How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, or Thought #2 of StinkyLulu's 5 Stinky Thoughts on West Side Story (2009)

This post is the second in my multi-part mini-treatise regarding the current Broadway production of West Side Story at The Palace Theatre in New York City. What I had hoped would be a quick overview of my reactions to the production soon morphed into something more substantial -- or, if not substantial, then too BIG for a single post. So, I've elected to spread my "5 Stinky Thoughts on West Side Story (2009)" across this week...

Thought #2: How do you solve a problem like Maria?

The casting of the role of Maria (and, although to a lesser extent, Tony) has historically proven the musical's greatest challenge, both in terms of theatrical effectiveness and cultural authenticity. Maria must be young, pretty and able to sing really really high -- while also spanning an emotional arc that spans from delightful innocence to erotic abandon to devastating grief. The way I see it, the musical (especially in its stage variant) begins with The Jets as its collective protagonist but ends Maria as its primary tragic figure. Act I is about The Jets; Act 2 is about Maria -- dovetailing tragedies of love and belonging. In this production, Josephine Scaglione -- an Argentinan stage pro -- is utterly competent in the role, charismatic and endearing. Yet, in ways I found surprising, Scaglione's performance replicates one of the greatest flaws in Natalie Wood's generally underrated screen performance: Scaglione's Maria never seems to belong among the Shark girls. Yes, I know she's "fresh off the boat" and all that, but part of Maria's significance as a heroine is that everyone adores her...Anita, Bernardo, Chino and -- most fatefully -- Tony. In this production, Scaglione brings what I've long thought to be an "opera problem" to the role: she's animatedly "in" every scene with the Shark girls but she's never quite "of" the moment. I must confess, too, that I find it very strange that this "revisal" -- the animating "alibi" of which is the impulse toward a greater measure cultural "authenticity" regarding The Sharks -- also repeated what has been a critical problem in every major production: finding the "whitest" Maria possible. Put another way -- while her Act1 dress is supposed to be white, NOTHING in the script says Maria herself needs to be fair-skinned.
Yet in the role's four major interpretations, the role of Maria has been historically portrayed by lightskinned beauties (Carol Lawrence '57, Natalie Wood '61, Jossie De Guzman '80, and Josefina Scaglione '09). Indeed, Jossie De Guzman -- the only Puerto Rican performer to essay the role in a Broadway or Hollywood production -- was critiqued by some activists for being "too European" in appearance for the role. This production's Maria, Josefina Scaglione, is -- like Carol Lawrence (the 1957 Maria) -- of Italian heritage, and already I'm seeing the stirrings of U.S. Latino resentment against the casting of an actress from Argentina in the role (for a panoply of reasons too complex to cover here). Scaglione also is the only major Maria to have blue eyes, causing me to wonder if the oft-pilloried Natalie Wood might actually be the "darkest" of the major Marias.
The problem I see here is no fault in Scaglione's performance, but a residual inclination to cast Maria in a way that exempts her -- or makes her "different" from -- the rest of The Sharks, a predisposition inaugurated in the 1957 production and replicated in most major productions since. What's seems most unfortunate here is that the 2009 "revisal" of West Side Story seems to have been an ideal opportunity to "experiment" a little with the conventional casting protocols for the principal character of Maria, a chance to "officially" reinvent not only what these characters sound like but also what they might look like. Scaglione's fine in the role but it's difficult for me not to see her casting as confirmation of the production's simple-minded vision of latinidad. (And don't even get me started on that rose tapestry hanging as backdrop during "Siento Hermosa/I Feel Pretty.")

No comments: