The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club has been working hard to bring to life their own rendition of West Side Story, one that the cast and crew hope will illuminate both the truths and flaws underpinning the original work that portrayed race relations and Puerto Rican life through a limited lens. If Cambridge, Massachusetts, is close to where you call home, you won’t want to miss HRDC’s final two shows taking place this Saturday and Sunday evening at Farkas Hall on the Harvard campus.
Amanda Gonzalez-Piloto, the president of TEATRO!, the school’s platform for Latinx creative arts, is working as the technical producer of the show. Gonzalez-Piloto told the The Harvard Gazette that one of the challenges to HRDC’s production is the fact that the script cannot be altered from its original form to fit or better express the story that the production wants to tell. “We’re working within a limited framework, so we have been asking: What can we do to make a more accurate and respectful cultural representation and also acknowledge there are some seeds of truth in this very flawed creative masterpiece?” After all, the music, lyrics, and narrative behind the 1961 film production of West Side Story were all credited to white males, leaving much for today’s audiences to consider.
Part of this process involves facing some of the work’s uncomfortable elements, forcing the production to embody and process the racism inherent in the script. “These are stories with problematic characters, but someone has to play the problematic role. It’s important to get the full story, to avoid historical revisionism or cleaning up a past that is violent and hateful and complicated,” she said.
Coming to terms with what West Side Story did wrong also presents the opportunity for the cast and crew to embrace what the musical did right and has kept the show relevant to this day. Aviva Ramirez, the stage director of HRDC’s production, told the Gazette, “It opens up this incredibly important conversation about the cycle of immigration, in which immigrant groups come to America and face discrimination, wishing someone had empathy for them, and then having their kids assimilate and not show that empathy for the next immigrant group.”
The timelessness and relevance of the musical has clearly made its mark on the American psyche, with two huge national productions coming up in the near future. HRDC’s production of West Side Story comes just weeks before the show premieres on Broadway, and about a year before the big screen version directed by Steven Spielberg and executive produced by Rita Moreno — who is also part of the film’s cast. Moreno recently “bragged” to Variety about her role as Valentina in the film. “It pleases me so because it is not a cameo. It’s a real part. It’s a real thing. Talk about full circle. Is that insane? Is that crazy?”
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