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Legendary lyricist Sondheim dismisses protests calling for color-conscious casting as 'ridiculous'

RhonniRose Mantilla, wearing a red dress, rehearses Thursday night for an upcoming community production of West Side Story in July.
Monica Mileur | COCA
RhonniRose Mantilla, wearing a red dress, rehearses Thursday night for an upcoming community production of West Side Story in July

Famed Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim dismissed complaints that white actors should not be cast to portray people of color.

He made his remarks as a guest on Thursday’s episode of St. Louis on the Air.

The issue is freshly in the news with the cancellation last month of a student production of the 1957 musical “West Side Story” after Latino cast members complained that the director cast white actors to portray key Puerto Rican characters.

Sondheim wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story.”

“That kind of protest, I just find sort of silly,” he said. “If you carry that to its extreme than you’d have to say that an actress couldn’t be played by anyone but an actress and that a mother couldn’t be played by somebody who hadn’t been a mother. I mean, it’s ridiculous.”

Listen to Stephen Sondheim's full conversation with St. Louis on the Air:

Complaints about “whitewashing” — casting white actors to portray characters of color — surfaced this June in St. Louis. A group of visiting theater professionals staged a mid-show protest at the Muny during a musical revue of scenes from classic Broadway shows associated with director-choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Muny security officers escorted the protesters from the theater after they jeered a scene from “The King And I” that included a white actress in the key role of an enslaved Burmese woman. Protesters also objected to scenes from “West Side Story” included earlier in that production.

Kamal Hans, artistic director of Chicago’s Rasaka Theatre Company, was among the Muny protesters. At the time, he cited actors in the “West Side Story” sequence “who were not Latin and were representing Puerto Rican culture” among the aspects he found troubling.

Advocates of color-conscious (versus colorblind) casting point out that people of color have historically been shut out of many lead roles that were conceived as white characters by default.

“West Side Story” centers on a dispute between rival gangs of whites and Puerto Ricans in 1950s New York City. Several lead characters are Puerto Rican, but white actors have frequently played those roles in the decades since the show debuted — including Natalie Wood, who famously played lead role Maria in the film adaptation.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.