Since reading Carol Oja’s article, “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s,” I’ve wondered how the existence of movie versions affect how musicians study and perform the shows.1 Movies act as time capsules, whereas broadway shoes, even iconic ones, have opportunities to be reimagined year after year as social climates change. Does an actor’s race (or the race they are made to resemble in the case of West Side Story’s Maria) cement how that role is portrayed in high school/college level productions?
During the 2013-2014 school year, the theater department put on a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” In her article Julia Pilkington noted that “the musical was selected in part because of its significance in the context of a college campus: Students come from various corners of the country and world, live here at St. Olaf College and are contemplating where they will go with their lives.”2 It is true that this is central to the plot, but outside of the Spanish pronunciation coachings the cast received, it seems that the cultural implications of being a Latinx person in Manhattan was not central as it was in the original production.
A discussion about the stakes of movie productions is timely considering the impending release of a movie version of “In the Heights” in which one of the original cast members of “Hamilton” plays the lead role.
Just like West Side Story or the Music Man before it, this version of In the Heights will undoubtedly influence if schools like St. Olaf choose whether or not to tackle this show. When Hamilton starts reaching high school theater departments with the same consistency as West Side Story, what will the cast look like? If there is a movie version of Hamilton, will that affect how it gets performed? Although this post relies on many hypothetical questions, they are questions that theater departments internationally will inevitably face as critical conversations of race (and performing race) continue to fill musical conversations.
1 Carol Oja, “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s,” Studies in Musical Theatre 3, no. 1 (2009): 13-30.
2 Julia Pilkington, “‘In the Heights’ Seeks to Define ‘Home’,” Manitou Messenger, November 14, 2013, https://www.manitoumessenger.com/2013/in-the-heights-seeks-to-define-home/.