The West Side Story Appropriation We Never Really Talk About

While in graduate school this past spring, I engaged in a research paper project on people of color in the 1950s New York City theatre scene. One of my case studies truly stuck with me personally as an underreported historical happening I felt I needed to share. Months later, as this essay makes its way to HowlRound in this time of visibly heightened white supremacy and based on a topic during a time period that occurred more than half a century ago, its message is still extremely relevant in thinking about how we can counter white supremacy in our arts, on our stages, and in our legacies.

In 1950s New York City, the Puerto Rican community experienced an arts and culture appropriation that has continued to shape the way many people view Puerto Rican migrants and descendants in the United States. The culprit: the popular Shakespearean inspired musical, West Side Story. White male creators Jerome Robbins (conceived idea/Broadway director and choreographer), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) were, unsurprisingly, unable to truly represent the Puerto Rican US American story that is the migration to New York City from rural areas in Puerto Rico. Instead, the Puerto Rican story these creators presented was that of gang violence and whitewashed casting.

Additionally, this cultural appropriation, or inaccurate and superficial use of a marginalized culture for the artistic benefit of white artists and audiences, reveals the fiscal inequity that occurs for artists who create work that does accurately represent their own culture. This is seen in comparing West Side Story to La Carreta (The Oxcart) by René Marqués. La Carreta was produced in 1953, starring the late Míriam Colón and directed by Roberto Rodríguez. Marqués, Colón, and Rodríguez were three working Puerto Rican theatre artists in 1950s New York City. In this essay, I seek to compare these two plays and look at the history of Puerto Ricans migrating to New York in order to better understand an example of cultural appropriation in the arts, its effects, its telltale signs, and some lessons for the future.

Maria running with Tony down the street
West Side Story Cast Album Cover, 1957. Photo courtesy of Columbia Records.

Out of the Sugarcane Fields to El Barrio
In 1950s New York City, Puerto Rican migrants were a significant minority; a marginalized group of people of color. The United States Census of 1950 lacks data on tracking Puerto Rican migrants or Latin Americans on the whole and would actually categorize them as “white.” In actuality, Latin Americans—specifically Puerto Ricans—are not necessarily white, with most having African and Indigenous ancestry in addition to, or completely without, European ancestry. Furthermore, taking a closer look at this important migration moment in the history of the United States reveals an overlooked story of Puerto Ricans from the mid-twentieth century that also resonates with many immigrants or migrants of today.

The New York City Puerto Rican community grew and flourished through a mass migration often associated as the result of “Operation Bootstrap,” a strategy intended to industrialize Puerto Rico in order to improve its economy. The project was carried out by the Puerto Rican government, mainly Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, but was made possible with funding from US corporations who found tax-exemption by setting up production in Puerto Rico. By fast-tracking the decline of agriculture—mostly sugar cane production—and igniting the rise of industrialization, the Puerto Rican government gave the United States free rein to open hundreds of factories in Puerto Rico for the manufacturing and exporting of goods, textiles, plastics, and metal items for sale in the United States. As a result, Puerto Rican factory jobs increased, but they did not make up for the totality in loss of agriculture jobs. Thus, an expulsion of those living in the countryside began.

Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory of the United States also aided in the encouragement to migrate. It is important to make the distinction between “migrants” and “immigrants” because Puerto Rico was, and still is, an unincorporated territory of the United States. Puerto Ricans are US citizens with US passports, but at the same time, lack certain rights of US citizenship (like voting for President). Thus, over the course of the 1950s, a total of 450,000 Puerto Rican people migrated from the warm, tropical island to the crowded slums of East Harlem, soon to be known as “El Barrio.”

