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Actress withdraws from U.K. ‘West Side Story’ production after ‘whitewashing’ complaints

Sierra Boggess rehearses for “Phantom of the Opera” in 2016. (Sipa/AP)
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Last week, theater buffs learned that Broadway star Sierra Boggess would be playing the role of Maria in an upcoming concert version of the classic American musical “West Side Story” at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Boggess is a talented, Olivier Award-nominated actress who has starred in a number of leading roles in Broadway musicals, including “The Phantom of the Opera,” “School of Rock” and “The Little Mermaid.” But unlike the character of Maria, she is not — as many people on social media pointed out — Puerto Rican.

The casting decision drew intense scrutiny, particularly from the Latino community, who saw it as yet another attempt to “whitewash” the 1957 Broadway musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

“You are a Caucasian woman and this character is Puerto Rican,” one theater student tweeted. “It’s not like you’re hurting for job opportunities. Stop taking roles from actors of color.”

“An amazing opportunity for an actress of color was given to a white woman who already has an established career? Really? So many options,” another person tweeted. “What, were all the latinx booked? Are they ALL booked?!” wrote another.

After the complaints, Boggess this week wrote in a Facebook post that she had decided to withdraw from the concert, “to allow an opportunity to correct a wrong that has been done for years with this show in particular.”

“After much reflection, I’ve realized that if I were to do this concert, it would once again deny Latinas the opportunity to sing this score, as well as deny the IMPORTANCE of seeing themselves represented onstage,” wrote Boggess, who is from Denver “And that would be a huge mistake.”

“Since the announcement of this concert, I have had many conversations about why this is a crucial time, now more than ever, to not perpetuate the miscasting of this show,” she added. “I apologize for not coming to this realization sooner and as an artist, I must ask myself how I can best serve the world.”

The “West Side Story” concert, accompanied by the John Wilson Orchestra, will take place Aug. 11 and will mark the centenary of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth. The performance is part of the annual BBC Proms series, which describes itself as the “world’s greatest classical music festival.”

The 2018 BBC Proms season will run for eight weeks between July and September, and will feature leading orchestras, musicians and conductors.

In a statement, the BBC said: “We respect Sierra’s decision to withdraw from ‘West Side Story’ at the BBC Proms this year and will announce her replacement in due course.”

Boggess has previously played the role of Maria but later said it was a role “I was wrong for.” In a YouTube video about her theater career, she said that playing Maria was “a dream role, and I’m really glad I got to play this, but I’m not Puerto Rican.”

“West Side Story,” though a beloved American classic, is often mentioned as an example of the long-running problem in Hollywood and on Broadway of casting white actors for minority roles and of perpetuating stereotypes of Latinos.

The first Maria on Broadway was Italian American actress Carol Lawrence. In the 1961 film version, the character of Maria was famously played by Natalie Wood, an American actress of Russian descent. The role’s singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. Many of the actors in the movie wore dark makeup and used fake Spanish accents — even Rita Moreno, who is Puerto Rican. 

On the one hand, both the Broadway hit and film version marked rare and landmark works of American  culture that featured Latinos, who were otherwise ignored. As one Puerto Rican film scholar said, “The fact that they said the words ‘Puerto Rico’ in a movie and there were Puerto Ricans being portrayed on screen — even if only one was a legitimate Puerto Rican that was born-and-raised-on-the-island, Rita Moreno — we didn’t care.”

The film and Broadway musical also both helped launch the careers of Moreno and Chita Rivera. But many audiences have criticized the portrayal of Latino men exclusively as gang members. (The play, which is inspired loosely by “Romeo and Juliet,” pits the Latino Sharks against their rival gang, the non-Latino Jets).

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony Award-winning creator and star of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” told The Washington Post in 2009 that for the Latino community, “West Side Story” has been “our greatest blessing and our greatest curse.”

“As a piece of art, I think it’s just about as good as it gets,” said Miranda, the son of Puerto Ricans. “It also represented our foot in the door as an artistic community on Broadway. … At the same time, because it’s just about the only representation of Latinos on Broadway and it’s about gangs, that’s where it gets tricky.”

In 2009, a Broadway revival of “West Side Story” had Miranda translate some of the English lyrics in the show into Spanish, an attempt to infuse more authenticity into Sondheim’s classic lyrics.

There has even been chatter that Steven Spielberg is planning a new screen adaptation of “West Side Story.” And according to the Hollywood Reporter, Spielberg wants to cast the movie in an “ethnically authentic manner.”

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