Social Justice and American Musical Theater
Note: This prescient article was written at the start of the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown. We invite readers to read this article with that eye.
Remember that new production of West Side Story that premiered on February 20, 2020? Remember how rebellious and “socially conscious” it was supposed to be? Remember how creator Ivo van Hove decried “the ethnic tensions and tales of a divided society at the heart of West Side Story need to be dismantled and reimagined for our current sensibility?” Remember Scott Rudin collecting millions of dollars to mount an adaptation that was supposed to be “austere, violent…[all in an] attempt to reveal the hidden layers of classic texts.” Remember cast of young BIPOC performers, “denizens of the 21st century,” those 33 talented actors, singers, and dancers all making their Broadway debut? Remember how the production was supposed to represent a “much rougher world that had come into being with the election of Donald Trump?” Remember the “multiracial melting pot” that appeared on opening night as a prophetic emblem of American musical theater’s future? Remember how excited we all were despite the fact that the show itself got fairly mediocre reviews?
And remember all of the tangible social good it did for all of those people who were involved in the production — how many lives it changed, how it brought people together? Of course you don’t. COVID-19 shuttered the production. And when a Broadway show closes, people lose their jobs. But not all jobs because not all jobs in the theater are created equal. And that’s a problem. Based on my understanding of the players involved and the contemporary practices of American Musical Theater, here are my best guesses at how the closing affected individuals involved in West Side Story.
My guess is that Ivo van Hove continued to take virtual meetings about his next opera, or his next musical, or opera/film/musical, and, while his career was on hold, it by no means faltered. My guess is that, even though he’s recently come into some hot water concerning social issues, Scott Rudin continued to line up investments, taking meetings with partners and making millions off of the shows he’s already produced. My guess is that audience members who had prepaid for their tickets received a refund. My guess is that because the show is not eligible for the Tonys, it will not reopen. My guess is after such lukewarm reviews, investors are cutting their losses and not moving forward with plans to reopen the show. And my guess is that the 33 talented BIPOC performers who were no longer receiving a salary had to make a choice.
My guess is that many of them moved out of their prohibitively expensive New York City apartments and perhaps even out of the city while they claimed unemployment and waited for theaters to reopen. My guess is that they have student loan debt like so many performers do. My guess is they are going to have a difficult time getting a job in this volatile market. My guess is that a good number of them will leave the field.
Let me not mince words: staging social justice is not the same thing as practicing social justice. The contemporary patterns of American theater making often reward those that already have the most (investors, producers, famous creators) at the expense of those who are the most vulnerable (emerging actors, economically challenged creators, etc.) Who cares what we put on stage if we cannot take care of who is on stage, who is backstage, and who is coming with a desire to be part of the stage? We have found ourselves mistaking the often tokenizing optics of social justice with real, pragmatic, disruptive steps that could actually change artists’ lives. Until we recognize the exploitation and hypocrisy within our own means of production and work to change the ways we make theater so that everybody can participate, it doesn’t matter what story we are telling on stage. We are merely paying lip service to the idea of social justice.
 Portwood, J. (2020). ‘West Side Story’ Revival Breaks All the Rules for All the Right Reasons. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from https://money.yahoo.com/west-side-story-revival-breaks-010013879.html?
 Schwartz, A. (2020). A Grim Take On “West Side Story”. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/02/a-grim-take-on-west-side-story
 Portwood, J.
 Soloski, A. (2020). ‘The violence should be tangible’ — Ivo van Hove on roughing up West Side Story. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/feb/17/west-side-story-broadway-new-york-ivo-van-hove-anne-teresa-de-keersmaeker-violence
 Youngquist, C. (2020). Six Stars of the New ‘West Side Story’ Discuss Its Enduring Relevance. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/18/t-magazine/west-side-story-broadway.html
This article was initially published for the public on our website. For more about Frances Pollock, check out our Team page. For information on her comic opera “Salt,” please click here. For her research project with Allison Chu, “Ms/Opera/Music/Mr,” click here. You can learn more about Midnight Oil Collective and our mission here.