Community Players' West Side Story Evokes Current Debate On Immigrants | WGLT

Community Players' West Side Story Evokes Current Debate On Immigrants

Mar 16, 2017

West Side Story, one of America's most revered musicals, is on stage at Bloomington's Community Players.
Credit Community Players

Perhaps the most familiar opening notes of any American show come from composer Leonard Bernstein’s classic score for the musical, West Side Story.

With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show premiered on Broadway in  1957  and followed the rivalry between ethnic New York teens and young immigrant Puerto Ricans.

The show's opening lines, "Hey brown boy, this is our street ... swim back to where you came from," demonstrate perhaps just how little we’ve progressed as a nation since then.

Director Alan Wilson says audiences are sure to see the parallels between the struggles of New York City’s Puerto Rican  community in the Fifties, and the debate raging today over immigrants.    

"As the Puerto Ricans in the show are talking about the Americans, they don't call them 'Americans,' they talk about them being from Poland or Italy.

"I think it brings out the fact that we're all immigrants in one way or another, and that story is very timely in its tension," Wilson said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

The story of the rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks, is also a retelling of Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

"You know, love conquers all, and this a story that really brings that out," Wilson said.

One new element the director has added to the production is to have a chorus of children sing "Somewhere," the iconic song  of longing for a place where there is "peace and quite and open air."

"I think it's very poignant when these children sing this song  about finding a place where the differences don't matter. It doesn't matter about your background or where you come from. It's about being people."

Casting was somewhat of a problem because of the large number of Latino characters. "We try to cast as ethnically close as we can, but when we can't, we take the talent we have and cast as best we can," Wilson said.

"Rita Moreno (who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Anita) said one thing she didn't like in the movie is the fact that they darkened everyone's skin, made them all the same color. She said there are as many varieties of skin color in Puerto Rico as in America," Wilson said.

The Players' production casts African Americans as well as whites in the roles of both Sharks and Jets.

"We try to be as ethnically sensitive as we can," Wilson said, "but try to cast color blind as well, and not hold people back because they're not the right ethnicity."

Wilson said one of his favorite moments in the production comes at the end when Maria brings the Sharks and  Jets together after her boyfriend Tony is killed.

"That commonality at the end, that they have all lost something is important for people to see and very poignant. Hopefully we can solve these problems before they get to that point. That's the takeaway I hope our audiences get, that these problems are solvable."

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