The Mishandling of Race and Ethnicity in the Movie Musical

Topics: Puerto Rico

Since the beginning of film itself, music has been a key element in the storytelling aspect, whether it be through the use of a live orchestra or pre-recorded instrumental tracks. The movie musical, however, appears to be in a category of its own, using a combination of both song and narrative elements to convey stories from an entirely new perspective. These stories can range from a heroic war tale to a passionate romantic saga. Yet, there is one story the movie musical continually mishandles: the lives and experiences of racial and ethnic minorities.

Because there are so few musicals adapted from stage to screen that deal with race— a problem in its own right— West Side Story (1961) will be used as a basis to examine issues with casting racial and ethnic minorities, chromophobia in cinematography, and the music itself.

Comparing West Side Story with recent movie musicals, this paper will analyze these issues and examine if anything is being done to correct them.

It is important to recognize that in its final inception, West Side Story was meant to be a cautionary tale of racial conflict and juvenile gang delinquency in the United States, particularly during the 1950s. With gang violence and the Civil Rights Movement on the rise, the idea was to create something appealing that would show the dangers of youth being involved in gangs and the detrimental consequences of racism. However, despite its good intentions and the many things it did get right, West Side Story unintentionally perpetuated racial discord, both on Broadway and on film.

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The stem of these issues begins with its initial creation as a stage production.

The lives and experiences of Puerto Ricans in the United States is integral to the main plot, and yet it was handled with very little care. Discussing the extent to which his team researched Puerto Rican culture before writing the musical, Leonard Bernstein states, “We went to a gym in Brooklyn where there were different gangs that a social organization was trying to bring together. I don’t know if too much eventually got into West Side Story, but everything does help.” (Negron-Muntaner 84). This could be easily seen in early drafts of the book, causing producers to become worried of the “superficial” image of Puerto Ricans that the musical seemed to be portraying. Cheryl Crawford, one of the main backers at the time, even went so far as to say that she would quit financing the project unless the whole thing was rewritten (Negron-Muntaner 84). When a final theatrical production was made, though the show was met with rave reviews, it was easy for audiences and critics to see that the show wasn’t really about the specific issues Puerto Ricans faced at all. Rather, it focused more on the circumstances surrounding the Sharks and the Jets (the two gangs) and the romance between Tony and Maria.

When the show was tapped to become a Hollywood film, director Robert Wise continued to do more research on gangs and Puerto Rican culture in an attempt to address the original problems (Kajolseth). Yet, despite the effort made to try and “fix” West Side Story’s complications, the transfer ultimately created more. Perhaps the most controversial issue regarding West Side Story was its casting choices. Not only was actress Rita Moreno, who plays Anita, the only Puerto Rican to be cast, but the other two main Puerto Rican characters, Bernardo and Maria, were portrayed by white, non-Puerto Rican actors. Regarding the first problem, the background actors who were cast as Puerto Ricans were of Hispanic/Latino heritage. This can be considered a good thing, but it interesting to note that the only person who was actually Puerto Rican was Moreno. The issue with this is that the story is specifically targeted to the obstacles Puerto Rican immigrants faced while coming to the United States. Of course, not all of these obstacles can apply to any Hispanic/Latino person, nor do they all look alike. This causes a form of generalization, which can create stereotyping.

In reference to the second issue, though it was extremely common to whitewash non-white characters prior to the 1970s, this is one movie where it definitely shouldn’t have occurred— especially since it happened to the other main Puerto Rican characters. According to Negron-Muntaner, a Puerto Rican filmmaker and writer, Rita Moreno was made to wear darker makeup to darken her complexion a bit more, despite being Puerto Rican. The other Hispanic/Latino actors were made to do this as well. Yet, George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, was the only white actor to have brownface applied to appear “more Puerto Rican” (91). Natalie Wood, a white actress of Ukrainian descent, was not made to wear brownface at all, despite playing the main Puerto Rican character, Maria. Megan Woller, a teacher of musicology at the University of Houston, explains the reasoning behind this decision, stating, “In the case of Maria, casting Natalie Wood not only brought star power to the film but allowed the audience to safely indulge in an interracial relationship with the knowledge that Maria was in reality a white woman.” (8). When one looks back at the point of West Side Story, allowing this to occur completely disregards the message. How can a story plead with its audience to overcome violence and racial hatred when it can’t even do that itself?

Not many movie musicals in recent years have dealt with interracial relationships or racism, so it is challenging to find a true comparison to see if there is any growth in narrative. But, when looking at casting of racial or ethnic minorities, it is clear to see that this is still an issue. Not only are only white actors cast when they don’t need to be, such as in Les Misérables (2012), but whitewashing (or Anglo-washing) of racial and ethnic minorities still occurs. Evita (1996) is a prime example. Evita follows the life of Eva Perón, an Argentine political leader and the wife of Juan Perón, the President of Argentina from 1946 to 1955. Though both of these people were Argentine, Madonna, a French-Italian actress and singer, was cast to play Eva. Jonathan Pryce, a Welsh actor, was cast to play Juan. The other main character, Ché, was played by Antonio Banderas, an actor from Spain. As with West Side Story, it is important to keep the integrity of such specific cultures intact. By casting actors who have no experience with that culture or race, no matter how closely related their ethnic background is to it, the film loses accuracy and dignity.

