“West Side Story” and its Complicated Relationship with Cultural Dimensionality

Rita Moreno in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story.” Image Courtesy of Classic Films via Flickr with Creative Commons Non-Commercial Reuse.
Rita Moreno in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story.”
Rita Moreno in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story. Image Courtesy of Classic Films via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic.

West Side Story“, one of the most popular musicals in the North American musical theater canon, is a mid-20th-century take on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in which a young man and young woman from different cultures fall in love despite the chaos that ensues around their relationship.

The film version, adapted from the Broadway musical written by Arthur Laurents, follows the lives of two main groups: the New Yorkers associated with the young man (Tony) and the Puerto Rican immigrants living in New York associated with the young woman (Maria). Set in the late 1950s, the culture clash between the two groups is worsened by the United States’ rampant racism.

Cultural bias is perpetuated not only throughout the plot, but also in the production of the 1961 film. According to Rita Moreno, the Puerto Rican actress who played Anita, many of the actors portraying the immigrants were actually white actors in brownface — including Natalie Wood (Maria) and George Chakiris (Bernardo).

Despite the film’s unsavory undertones both on- and off-screen, the musical number “America,” featured in both the film and stage productions, addresses the ways in which the Puerto Rican immigrants were treated by residents in New York City.

In the video clip, the group discusses the pros and cons of their new lives as expatriates and global nomads. The women are excited about the opportunities that life in the United States can give them, while the men are considerably disheartened by the institutional racism that was especially prominent during the late 1950s. The lyrics, written by Stephen Sondheim, notably mention the prominence of ethnocentrism in the U.S., singing “Life is all right in America/If you’re all white in America.”

As the musical number continues, the group weighs the opportunities available in this new place against the unfair treatment they experience due to widespread racism. The women argue that in America, people are “free to be anything you choose,” while the men say they are only “free to wait tables and shine shoes.” Some say this dichotomy is still felt by many immigrants, cross-cultural and globally mobile people, especially in the U.S.

“We all had the same color makeup, it was a very different time. I remember saying to the makeup man one day ― because it was like putting mud on my face, it was really dark and I’m a fairly fair Hispanic … ‘My God! Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are … many different colors … And the makeup man actually said to me, ‘What? Are you a racist?’ I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t come back with an answer.” 

Rita Moreno in an interview with the In The Thick Podcast

In addition to featuring a group of cross-cultural people in the main storyline, many CCKs made up the cast, as well. Natalie Wood, the actress who portrayed Maria, was born Natalia Zakharenko to Russian immigrant parents. Rita Moreno was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States with her mother during her early childhood, making her both a TCK and a CCK. George Chakiris, the film’s Bernardo, was born to Greek immigrant parents.

While the film used brownface and perpetuated racial biases, the story’s messages about life in foreign places still stand true. There are many struggles that come with moving to a new place, including poor treatment from locals and a lack of cultural awareness on the part of others, but there are also endless opportunities for learning and for new experiences. Such is the life of a cross-cultural individual. The privilege to experience new places doesn’t come without occasional risks, but the chance to live among and absorb new cultures comes out on top.

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1 comment

  1. This was jaw dropping and eye opening to say the least! I had no idea the film version of West Side Story had most white actors portraying people of color. It really shows the cultural implications for actors and artists of color, having to fight harder to earn roles that are written as themselves.

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