West Side Story musical blames ‘cognitive dissonance’

It was an honour for New Yorkers to have the famed novel turn into a musical, but this must be something none of them expected to walk out seeing: a re-telling of West Side Story set to racist undertones.

That’s how local news website Gothamist framed two students singing about the story in an early August performance at the Cornucopia Theater in lower Manhattan.

“You’re a hick just like So,” one sings while adding that they know people from “dinky stock towns and southern states and you think, ‘You got your young lives, maybe I can make something of them.'”

Another, apparently carrying a beer mug, responds: “We just want the voice of our generation heard.”

What’s more, the song includes lyrics that can be interpreted as a racially tinged insult: “You’re a n****r, honey. Y’all don’t want to be my sister.”

This is not the first time a musical staging of the 1962 classic, about a mob of Cuban immigrants in New York City, has been criticised for its racial content. In 2016, La La Land’s music director, Damien Chazelle, was asked to comment on an episode of On the Town in which people of different races danced together and raised their hands in the air.

While Chazelle said that the show was meant to be “grounded in history”, he added that the 2018 TV adaption of the original play had also been “received with a lot of (racial) upset”.

Now it’s the students’ turn. Gothamist says more than 500 comments were posted on the story. Many were angry, accusing the students of “making fun of” minorities.

In a statement to news outlet Inside Edge, one wrote that “it’s a shame that they have to speak that way in an attempt to prove they’re white or Hispanic/Latino/Middle Eastern, but it sounds like they went down the wrong road with it”.

Some suggested that the group should no longer sing at local high schools and colleges.

Gothamist’s editor, Robert Colmlovich, told Inside Edge that the story did receive some feedback in August, but it “did not break through the internet echo chamber of liberal outrage”.

Colmlovich said there was “no hate crime, but some comments were so extreme they were very concerning”.

After being contacted by Inside Edge, the students apparently decided not to perform any of the protest-related verses from the song after school on Monday, but the edits made to the rest of the performance have since been deleted.

Grace Cho, one of the students who performed the piece, told the site: “We were set to sing about the inherent racism of the show. So we joked around and threw our white friends and family under the bus.”

ChocoGo said she understood that she has upset people with her choices, but that it was done in “lighthearted and creative” fashion.

“Why wouldn’t we joke around about how our parents were immigrants?” she said.

As for future songs, the musical will go on its national tour in November.

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