Whose story is it to sing?

The controversy behind the production of West Side Story

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[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”5″]W[/su_dropcap]hitewashing is known in the film industry as the casting of white actors in non-caucasian roles. North Platte High School has come under criticism by a former student this month for this same practice in the upcoming musical, “West Side Story.” The 1961 musical is a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with two gangs, the all-white Jets and the all-Latinx Sharks, battling for territory control. The situation becomes even more controversial when one of the gang members falls in love with a rival gang member’s sister. Natalie Wood in the movie version of “West Side Story” is an example of a caucasian playing an ethnic role.

In NPHS’s version, the main cast consists of all-white actors. NPHS theater alumnus Seth Mavigliano (‘16) recently wrote to the board of education, administration, “The Bulldogger” and posted on social media. He was heavily involved in musicals and speech/debate in his time at NPHS and is currently studying theater and education at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. “This school should not take away and appropriate the musicals written for and about minority groups,” he said.

Don’t pick musicals that highlight the struggles of a minority group when you don’t have the student population to fulfill those needs.”

— Seth Mavigliano ('16)

Senior Elliott Purdy is playing Tony in “West Side Story.” He is singing the song “Maria” from the original musical.

I understand the controversy in the matter. On one hand, students of Hispanic or Latinx ethnicity only make up 17 percent of NPHS’s student population; we do not live in a town flourishing with diversity. If only Caucasian students tried out, it’s assumed that the cast would be primarily white. What should a director do when casting roles for a high school musical in a predominantly white town? Here is my opinion: it was presumable that not enough Latinx people would try out for this musical. This information was known before the musical was chosen. Why was it chosen in the first place?

Musical director Leah Purdy said this musical was chosen for reasons outside of race. “Part of it was that we have [senior] Ciera Carlson here still, and she’s a phenomenal choreographer that we wanted her to showcase her talents, and there’s no other story that tops dance like West Side Story,” she said. Purdy also believes that she had the best group of male singers to do the story justice musically. Both Purdy and assistant director Brittany McDaniel say this musical has provided their students an opportunity to learn more about Latinx culture and is giving them a more worldly view. They took the measures to hire both a combat choreographer and a dialect coach to make sure the show is portrayed accurately. I think every precaution has been implemented, and I have no doubt that this will be an amazing performance. I just don’t think that’s the point.

Mavigliano said that he discussed the musical choice with a few of his college professors. “They all agreed that NPHS shouldn’t have done this musical. I recently learned that Kearney High School was also planning on doing “West Side Story” this year…many students expressed their concerns [about whitewashing] to administrators and the musical was changed,” he said.
Culture is a critical part of the plot. Many argue that neglecting to cast a white person in a Latinx role is its own form of reverse racism. This would be true, but although “West Side Story” is a love story, the themes of racism and immigration are critical parts of the story. The race and ethnicity are important.
West Side Story is about being an immigrant in America, and there are few people that can speak from that perspective. It is commendable that the directors chose this story and are trying to bring more awareness to a very important topic, however, it’s still not their story to tell. We can’t speak for the Latinx community; we do not have the authority to tell someone else’s narrative, because we will never do it justice.

I am terrified to write this story. I have no doubt that I will be slammed and trash-talked and told that I am blowing this way out of proportion. I am aware that the musical department is a large population of this school, and that no one involved will be happy about this story. I don’t think the musical should be changed now. Too much work and effort have been put in by our talented students and directors for this to happen. However, by ignoring the issue, we allow it to happen again. This same musical was performed at NPHS in 2005, again by an all-white cast. I was told by many people that they wished this whole thing would go away. For the controversy to disappear, the pattern needs to break.

 

Senior Joel Bradley and junior Tom Moss in a fight scene during rehearsal. Moss is playing Bernardo in NPHS’s production of “West Side Story.” They are rehearsing the rumble scene, which is a dispute between the two gangs.

I don’t think this musical was chosen with ill intentions, and I don’t think the people involved are doing this with malicious intent. I think it’s something people don’t think about. “The solution is so easy. Don’t pick musicals that highlight the struggles of a minority group when you don’t have the student population to fulfill those needs,” Mavigliano said. “There are more musicals for all-white casts than dominantly minority casts. There is so much talent at NPHS, it’s a shame to see it corrupted by this unfortunate event.” I don’t want this school to only perform musicals for all-white casts, because in a high school environment, this is unrealistic. I want us to stop performing musicals that are highlighting the culture of minority groups when we don’t know it personally, and can’t tell the story accurately.