In cinematography, the coloring used plays a substantial role in how audiences perceive a film. It can elicit certain moods, reactions, or feelings. West Side Story’s use of color is as equally important as its use of song. From the beginning, it is established that the color schemes are incredibly complex and chosen with a genuine purpose. Lauren Davine, a Doctoral candidate at Ryerson University, provides this example: “The film’s intricate color scheme is introduced in the overture, where the only movement over an abstract Manhattan skyline is the changing background colors: from citrine yellow, to poppy red, to persimmon, to magenta, to violet, to iris blue, etc. The array of colors onscreen each correspond to a song in the overture, and reemerge later on when the song is featured in a musical number (Acevedo-Muñoz 125). For example, the poppy red backdrop in the overture is accompanied by the instrumentals of the song, “Tonight.” Correspondingly, the “Tonight” musical number/montage opens with an ominous sky at sunset in this same shade of red.” (140). This application of color is not just seen in the set design and music, but with the costumes as well. Throughout the film, the Jets (the white, European gang) only wear light, faded hues of white, blue, yellow, beige, and brown. In stark contrast, the Sharks wear vibrant, deep shades of red, black, and purple. Of course, each of these color schemes are meant to be reflective of each respective culture, further enhancing the idea of how opposite these two groups of people are.

This rift however, unintentional or not, creates a divide for the viewer in the form of chromophobia. Chromophobia is considered to be “the fear and loathing of color in Western culture” (Davine 141). Thus, the Puerto Ricans stand out, their striking colors signifying that they are the “other.” This is seen in the opening sequence: the cool, snapping Jets interrupted by a flash of color— Bernardo— beginning the first turf war. He breaks the peace and the unity of muted colors, making the Sharks become something to be feared not only by the Jets, but by the audience as well. Additionally, it is important to note that the color red is associated with violence, blood, and hate in the film— a color only connected to the Sharks. Because of this theme, there is an inherent unease when Puerto Ricans appear on screen. In Hairspray (2007), this is able to be avoided. Similar to West Side Story, the plot follows two opposing racial groups. The musical is set in the 1960s and advocates for an end to racial conflict and violence. Though there is an explicit separation between the white and the black characters in the film, both groups frequently wear similar styles of clothing in various colors. This prevents any kind of unintended bias from forming in the mind of the viewer.

There are not many other movie musicals that stress racial discord, showcased though clear and separate groups. But, as of now, there appears to be positive growth in how the movie musical connects race and ethnicity, and cinematographical color. The music composed by Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story is crucial to understanding and experiencing the racial tension in the film. Bernstein is able to create a complex and meaningful way of expressing the love, hate, and desire of the Sharks and the Jets. And though he does this successfully, it pertains mainly toward the Jets. Throughout the entirety of the film, the Puerto Ricans are only able to express their culture and how they feel in two songs: “Dance at the Gym” with the Mambo and “America” (Inside the Score). Though their voice is meant to be heard, it is oddly lacking. It is ironic that of the latter of these two, half the song is spent criticizing Puerto Rico. In the original Broadway lyrics for “America,” the song was deemed to be too negative toward Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican immigrants, having to be changed when it was adapted (Sanchez). Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist for West Side Story, even once spoke on how unfamiliar with Puerto Rico he was, stating his initial thoughts when asked to join the production were, “I can’t do this show…I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican.” (Sanchez).

Additionally, though various forms of Latino and Hispanic influence are used in these two songs, such as Mexican and Cuban rhythms, Puerto Rican rhythms are only used once in a brief moment. This occurs at the beginning of “America,” using the Tempo Di Seis (Inside the Score). There is no doubt that the Puerto Ricans had little representation in song, and because of this, their voice is significantly reduced to that of the Jets. Since music plays such a substantial role in conveying the narrative and message, this makes the Sharks’ role in the story appear minimal, when in fact, it should be the greatest. As stated before, there are not many contemporary movie musicals to compare this to. However, though the voice of the Puerto Ricans was dimmed in West Side Story, one was also stolen: that of black Americans. While the Sharks use a combination of Latino influence in their songs, the Jets have signature jazz beats, considered by Bernstein to be the “music of America” (Inside the Score). Though at the time, jazz was the voice of black Americans, using influence from their own individual cultures to create a new sound. It was a form of expression for them and became the voice of the black community. Yet, those who use this musical form in the film are all white, European men. This same occurrence can be seen in La La Land (2016), where it becomes Ryan Gosling’s character’s voice, despite there being black characters in the film (ones who reject jazz and turn to other forms of music instead).

The mishandling of race and ethnicity in the movie musical has been a reoccurring problem for decades. With recent movements to push for better representation of minorities in film, the hope to fix this issue is beginning to become reality. Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story will be the true test of progress in the movie musical, hopefully delivering the original message in an inspiring and appropriate way. Though there is not much known of the film, what has been released now looks promising. The casting call asks only for Latino and Latina actors to audition for the Sharks, Maria, Anita, and Bernardo. Though this is not specifically Puerto Rican, it is still a great start. Additionally, it is rumored that some songs will be sung in Puerto Rican Spanish, much like the Broadway counterpart did in 2009. If these changes, and more, are done successfully, West Side Story will lead movie musicals into becoming accurate, compelling, and representative stories of racial and ethnic minorities— and there will be a place for them.

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The Mishandling of Race and Ethnicity in the Movie Musical. (2022, Apr 29). Retrieved from

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