Glee actress Lea Michele recently did an interview with Cosmopolitan where she talked about her experience auditioning for the famous West Side Story musical. Though she didn’t say specifically what role she was trying out for, a past tweet from her insinuated it was for the role of Maria, the lead character who is Latina. She told Cosmopolitan, “I was dreaming of being in this production of West Side Story that was coming to Broadway, and I worked so hard on the audition. Literally, I learned Spanish for it.” She continued, “And I get into the room, and before I could even begin, I said maybe one line, and they were like, ‘Thank you so much. Have a great day.’ And they escorted me out.”
She said, “I was gutted. I went home and I cried so hard. I’m friends with Idina Menzel, and I remember crying to her, being like, ‘What am I going to do? This was my dream role, I have to play this part.’”
Michele’s “need” to play the part is questionable considering in the musical, Maria is Puerto Rican, while Lea is White with Italian and Greek roots.
Despite Puerto Rican characters being a big part of the musical, major productions of the show have a history of whitewashing. In the 1961 film production of West Side Story, Maria is played by Natalie Wood, who’s White. Another Puerto Rican character, Bernardo, was played by George Chakiris, who has Greek ancestry. Rita Moreno, who was actually Puerto Rican, played Anita, but even she had to wear “brownface.”
In Michele’s memoir, Brunette Ambition, she talked about how Natalie Wood was her role model growing up, which added to the upset of her not getting the role of Maria. This seems like another episode of White tears. Critics and film scholars such as Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, have elaborated on how White actors playing a New York Puerto Rican is outright racist when you add brownface to the equation.
Ironically, Michele finally got to play Maria in an episode of Glee, when her character, Rachel, participated in a high school production of West Side Story. However, Rachel split the role with Amber Riley‘s character, Mercedes.
With actual Puerto Rican actors, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, making way for more Latinx and people of color actors, maybe Michele should reevaluate her thirst for certain characters.