It was in some ways revolutionary: a Broadway musical that would touch on themes of immigration, income inequality, racism, sexism, gang violence. But when “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 1957, the Romeo and Juliet story of warring white and Puerto Rican street gangs would feature only two Puerto Rican actors in the main cast, with the remaining Latinx characters portrayed by white actors affecting broad, nearly comic Spanish accents.
“Representation is always a profound political question,” said Derek Miller, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities. “We want and deserve to see people like us represented truthfully and fairly; we want and deserve to see people like us succeed in the arts and in other realms. And we need to see people who are not like us in those same ways so that we can better understand each other and live together in a multiracial and multicultural society.”
That issue sits at the center of Miller’s class “Broadway Bodies, or Representation on the Great White Way.” The focus of the course is to push students to think critically about the race and gender of who gets cast for which role on Broadway and how Broadway stages cultural identity.
Miller’s class numbers close to 30, and varied perspectives from students, mostly undergrads and a few from GSAS, reaffirm the importance of balancing “critical instincts with pleasure, enthusiasm, and affection,” he said. Some described themselves as “theater kids,” while others hoped to learn more about the theater world, who performs and who is in the seats watching.
Junior Sarida Morejon did not know much about Broadway before signing up but chose “Broadway Bodies” as part of a wider effort to take classes focused on representation this semester. “I’m pretty far removed from the theater world. I didn’t realize how white the productions are, and also how white the audiences are,” said the 20-year-old history concentrator. “The audience part really threw me for a loop. I think it’s something that when you start thinking about it makes more sense.”