Like within any newfound community of like-minded people, the New York diaspora of Puerto Rican people created a new “Nuyorican” tradition of arts and culture. El Nuevo Círculo Dramatico, founded in 1953, staged La Carreta as their first play. The story of La Carreta, or The Oxcart when translated into English, tells of a family of rural peasants from Puerto Rico who migrate to the US to find better employment opportunities. Sound familiar? This story calls to the life stories of many Puerto Rican migrants living in New York City at the time and many Latinx immigrants or migrants in the US today. Puerto Rican artists Marqués, Colón, and Rodríguez are responsible for a moment in which a marginalized group of people took to the stage with their own voice and platform. Their impact was huge—Colón and Rodríguez went on to encourage more Puerto Rican theatre produced by El Nuevo Círculo Dramatico. Eventually, Colón founded The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in 1967, which is still around today. Perhaps, Broadway producers of the 1950s also felt the impact of the opportunity to tell the Puerto Rican migrant story or perhaps the inspiration came from a different place. Let’s look at some of the facts.

The Puerto Rican voice of the 1950s was stolen and rewritten for appropriated consumption. Meanwhile, the real issues the community faced as people looking for another shot at life as US citizens coming from a territory were ignored and essentially erased in the eyes of US American mass culture.

West Side Story: The Puerto Rican Story Rewritten
In 1957, West Side Story opened on Broadway. Jerome Robbins, who choreographed and directed the Broadway opening, was part of conceiving the story, originally considered to be titled East Side Story. It was to be drawing off Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet about star-crossed lovers, a Jewish boy and an Irish or Italian Catholic girl in the Lower East Side of New York City. Robert Emmet Long, in “West Side Story,” Broadway, The Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and The Great Choreographer-Directors: 1940 to the present reports on a conversation at the Beverly Hills Hotel between creators Laurents and Robbins. Laurents recalls saying, “I suggested the blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York, because this was the time of the appearance of teenage gangs and the problem of juvenile delinquency was very much in the news.” Casting for the play included Carol Lawrence, who was of Italian heritage, as the star “Maria,” or the Puerto Rican Juliet in this modern Romeo and Juliet. Not only was this mainstream story that depicted Puerto Rican migrants created and written by four white men, the story they chose to tell linked the Puerto Rican plight in New York in the 1950s to issues of gangs, not of migration, and the lead Puerto Rican character was played by a white Italian American actor. The Puerto Rican voice of the 1950s was stolen and rewritten for appropriated consumption. Meanwhile, the real issues the community faced as people looking for another shot at life as US citizens coming from a territory were ignored and essentially erased in the eyes of US American mass culture.

Míriam Colón
Míriam Colón in “Strangle Miracle,” an episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1962. Photo courtesy of NBC Television.

The Implications Beyond Casting
So why don’t we talk about this more? Why don’t we get offended when artists and theatre companies produce West Side Story? Albeit, we do care when there is whitewashing in casting, but why has that been our only criticism? I believe it’s because West Side Story offers Latinx people, and all woke theatre people, a superficial and false narrative of representation. West Side Story may seem, on the surface, like inclusivity in storytelling and characters, which was great and relatively true for the 1950s. Maria is Puerto Rican and shares a romance story with Tony, a member of the “Jets” gang that is as described in the libretto, “an anthology of what is called ‘American.’”

Let’s actually get into that first. The gangs are divided initially and ultimately by their race. But what that then looks like in the details is quite alarming. Look at the names: Puerto Rican “Sharks” vs. All-American “Jets.” The “Sharks” indicate a dangerous connotation, a feeling that they are out to get you. Meanwhile, the “Jets”—am I missing something here? All I think of are aircraft jets or water jets, all much less threatening or frightening for a white audience, a white America.

West Side Story offers Latinx people, and all woke theatre people, a superficial and false narrative of representation.

