More than 60 years after its Broadway debut, “West Side Story” remains a touchstone of modern American theater. A new Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club production opening this week at Farkas Hall is confronting the cultural missteps associated with the classic musical, turning an ambitious theatrical project into a complex educational experience for cast and crew.
When the artistic team began planning the show, members focused on addressing chronic issues of Latinx representation in casting, a flaw illustrated early on by the Oscar-winning 1961 film adaptation in which the vast majority of Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors, such as Natalie Wood as the female lead, Maria. They also wanted to find a way to reckon with the real and underdeveloped histories of Latinx life in New York in the late 1950s, beyond the show’s stereotypical portrayals.
“‘West Side Story’ has left a big cultural footprint, so there is value in reclaiming the story and depicting it as accurately as possible,” said technical producer Amanda Gonzalez-Piloto ’21, noting that the script for the HRDC production cannot be changed due to copyright restrictions. “We’re working within a limited framework, so we have been asking: What can we do to make a more accurate and respectful cultural representation and also acknowledge there are some seeds of truth in this very flawed creative masterpiece?”
Gonzalez-Piloto, a joint concentrator in Theater, Dance & Media and music, is also president of TEATRO!, one of the groups presenting the production, along with La Organización de Puertorriqueños en Harvard (La O). She said that facing the show’s difficult past was crucial to the production process. To create a foundation of understanding and knowledge among the cast and crew, she worked with students at La O and Diversity Peer Educators to hold multiple cultural conversations with the cast and staff, on topics including the historic and current poor treatment of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and the development of Latinx and latinidad identity categories.
The goal was to critique the language of the script and learn more about the history and culture behind the characters through a distinctly Latinx lens, rather than from the show’s original creators, who were white men.