Yesterday, it was announced that Sierra Boggess will be playing the role of Maria in a concert version of "West Side Story" as part of the Proms series at London’s Royal Albert Hall in August.
Boggess (The Little Mermaid, The Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies, School of Rock) will be joined by Ross Lekites as Tony and students from ArtsEd and Mountainview theatre schools.
When news of the casting announcement hit social media, let's just say the reaction hasn't been positive. Many are stating that this is yet again, another example of whitewashing in the theatre industry. While I would agree with that, to me, it's also a very confusing decision on the part of Proms to offer the role to Ms. Boggess and for her to accept it.
Just like other iconic female roles of color, Maria has been a lightning rod for casting controversy over the years. Just as with the case of other roles such as Eva Peron, where race is so inherently important to the character, many casting and creatives sidestep this by casting Caucasian performers to portray them. Maria has been whitewashed many times, especially in the film version with Natalie Wood playing the role. Recently, however, with the heightened awareness of casting equality over the past couple of years, many are taking extra steps to make sure these roles of color and portrayed by performers of color. Proms seems to be ignoring that.
Now before some of you get all bent out of shape about this (which always happens) and say that this is only a concert, not a full production, so it shouldn't matter. I say to that, because it's just a concert and not a full production, is what makes it easier to cast these roles racially appropriate. Proms couldn't find a talented, box office drawing Latino actress in the United Kingdom for a one night concert? If they couldn't find one in the U.K., since they hired Ms. Boggess, couldn't they find a talented, box office drawing actress in the US? Once again, we're talking about a one-night only concert, it's not that hard to find someone for that type of commitment.
Also, while I love Sierra Boggess and think she's highly underrated in the theatre community, what is she thinking accepting this role? A job is a job but any white performer knows that taking on a role of color is only going to create unwanted controversy these days. While I don't know Ms. Boggess' family genealogy(French last name, raised in Denver), by her own admission, she's not Puerto-Rican. In fact, in what has become a relevant video is a clip from a Broadway.com's "Roles I was Wrong For" where Ms. Boggess admits that she once played Maria, it was a dream role, but she was wrong for it because she isn't Puerto Rican.
So if that was the case then, what's changed now with her that she feels accepting this gig is appropriate? While no actor ever probably wants to turn down a role, accepting these roles is taking away an opportunity from performers of color and by doing so, are complicit in this cycle of whitewashing. I encourage Ms. Boggess and Proms to reconsider the casting of this concert.
Once again, because I know some will say it's only a concert and this is no big deal. But let me say one more time, because it's just a concert and this isn't a big deal, it's even easier to cast it correctly.