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Casting a musical with diverse actors brings unique challenges and opportunities, says director

Several students dance with their hands clasped together

“West Side Story” is a musical that traditionally showcases racial tensions between white New Yorkers and Puerto Ricans. Because of the diverse student body and limited number of Puerto Rican and Latin American students, Aaron Densley, the director of the musical, said he had to go a different route.

Densley described how he believes he has cast the musical in a way that keeps the heart of the story intact, while also providing actors a chance to develop their craft.

When there are no other options, he said, you need to change the casting to suit the capabilities of the actors at hand. Through research, scholarly materials, and reading interviews from and talking to Puerto Rican Americans, “you get a little bit better piece of the puzzle.”

He shared how as actors dive into their character’s culture, they gain more and more pieces of the puzzle, which makes up their experience. “You’re never going to get the full picture. But you can get enough of the essence that you can tell the story from your perspective,” Densley said.

“Several cast members have Spanish or Latin American relations … [either] a mission or something else, but none of them are from Puerto Rico.” Densley said he wants his actors to research and learn all they can about the characters’ culture.

He went on to say he does not want any accents from them, because, “When people start trying to do an accent, they start approximating it, and it becomes a little like blackface. [Then, it] is uncomfortable for all of us because obviously you are not Puerto Rican.”

Portraying a character so different from her has been a challenge, said Nalani Matthias, a sophomore from New Jersey majoring in music. Matthias plays Maria, a Puerto Rican who falls in love with Tony, a New Yorker from a rival gang called the Jets.

Matthias said aside from the cultural aspects, it has been hard portraying Maria because she and her character are very different. She said Maria is “on top of the world,” and is carefree, and has a very innocent personality. She said it has been a good challenge getting into this character and trying to play her well.

Portraying Tony has also presented challenges to Ralph Juntilla Mallapre, a sophomore from the Philippines majoring in music, who plays Maria’s romantic interest in the musical. Mallapre said it has been difficult “because I’m not American, [and I] have to learn the character’s culture.” Tony falls in love with Maria almost instantly in the musical, and Mallapre said it has been hard for him to relate because he does not show affection quickly the way Tony does.

Both Mallapre and Matthias said they are both excited to see the final product and are confident they and the rest of the cast will be successful in portraying their characters and their struggles.