When West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents premiered on Broadway in 1957 it did so to rave reviews and was declared “a splendid and super-modern musical drama.” The idea was to write a modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but to use New York as the setting and transform the love conflict from one involving warring families to a feud between Polish Americans and Puerto Ricans. Yet, as West Side Story became what some called “the quintessential American musical,” it did so as it confronted accusations of racial stereotyping. As Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez points out, the love story on the surface masks "an explicit discourse of discrimination and racial prejudices toward immigrant Latino/as." The question for contemporary American audiences has become, how does that discourse configure itself today?
In 1999, Amherst Regional High School’s production of West Side Story was cancelled when several Puerto Rican students and parents complained about what they perceived as stereotypical representations in the musical. It ignited a passionate controversy in the Pioneer Valley that made international news. The dialogue that emerged out of that controversy is the basis for an original theater piece titled, West Side Stories, written by Harley Erdman, Roberta Uno and students from the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts High School (PVPA) and Amherst Regional High School.
Erdman and Uno led a playwriting workshop for about 20 high school students in the fall of 2001. Sponsored and hosted by PVPA, it included a diverse group of youth from the area including several from New WORLD Theater’s Project 2050 who studied the West Side Story controversy using a theater form called interview theater. The students conducted interviews with various members of the community, participated in improvisations and theater exercises, and presented their own ideas about the conflict. Erdman and Uno wove the information from those elements together to produce the script for West Side Stories, a unique community theater piece that is just as groundbreaking for audiences of this milieu as its Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents counterpart was when it premiered. “We wanted to do West Side Stories,” said Erdman, “to spur more dialogue, to spur people to listen to voices from a variety of perspectives. We also wanted to show that there’s a way to do artistic work for and with high school students that is provocative and inclusive but that also values positive qualities of classic musicals like West Side Story.”
Roberta Uno, then the Artistic Director at New WORLD Theater, participated in the project in order to help the community heal: “The incident was a trigger point for so many narratives and opinions, and very little listening was happening. I suggested interview theater as a way for the community to hear itself.” Valerie Jiggetts, an Amherst Regional High School student who assisted in the creation of the project, agrees: “When you watch another person’s portrayal of you, you are able to see yourself through another person’s eyes.” In this way, West Side Stories will reflect the complexity of controversy and dialogue in the Amherst community, and in director Brian Marsh’s words, “hold a mirror up to the community, which effective theater does.” It will, as the students did in the improvisation workshops, incorporate humor and compassion into a “conversation” that was once, according to Erdman, “a lot of shouting and not much listening.”
The youth who participated in the project “underscored the need for not taking ourselves so seriously that we forget our humanity,” said Uno. Valerie Jiggetts is certainly indicative of the kind of humanity that the youth have encouraged: “It was a beautiful opportunity,” she said. “I was able to meet a lot of people that live in our community that I would never have met otherwise. And, I was able to get at the heart of the controversy by talking to them. Some people didn’t even know why others were upset about West Side Story, so this was a chance to educate them.”
West Side Stories, a multi-dimensional exploration of race and place through music, dance, sketch comedy, satire, and drama, will take place on Saturday, February 21, 2004 at 8 PM and on Sunday, February 22 at 2 PM at the University of Massachusetts Bowker Auditorium. Directed by Brian Marsh, it will feature students from PVPA, Amherst Regional High School, and Project 2050.
For tickets call the Fine Arts Center box office at 413-545-251l; for more information visit our website at www.newworldtheater.org