“Immigrant!” Anita sneers, playfully but dismissively, at her lover, Bernardo, in the run-up to “West Side Story’s” glorious Act 1 number, “America.” The time is the mid-1950s, when a large influx from Puerto Rico was adding to New York City’s ethnic mosaic, and a young Latina, besotted by the possibilities of her new life, could be portrayed as denigrating her boyfriend simply by reminding him he wasn’t born in the continental United States.
Flash-forward six decades to another groundbreaking musical, in which a Broadway star of Puerto Rican heritage is playing a hero of the American Revolution. Like Anita, Alexander Hamilton, of “Hamilton,” came to New York from a Caribbean birthplace. But unlike Anita, he looks on his offshore beginnings as a point of pride. So much so, in fact, that during a song set at the Battle of Yorktown, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and the French-born general Marquis de Lafayette, played by Daveed Diggs, exchange lyrical high-fives about the vital contributions to the cause of the 13 colonies by people from outside their borders.
“Immigrants!” Lafayette cries, with Hamilton joining in: “They get the job done!”
Sympathetic audience members at the Richard Rodgers Theatre swoon over the line, and not only because it’s a potent rejoinder to the nativist wave washing over American politics.
The enthusiastic applause also is an appreciative acknowledgment of a Broadway musical’s effort at full-throated advocacy, its unapologetic attempt to remind spectators of the country’s legacy of openness, and how that’s paid off, over the course of America’s 239 Independence Days.
It’s a fortunate convergence, having had “West Side Story” revived in marvelous fashion at Arlington’s Signature Theatre at the same time that “Hamilton” is conquering Broadway. Their vigorous presences drive home a point, about the unusual degree to which musical-theater productions — new and in revival — are devoting themselves to a divisive topic transfixing our political culture: who is, and what it means to be, an American.
Some people may prefer to think of this form of entertainment as a refuge from reality, but the fact is, musicals these days seem to be asking us to examine our outlooks on the question of American identity with more energy and regularity than any other art form. In Broadway shows as diverse as “On Your Feet!”, a jukebox musical hit about the crossover trail blazed by Gloria Estefan in pop music, to the soon-to-close, tour-ready “Allegiance,” history set to song about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, we are getting permutations of a quintessential facet of the American story. Again and again, these pieces revisit the triumphs and tragedies that accrue as the nation repeatedly tries to come to terms with the new peoples arriving on its shores.
Even older shows that once may have been seen as addressing these issues tangentially are being retrofitted to take stock of the current climate. Consider the sensitively rendered new Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” This emotionally rich tale of the Jews of a beleaguered shtetl, forced by the Russian czar’s soldiers to flee their homeland, has always served as a preamble to the story of Ellis Island immigration.
Now, however, the musical’s links to today have been embellished by a new prologue and epilogue, conceived by director Bartlett Sher. Actor Danny Burstein greets us on this occasion in the street clothes of an American tourist, reading from the stories of Sholom Aleichem, on which “Fiddler” is based, before becoming the character of Tevye the milkman. The transition comes full circle at evening’s end, when Burstein turns back into the tourist, observing as the anxious refugees of Anatevka march solemnly off. Instead of putting his nose back into a book, Burstein joins them on their trek.
If the tableau of bedraggled humanity reminds you of the footage you’ve seen on TV, of the endless streams of Syrians and Afghans and Iraqis on the roads of European countries, or of Mexicans, Salvadorans and Hondurans scampering across the border into Texas and Arizona, then Sher has achieved his goal. Confronted, like Burstein’s tourist, with the stark conditions for human beings desperately in need of shelter, you are asked, as you sit in the Broadway Theatre, where “Fiddler” is running, not to look away.
This revival is consciously insinuating itself into a flammable national debate, stoked by the incendiary commentary of Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, who have sought to portray immigrants not as an asset to a country that for centuries has been propelled by their energy and drive, but as an abject menace. The challenge to a theatergoer’s conscience in this case seems to be whether you see yourself more aligned, in a sense, with a Trump, or a Tevye.
So why, you may ask, is the musical such a receptive platform for this consequential issue? The answer may lie in part in the predominantly progressive inclinations of theater-makers, but also in the endlessly, musically adaptive nature of the form: The myriad styles incorporated into musicals over the years, from the blues to bebop, from European operetta to rock, make it a readily accessible echo of a polyglot nation. And since it leaned so heavily in its infancy in the early part of the 20th century on European-born Jewish talent — the likes of composers Sigmund Romberg and Irving Berlin, among others — you could say that to some quantifiable degree, the American musical owes its historic robustness to immigration.
That the musical is able to express evolving attitudes on the subject is illuminated by the current crop of shows. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, a musical such as “Allegiance” and its entirely sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese American internees of a detention camp in 1941 having found anything like a receptive audience during that xenophobic period. Then again, this production, even with “Star Trek’s” George Takei as a draw, has not lit up the box office. Maybe this show’s marketing problem is that its themes hit too close to home: The embrace during Republican debates of the idea of banning the entry of Muslims may make the experience of observing another group targeted by government discrimination too much for Broadway audiences to want to pay to see.
The contrasts and similarities in the 1957 “West Side Story” and the 2015 “Hamilton” reveal how durable national identity is as a matter for the musical theater. Surely, Miranda, when he was composing “Hamilton,” had to be conscious of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s song “America,” with its acute, outsider’s appreciation of an exciting new land. (In fact, when “West Side Story” book writer Arthur Laurents wanted lines and lyrics translated into Spanish for a revival that started at Washington’s National Theatre late in 2008, he went to Miranda.) “I like the shores of America,” Anita and the other young Puerto Rican women sing, “Comfort is yours in America/ Knobs on the doors in America/ Wall-to-wall floors in America!”
Sondheim, “West Side Story’s” lyricist, was having some fun with Anita’s naive rapture over the material upgrade America represents. Anita identifies with this aspirational aspect of American life — a joy that turns tragically ironic, after members of the rival Jets try to rape her — in much the way Miranda’s Hamilton does. He sings about this, too, in the hip-hop number “My Shot,” although his young-man ambitions run to more significant goals than doors and floors: “Hey yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry/ And I’m not throwin’ away my shot!/ I’m ‘a get a scholarship to King’s College/ I prob’ly shouldn’t brag, but dag/ I amaze and astonish.”
For the New York of “West Side Story,” composed by some revolutionary theater artists at a time when musicals did not as a rule take on urban social issues, audiences were introduced to a group of Latino “immigrants” with no secure toehold in the city. Its view of their prospects, though not particularly cheery, was intended as a plea for compassion. By the time of “Hamilton,” another revolutionary artist could look back at the birth of America and confidently lay out an immigrant experience in a far more optimistic light. Immigrants do, indeed, get the job done.
And it’s not just in stories of the scope of “Hamilton” that you hear echoes of: “I’m not throwin’ away my shot.” There comes a point in the bubbly “On Your Feet!,” which traces the pop ascendancy of Gloria and Emilio Estefan from Havana’s streets to the studios of the world’s biggest record companies, that the couple run headlong into the kind of wall that immigrant groups have always been compelled to tear down.
Having already rocked the Latin charts, the Estefans have now composed a song in English that the record company refuses to release on an Anglo label. “We can cross over,” insists the musical’s Emilio, played by Josh Segarra. “You can’t cross over,” the executive replies. “Because nobody crosses over. . . . A Latin band can’t compete in the U.S. market.”
The defiant response of Ana Villafane’s Gloria sums up something about an American value that allows anyone, no matter where they started out, to get their shot. As Gloria demands, with an assurance that would have made Anita hoot with glee: “It’s in our contract.”