphasis on representation has evolved.

Sabina Colazzo as Maria in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of West Side Story in 2019. (Image: Todd Rosenberg for Milwaukee Repertory Theater)

West Side Story was unconventional for its time when it debuted in 1957. It wasn’t just for  Leonard Bernstein’s iconic music, such as I Feel Pretty and America, or the vibrant and lively choreography by Jerome Robbins, but for its portrayal of people of color, specifically, Puerto Rican migrants to mainland America. The story takes place in 1950s New York City and centers around two rival teenage gangs – one white, the Jets, and the other Puerto Rican, the Sharks.  The plot and setting told a story that was rare in its depiction of urban culture clashes and representing the points of view of women and nonwhite characters.

Although the original 1957 production and 1961 film adaptation included progressive themes for the time, the two productions both lacked actual representation in its casts. Many of the actors who played Puerto Rican characters were not Puerto Rican or Hispanic.

Natalie Wood, who played Maria in the 1961 film adaptation, was of Eastern European descent, and her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who famously also dubbed the voices of Englishwomen in The King and I and My Fair Lady films.

Due to the lack of authentic representation in West Side Story, many actors resorted to stereotypes and brownface, which is similar to blackface. What may have seemed progressive back then serves as a reminder of how much has changed in the nearly 70 years since Bernstein, Robbins and a young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim created the musical.

Representation is not merely hiring an actor who has the same ethnic or cultural background as their character; it’s also about cultural continuity and authenticity. Sabina Collazo, who is playing Maria in the Pittsburgh CLO production of West Side Story, was born and raised in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and moved to America when she was 18.

“This is like my favorite role, and I have been fortunate enough to do it three times prior to this,” Collazo said during a break in rehearsals, before opening night on Tuesday, June 11.

When characters such as Maria are portrayed by actors who understand the culture of the character and incorporate their own lived experiences into their performance, their portrayal has the opportunity to resonate more with the audiences, and make the story more believable.

“Being able to play a character that is so close to me, it’s just so rare. My grandmother lived in New York during that time and then moved back to Puerto Rico and started her family,” said Collazo. “So, I also got to know my grandmother better and did research for this role when I first got it. And that has been really special for me.”

Collazo played Maria in a Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of West Side Story, in  which a dialect coach was hired to ensure proper representation of Puerto Rican characters after Collazo mentioned in her callback what a difference accents can make for a Spanish-speaking audience. Lisa Ann Goldsmith serves as the dialect coach for the PCLO production.

 “I struggled with [a previous revival] where they let all of the Hispanic characters keep their accents. So then you had an Irish guy with his own accent, a guy from London with his own accent, an Australian man and a guy from Texas … so the suspension of disbelief for Hispanics was very difficult, even though they did bring in the Spanish, which was revolutionary and so important and beautiful, and I did think that was well done. But when I told Mark Clements, the director at Milwaukee Rep about that, he hired a dialect coach.”

Collazo added it was “cool” that it was then decided the Jets should have a uniform accent, which also is what the Pittsburgh production will strive to achieve.

The way we see and feel about society and ourselves is greatly influenced by depictions in the media and entertainment. For many audience members, especially members from underrepresented communities, seeing individuals who look like them on stage can be memorable and empowering.

Ariana DeBose, an Afro-Latina, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story. Her presence in such an important role in the film reinforces the importance of including authentic representation.

“I’m really proud that the microaggressions that she experienced were in the fabric of the film. I credit [screenwriter] Tony Kushner greatly for being brave enough to include it and allow my physical manifestation to inform the script,” DeBose told Variety.

Stories of underrepresented were not given much weight for a long time, but nowadays, particularly after the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of organizations such as Black Theatre United, voices such as DeBose’s are being heard and aid in recognizing the importance of these communities’ contributions to arts and culture.

 “I try to maintain the integrity of how Maria is and her authenticity, and that’s what I try to bring to the show when I do it. I think it makes a difference for those of us who are seeing ourselves on stage,” Collazo said. “It would make a difference for me when I was young, and I want to make that difference for children as well now.” 

Casting directors and producers also are stepping up in recent years. Baayork Lee, the director and choreographer of the Pittsburgh CLO’s production of West Side Story, has been a long-time advocate for Asian-American performers and was awarded the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Humanitarian Tony Award for her efforts. Lee knows from experience how important representation is in theater.

“People have become more aware. The casting people and the writers and everybody, they’re getting on the same page. Whereas before, one person is banging on the door, trying to get a foot in,” Lee said. “When you get the foot in, then you go, ‘OK, come on in guys.’ And now it’s opening, but you know we still have work to do.”

Baayork Lee Fulfills Bucket List With Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘West Side Story’

The themes covered in West Side Story remain relevant, and the strides made in authentic representation encourage upcoming generations to feel connected with the stories being performed on stage.

 “Every opportunity is what you make of it. You can get as much out of it as you put into it. You know, there’s a saying in Spanish: The worst gesture is the one that is not made,” Collazo said. “So, ask the questions, reach out to the people, send that email, make that phone call, see what can be done. The worst that can happen is someone says ‘No.’ ”

RELATED: On Thursday, June 13, Pittsburgh CLO will present a preshow talk with local activists Tim Stevens (CEO/chairman of Black Political Empowerment Project) and Richard Carrington Sr. (counder/executive director of Voices Against Violence). They will explore the themes of West Side Story and their modern-day relevance to life in Pittsburgh. Details: