Are you ready for this, musical theater nerds? The original title of West Side Story was East Side Story, and it was supposed to be about warring groups of Jews and Catholics, not Sharks and Jets.
That’s just one of the nuggets of wisdom I got from Philadelphia writer and theater guru Warren Hoffman. He shares that and a myriad other little-known Broadway tidbits in his forthcoming book, The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical (Feb. 6, Rutgers University Press). For the project Hoffman spent hours digging through archives at the New York Public Library, among other places, where he was able to read documents that would make any Broadway fan weak in the knees — including drafts of the aforementioned East Side Story.
“It was like feeling history,” says Hoffman, who was recently appointed associate director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning. “No one has written a book about [race and the Broadway musical]. I’m proud of that,” he says.
The pages explore all our favorite musicals (think: Show Boat, Oklahoma!, A Chorus Line) while attempting to answer the burning question at the heart of Hoffman’s thesis: What is it about musical theater that makes it so white?
“The musical is considered to be an all-American art form, but what does it mean that all Americans are not represented in it?,” he asks. “Race is a concept that is always in the musical. It’s there, but the shows simply weren’t talking about it.”
For instance, Hoffman found that two songs from the show A Chorus Line that dealt directly with racism were cut from the score. And he describes Oklahoma! as “a show about Native Americans who never show up.”
The book also delves into gay fascination with theater and musicals, something that Hoffman suggests started in the 1940s and 50s, when Broadway shows became something of a “shared language” between gay men.“You could ask someone, ‘Say, did you see Ethel Merman in that?,’ and you’d just know,” he says. There’s also something about the “Broadway diva,” full of over-the-top expression and emotion, which, according to Hoffman, makes gay men flock to them – both in front and behind the curtain.
During his research, Hoffman came across original letters written between two of the gay creators of East Side Story — Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins. The document is full of what Hoffman describes as “catty girl talk.” “It starts off like, ‘How are you? … We were by the pool with all of these boys. … We saw Carol Channing.’” But the tone quickly changes when the discussion turns to the actual writing of the show. That’s when Hoffman discovered why East Side Story became West Side Story: The creators thought the idea of rival gangs of Jews and Catholics was hopelessly old-fashioned, thus they decided to make it more modern with the Sharks and Jets we know today.
Hoffman covers his bases by examining more modern shows to determine if Broadway has made any progress since the days of yore. So has it? “There’s a bit of change,” he says, “but it is still a very white genre.” He points to 2008’s Passing Strange, a show about an African-American man’s artistic coming-of-age during a trip to Europe, as a sign of progress. There is even an upcoming production of The Music Man — what Hoffman dubs as the “whitest show ever” — that will be produced with an all-black cast. Encouraging, yes, but he says we still have a long way to go.
The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical comes out on Feb. 6. Hoffman’s first book, The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture, can be found here.