The racist practices continue with casting Carol Lawrence as Maria in the Broadway production. The exciting and perhaps most inclusive, anti-racist message of the show, an interracial relationship, is not truly shown onstage to a white audience, to white America, because she was cast with a non-Puerto Rican and non-Latinx actor. But here’s why we don’t talk about this: Chita Rivera. Chita Rivera, a Puerto Rican actor, originated the role of Anita, Maria’s best friend on Broadway. Finally, a POC co-star character with significant stage time and solo pieces, a revolutionary occurrence in the 1950s Broadway scene. Later Rita Moreno, also Puerto Rican, played the same role in the film adaptation of West Side Story. The Latinx community is very proud, as we should be, of these two amazing women who paved the way for many more Latinx actors in the future. However, this small success has skewed our vision of the larger picture. It helps us gloss over the rest of the whitewashed cast on Broadway and in the film. The film has done even more damage in spreading a false and negative narrative about Puerto Ricans and specifically Nuyoricans because of its global reach. This is often the first time people saw Puerto Rican characters on screen and perhaps in any setting. For Puerto Ricans in the United States, it was the first time seeing someone like themselves onscreen. Although, this was also not fully realized as in the film, once again, the Puerto Rican star character, Maria, was played by a white actor, Natalie Wood.

Who Tells Our Stories
Speaking for myself, I know I was fed a superficial and skewed narrative with this musical that let me believe it was part of my lineage and something I should be proud of, as opposed to something that encouraged the narrative that Latinx people are gang members, criminals even. One solution here for myself and for many of us, especially the younger Latinx theatre artists, is to demand more. Demand to know more about your lineage and find plays like La Carreta in order to not let yourself be brainwashed by the West Side Storys in the world.

We’ve seen too many instances of marginalized cultures being exploited by white, inherently privileged audiences (e.g., Emmet Till at the Whitney, The Met Harlem On My Mind Exhibit, Kylie Jenner’s numerous accounts of appropriation of black culture, and music festival attire’s appropriation of South Asian and Native cultures.) It is culturally damaging, and often financially damaging, for the individuals who receive no credit for their influenced, appropriated, or stolen work. Overall, there is a lack of opportunity to accurately represent marginalized cultures onstage, on walls, or online, resulting in a skewed, inaccurate popular image and reputation of the culture. We don’t get to hear about La Carreta because it wasn’t produced as largely as West Side Story, but it also wasn’t going to get there in the first place because of the sheer lack of opportunity held back by the white male creators. Lessons for future productions involving a culture’s story: include someone from the culture on your top creative team.

I also would like to end in acknowledging a huge step for the Latinx and specifically Puerto Rican community in rewriting the damaging West Side Story lineage with the musical theatre work and presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda. We were able to reclaim a truer story of being Latinx in New York City through his creation of In The Heights and further see we have a place in this country with Hamilton. In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda also leaves us with the important and uncannily related lesson in thinking about who lives, who dies, and who tells our stories.

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Re: The relative danger of "Jets" vs. "Sharks". When the musical premiered in 1957, commercial jetliners were only a few years old and had literally crashed and burned. (The de Havilland Comet suffered from metal fatigue which resulted in multiple crashes and was yanked from the market. The re-engineered Comet and the Boeing 707 wouldn't enter service until 1958.) So the immediate image conjured up by the word "Jet" would not have been a friendly commercial airliner; it would be military airplanes.

Misha Berson here.

This is an old argument you are making. In my book, "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination," I address the ambivalent feelings many contemporary Latino actors and other theater people have about the show. Since the 1960s, in tempo with the rise of liberation identity movements in the U.S., there have been similar objections.

So be it. It is time to look at the past critically, and to make sure the present and future are more inclusive, more authentic, more truly representative.

But it's also important to consider this in context. Before "WSS," there was not a single musical that featured numerous sympathetic Puerto Rican characters. The show was created by four white men, yes, but that's because they were all Broadway mavericks at the top of their game and wanted to work together on something they considered important. Playwright Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein were outspoken progressives and targets of the blacklist during the McCarthy era. Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins researched and admired Nuyorican culture.

All of them (including the young lyricist, Stephen Sondheim) hoped to cast Latino performers, and actively looked for them. However at that point there were few (like the great Chita Rivera) with the singing-dancing-acting Broadway credentials needed -- largely because the entertainment industry had not welcomed and encouraged them.

Cultural appropriation, as another commenter has suggested, is a complex charge in a country which, despite long entrenched institutional racism, has absorbed a multiplicity of cultural influences from its diverse citizenry. Also, the show was never intended to be a documentary but a work of the imagination, just as Romeo and Juliet was. It's a tragic love story that synthesized many styles of music, dance and some reflections of society -- including the very real explosion of youth gang violence (there was a related murder blocks away from the theater during the original run), the growing Puerto Rican community in Manhattan and the resentments of working class white residents.

I'd just like to add that having dug deeply into the history of West Side Story and its creators, I believe their intentions were honorable and not some attempt to simply "cash in" by ripping off another culture. They had great difficulty raising any money for the show because of its subject matter (the young producer Harold Prince came to the rescue at the 11th hour), and no expectations that it would be a hit. Whatever its weaknesses, it broke the mold of standard musical comedy fare on Broadway, with its serious themes and blunt dramatization of pervasive bigotry.

Criticism of the show from the current perspective of a Latina theatre artist is entirely understandable, and potentially productive. But to assign negative motives to artists working 60 years ago, artists who were committed to civil rights and believed strongly in what they were doing, seems unfair and probably not useful.

Thank you, Misha, for this cogent analysis and for providing key historical context for the individuals that made this musical. I'd add to it that the richest, most complex character in the entire musical is Anita, a Puerto Rican woman. Over the course of the show we see her many facets - she's a working woman and the queen bee at her job (I Feel Pretty); she's fearless in showing up the men in her life and demonstrating she has a mind of her own (America), while also expressing unapologetic sexual desire (Tonight); she demonstrates a strong moral core (A Boy Like That), yet is capable of accepting nuance in the face of her own moral convictions when she sees how much Maria truly loves Tony (in the same song no less); she puts herself at enormous personal risk to extend an olive branch to The Jets (the drugstore scene), while rightfully expressing her rage and acts on her desire for vengeance after they assault her; and at the end we witness the depth of her mourning while also being able to find forgiveness. For my two cents, the creators of the musical gave us a rich, complex, fully dimensional, human being with enormous dignity - that the character is a Puerto Rican woman strongly speaks volumes about their commitment to humanizing a migrant population that had experienced profound dehumanization and marginalization.

Hi Misha,

Further inspecting intended motives and actual results is an excellent place for us liberal minded folks to work towards progress. As a white ally (and ally of any marginalized group), a great place to “do the work” is to think about places where unintended negative results occurred out of good intentioned motives. In this way, we can look at where that gap was in our perception of the experience and the actual result felt on the marginalized community. With the white male creators of WSS, these gaps occurred in the moments you mentioned: not including a Puerto Rican artist (of which they did exist as seen with the creators of El Nuevo Círculo Dramatico) in the writing and creation process, and still deciding to cast white actors in roles for POC (something we cannot continue to make excuses for as being acceptable). Additionally, the later film that followed these practices caused serious issue because of its widespread reach. I’m pointing out that the decisions of the past still have impact today — many people had (and perhaps still have) never seen Puerto Rican people portrayed other than in that movie.

Sorry, but this latest "Cultural Appropriation" fad is tiresome.

Anybody who's an adult should understand that art is NOT reality. It may be based in the author's reality or imagination but nothing more real than that. I never read anything about West Side Story (or any other piece of art) that states "This is how all (fill in the blank) people act/think/talk."

And having ONLY people of (fill in the blank) race/gender/etc. write "appropriate" material is also no way to fix this issue.

If theatres, etc., want to find better works about specific categories of folks, then instead of restricting writers to those categories, choose READERS in those categories and then read the scripts blind of the author's category.

A couple points of minor correction that I learned from the recent Folger Shakespeare podcast that talked about West aside Story. It was not originally titled East Side Story, it was (and referred to in Bernstein's notes) as Romeo. East Side Story was a title that was considered but not the original title.

Also, in acknowledging Lin Manuel Miranda's influence why didn't you touch on the work he and Mr Sondheim did on the revival of West Side Story?

