How West Side Story Changed Broadway Musicals Forever

– Jerlyn Manohar

The Tony Awards for 2016 presented by the American Theatre Wing made history in the best way possible. All four major acting awards – Best Leading Actor in a Musical, Best Leading Actress in a Musical, Best Performance by a featured actor in a musical, Best Performance by a featured actress in a musical – were won by people of colour.

Tony Awards 2016 saw an overwhelmingly large number of minority nominees – including an All – African American company of ‘Shuffle Along, or the making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and all that followed’  and ‘The Color Purple’ that shared 12 nominations between them – including Best Musical and Best Leading Actor. Interestingly, for the first time in Broadway history, almost 70% of Tony Award nominees across all categories had at least one parent or grandparent who was not of Caucasian descent.

Despite host James Corden’s claims of Broadway being so diverse that President Trump wants to build a wall around it, the musical theater industry has predominantly favoured art created by White people. It took nearly 70 years since Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein wrote West Side Story for Broadway to start opening up its doors for minority race representation.

When Stephen Sondheim wanted to write a musical based on Shakespeare’s famed Romeo and Juliet, racial tensions were high in America. The country was witnessing a record number of foreign immigrants – especially from Spanish speaking countries and Sondheim, cleverly took to writing two feuding teenage street gangs in the mid – 1950s to capture the rapid change in sentiments.

The story is set in New York’s Upper West Side filled with households thriving on blue – collared, menial jobs for survival, and one of the city’s biggest racial divide. The Jets a white gang takes immense pleasure in going out of its way to taunt the Puerto Rican gang called ‘The Sharks’. An intense dance – off to establish the gang dynamics is how the musical opens, and it ends with the police chasing away the Sharks while letting the Jets off with a light warning, emphasizing the undercurrent of racial profiling served with jaw – dropping choreography.

This bold introduction sets the tone for the rest of the show that is about love and loss and how racial prejudices run deep.

No one could have anticipated the show’s unprecedented success.

Broadway, despite being more accepting of an ethnically diverse people than mainstream Hollywood, was still show business that hesitated before investing money and time into a show about Latinos and acute race – related discriminations when West Side Story previewed. The first reviews for the show were cautious – almost warning – and critics focussed more on extending support for the choreography and the music instead of the subject matter for fear of backlash.

Therefore, the immense success and the pubic reviews that followed, changed the face of Broadway. The first crack on the metaphorical glass ceiling about meager success of shows with central themes that do not revolve around White households, had been made.

The show would go on to become one of the greatest works to be ever produced on Broadway and run for an incredible 732 performances during its initial run before being shipped off to West End for a sold – out 249 performance engagement. In the subsequent years, numerous National and International tours would happen, and two revivals of the same musical would happen in 1980 and 2008, the latter of which won a Grammy Award for Best Theatrical Album. This cemented Sondheim and Bernstein as the most recognisable faces of the American theatre worldwide.

In addition to the general consensus that West Side Story was the most exciting new show in decades, this was also the first time in recorded history that numerous Latin Americans were finding comfort in watching rough – accented characters singing librettos and trying everything they can to survive until the Finale; a story that millions connected with.

However, the show’s influence did not end there.

Emboldened by the success and the subsequent stardom that ensued the cast and creative team of West Side Story, producer David Merrick replaced the cast of the long – running musical “Hello, Dolly!” with an all – black ensemble.

A decade after West Side Story smashed all Broadway records in 1957, a musical about Argentina’s first Lady succeeded in laying a crack on the glass ceiling, again. Evita, about Eva Peron written by the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber was yet another testament of how a riveting story and music mattered more than the setting and the ethnicity of the characters.

Despite criticisms that both musicals did not have many Latino actors for representation, the 1980s and 1990s were a great time when parts were written for people of colour as a result of several activists prompting for more representation. Stars like Chita Riviera, Idina Menzel, Rosario Dawson, Daphne – Rubin Vega, Jesse L Martin, Pearl Bailey, Audra McDonald,Taye Diggs, Lea Solonga, Lizza Minelli, Billy Porter were all celebrated and achieved super – stardom as musical – movies performed exceedingly well at the box – office.

Sondheim – Bernstein’s legacy did not just succeed at bringing more diversity to Broadway; it trailblazed a belief among creators that art which resists demagoguery can change the minds of people.

Miss Saigon

At a time when interracial relationships were considered disgraceful, Miss Saigon and Pacific Overtures featuring Asian – American couples won awards. When gun rights and domestic terrorism was heavily debated on, Assassins, a musical about successful men and women who attempted kill a United States President redefined history syllabi. As the world searched for idealism and hope, Camelot about the legendary King Arthur and his roundtable, was a soothing salve.

Today, the most celebrated Broadway composer is a son of Puerto Rican immigrants. The best selling Broadway show in decades has a cast full of Asians, African – Americans, and Latinos. A black British woman is considered the finest female voice on Broadway. A musical about Cuban – American power couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan is told eight times a week by a company full of Latinos and Hispanics. The one – half of Golden Globe winning songwriter duo is from a family of Jewish immigrants.

Broadway today is a forerunner on political,social, and racial issues. It is a thriving community of artists who are not scared to write about stuff that matters; of half – deaf orchestrators who win Grammy awards, of musicals about the perennial fight between the good and the bad being the longest running shows in history, and a place where gay, HIV Positive cancer – survivors can be the highest paid actors. Above all else, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein empowered a generation of writers to never be afraid to tell difficult stories and use people oppressed by social norms to do so.

Stephen Sondheim (L) and Arthur Laurents (R)

This is perhaps the show’s – and its creators’- greatest legacy.


How West Side Story Changed Broadway Musicals Forever

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