Photo courtesy of Ms. Gellert: A group of students practice their dance moves for the school musical.
Last year, school officials announced that MHS would be producing West Side Story, a musical about lovers caught in a rivalry between two street gangs. West Side Story is known for its intense choreography and difficult musical score. Race plays a large part in the show, as it focuses on the struggles of immigrants in America. With many students excited about the music and choreography, and others concerned with the decision to cast white actors as people of color, there has been a wide range of responses to the choice.
West Side Story was first produced in 1957, but still carries relevant and elaborate themes. West Side Story is a modern allegory of Romeo and Juliet, set in the Upper West Side of New York City during the mid-1950’s, at the time an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood. The setting provides the backdrop for a rivalry between two street gangs: the “Sharks” (Puerto Rican) and the “Jets” (white). When the best friend of the leader of the Jets falls in love with the sister of the Sharks leader, a beautiful tale of love and tragedy in America plays out on stage.
West Side Story centers around societal tensions in the 1950s. This production breaks the rules of musicals that came before, with its bleak, sophisticated tones. It sends a clear message about the detrimental effects of violence and the uplifting power of love. It is a visual masterpiece that invokes strong emotion in the audience.
The school’s production of Anything Goes last year differed from that of West Side Story, with its cheerful tones and positive messages. The show is set on the SS America in 1934, an extravagant cruise ship en route to England with a number of colorful characters on board. Last year’s show was about love triangles, unlikely heroes and the importance of friendship. With timeless songs such as “You’re the Top”, I Get a Kick Out of You” Anything Goes was truly a lively performance. Compared to West Side Story, these two shows couldn’t be more different. Anything Goes was a positive production with upbeat songs and a heartwarming ending; in West Side story the audience is left to reflect and is forced to think the about the negative effects of violence.
Through the years, West Side Story has been prone to controversy regarding casting. Some critics and audience members have believed that a predominantly white cast should not demonstrate the tale of ethnic street gangs, while others argue that the broader themes from the musical are universal.
Ms. Gellert, the Director for the show, believes for any version of this show “it’s not about mocking the character(s), but learning about them and displaying their background.” For her, the emphasis of the show is on “the music, the story, and the way it’s expressed through dance and drama.” While she understands the other perspective, she thinks it’s about the play and the character, so putting different people in those roles can be a learning experience for all.
The choreographer for the musical, Ms. Parsley, was especially excited about West Side Story for a myriad of reasons. She has worked tirelessly planning the choreography with the help of senior dance captains “to
follow Jerome Robbins’ choreography as close as possible.” Jerome Robbins, the original choreographer of the show, created an intricate m
anual for all the movements in the show. As a dance teacher, Ms. Parsley gravitated towards the complexity of these dances; although difficult, the choreography will push student performers farther. She has worked on the past three shows for the school, and constantly aims to create diversity in each production.
When interviewed about the history of casting white actors as the “Sharks” Ms. Parsley finds that “it doesn’t necessarily matter what ethnicity the student is playing for a role,” as she believes “what matters is their ability to develop into the role [and] portray the character.” She adds, “We all have something to learn about other cultures.”
West Side Story is sure to be an exciting production, with an interesting plot and engaging choreography. This show provides an opportunity for a greater discussion on race in general. It will be a learning experience for all.
By Rebecca Marcus, Gabby Tucciarone and Globe Staff