Hi Everett, thanks for your comment and new information! Lin Manuel Miranda's work in the revival was brought to my attention after publishing this article by a friend who said, "he was brought on to help the west side revival be less racist/problematic. It was cast with latinx actors and he translated two of the songs so they were sung in Spanish." Do you have any more information on what he did and how the finished product turned out? I.e. did you get to see the production?! Would love to hear more!

Hi Viviana, thanks for responding. IIRC, in 2007 or 8, Arthur Laurants (who directed the show for the first time in 2009 at the age of 90) asked Lin Manuel Miranda to help with the revival. Lin Manuel and Stephen Sondheim worked on all the Shark's songs and dialog and translated them into Spanish.

Josefina Scaglione played Maria and Karen Olivo played Anita and both were nominated for Tony's with Olivio taking home best featured actress in a musical.

I did not get the chance to see the show in 2009, but I do own a copy of the soundtrack and love how the translations work.

I think we also need to have a more serious conversation about who is 'allowed' to represent a particular community or ethnicity.

Just because someone's last name is Martinez or has dark hair, for example, doesn't necessarily make them qualified to speak for the experiences of the Latinx community.

But in theatre should we be in the business of saying "you can only play someone just like yourself?"

Such a hot topic question! With cultural appropriation in general, I think we have to look at each case individually based on the effects a decision will have on the community its representing and on the effects on the way the rest of the world perceives that community. Overall, I am in the mindset that if you feel like there is something off, there probably is. You just have to do a little digging and reflection on what and why that is.

Is it an accurate representation of Puerto Ricans? No.

But the message of the play, arguably, is centered around the tragedy that occurs when there is a lack of understanding between cultures.

The show was relatively progressive for it's time.

Nuance is important. But nuance isn't part of today's political discourse. Everyone's either a hero or a villain.

I agree the show was definitely progressive for its time! However, I disagree in thinking everyone is either a hero or a villain. No one is perfect and every villain has a reason they got where they are. And if we don't reclaim the small stuff, we'll end up with even less control of the larger things.

Where is the line between cultural influence and cultural appropriation?

Societies being influenced by cultures other than their own is part of human history all over the globe. It's not always negative.

Here's an example: Norteño music in Mexico was profoundly influenced by the arrival of German immigrants to Texas. Instruments, oom-pah rhythms imported by the Germans shaped the sound of this music, which has evolved into its own distinct form. https://www.thoughtco.com/d... Or African-American jazz musicians incorporating Cuban rhythms to lay the foundations for the Latin Jazz craze of the 1950s. Or Chuck Berry's first hit Maybellene, which was based on a Western Swing song from the 1930s by Bob Willis and his Texas Playboys, and arguably is one of the first, if not the first rock n roll song....

Of course there are plenty of egregious examples of inequity and racism in works of art that "borrow" from other, often marginalized traditions. However, I was responding to your question to a previous post where you asked for positive examples. I though to add to the conversation, I would provide several undeniably positive and culturally significant examples (I can also think of dozens of others in music as well as in other forms - in architecture, for example, Oscar Neimeyer, the Brazilian architect, was heavily influenced by Swiss French architect Le Courbusier, when he designed Brasilia... but don't get me started). It seemed from your question - and this is an inference - that you were challenging the idea that cultural influence was not always negative, as the post you were replying to suggested.

The fiscal inequities question is super interesting and complex if you take the time to examine the nuances. An example - The Rolling Stones, who were very open and unapologetic about their appropriation of American blues music in the 1960s, made a gazillion dollars doing so, and were often boneheaded cultural tourists in their artistic practice. At the same time, they can be credited with re-introducing to a whole new generation of listeners the original artists and recordings that their music was based on by citing them and bringing them on international tours- effectively resurrecting the careers and financial welfare of a number of blues artists whose careers had either sputtered out or were relegated to their local blues scenes in Chicago and other local scenes. The story goes that the great Muddy Waters was supplementing his meager income from playing Chicago blues clubs by painting the offices of Chess Records when the Stones recorded there (an act of cultural tourism if there ever was one) - but that encounter jump re-started Waters' languishing career, which cemented his place as of one of this country's most important artists. For all their problematic practices, I love the Stones, and I also love Muddy Waters, and I am richer for experiencing them both (and I would know nothing about the latter without knowing something about the former) and reflecting on the complicated exchange between them.

Leap to 1986 when hip-hop pioneer Run DMC were recording with legendary producer Rick Rubin. In the studio Rubin pulled out the 1975 song "Walk This Way" by the hard rock band Aerosmith. Run DMC had never heard of Aerosmith, and were at first reluctant to do a version of the song, but ended up recording it. It became a landmark - the first hip hop song to reach #5 on the Billboard charts, while also reviving the fortunes of Aerosmith, a band who at that point had become culturally irrelevant. The video for the song was one of the first, if not the first, hip hop songs to play on constant rotation on MTV, a network that at the time notoriously refused to air music by black artists in its early years. On the one hand, it's a shame that it took a fusion of a ubiquitous white form (hard rock) with an emerging form (hip hop) to make the latter palatable for mass consumption, but I doubt either artist would complain what that fusion did to their bank accounts. There's no question they mutually benefitted - it opened the door for hip hop's acceptance in the mainstream, and it helped the members of Aerosmith to kick their drug and alcohol addiction and start the second and very lucrative act of their career. In a larger sense, this unlikely collaboration succeeded in what cultural exchanges are supposed to do - break down barriers.

I leave you with one last mindf**k, which is better described by linking you to the original blog... which I use when I talk to my students about the complexities that are inherent to conversations about influence and appropriation... in this story there is egregiousness everywhere, but the power dynamics are far more complex than a they stole/they were stolen from paradigm.... http://www.ethanhein.com/wp...

BTW - I am half Puerto Rican and I love West Side Story. I remember my late mother, who was born on the island, singing gleefully - and with a tinge of bitterness - the showstopper America.

One can only imagine the impact West Side Story could have truly had in 1957 if "Rita Moreno" had played Maria alongside Chita Rivera's "Anita" or, vice versa. And, to the larger point, the sense of dislocation and isolation the "Nuyorican" experienced in NYC in those days might have come out a lot more had the two most important "Puerto Rican" roles in the musical gone to actors who were actually Puerto Rican. The insights and nuances they would have brought to each day of rehearsal would have certainly found themselves into the book and the music.

Thanks Richard for your comment. I think that's definitely something very important producers and writers must do in these situations where they are responsible for producing or writing stories of others-- let the actors influence the work with their thoughts and experiences. And on the actor's part there is a responsibility to speak up when things seem off.

I am Puerto Rican and West Indian and Love West Side Story. My island family loves the musical. I don't look to it for the "real story" of Puerto Ricans coming to the continental United States. It reflects the attitudes of the 1950's. If you read interviews with Rita Moreno and others from the movie one of the things that bothers them the most is portraying Puerto Rican people as all the same color and all the same accent when we are indeed a multicultural, multiracial, complex, and interesting group of people with many many stories and experiences. I love the music of West Side Story and the story is Romeo and Juliet about love vs hate. A 2017 version of West Side Story would be wonderful. Go for it, kids.

Viviana,Thank you for bringing this important analysis of West Side Story and its devastating cultural consequences-- that continue to this day, about how Puerto Rico and its people are perceived. The sad part is that in the name of commerce we continue to have Pacific Overtures, Miss Saigon and yes, West Side Story despite the fact that an honest/brutal take on PR migration is found in the theatrical masterpiece that is Marquez' The Oxcart.

It is hard to conceive the insularity of that original audience (and I grew up probably not too remote from it). Was it curious but conventional? Or maybe not so curious? And where does conventionality end and whitewashing begin? You imagine the sort of person who considers a well-done steak (maybe with ketchup) as the apogee of fine dining, and a rich chocolate cake something to boast about. We like to believe theater-goers are better than that, but I don't know.

I get what is being said here and I mostly agree but is west side story really cultural appropriation? its more of a bad rip off of Romeo and Juliet than it is anything else .