Why Are There No Mexican Stories On Broadway?
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Why Are There No Mexican Stories On Broadway?

While shows like On Your Feet, In The Heights, and West Side Story provide Latino representation on Broadway, there are just but a handful of stories that depict the Mexican experience. And that needs to change.

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Why Are There No Mexican Stories On Broadway?
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It is no surprise that Broadway lives up to its title as the ‘Great White Way’ due to the lack of diversity portrayed on the Broadway stage each season. In recent years, efforts have been made to open doors for performers of all backgrounds and ethnicities, yet the industry has faced many setbacks between their tendency for all white and occasionally inaccurate casting. However, diversity is an ideal that should extend beyond the people who are on stage and apply to the stories being told, as well.

When looking back on the history of Musical Theater, minorities have always struggled to be seen in the industry. Whether it was a matter of finding an audience, a lack of material, or a general disregard for an entire race of people, theater focused on protagonists who stray from the celebrated Americana view of the white experience has a harder time finding a home on a Broadway stage. This may be due to the fact that seventy-seven percent of tickets are “purchased by Caucasian theatergoers” with an average audience age of “almost 44 years.”

Even with the already limited market for people of color and those with an ethnic heritage, the more specific the nationality, the more sparse the repertory of material becomes. With Latino theater, there are a number of musicals that can be referenced as successful Broadway shows that have provided representation onstage. Shows like On Your Feet, In The Heights, and West Side Story cultivated a large following as well as impressive revenues in the box office. Yet, if we choose to specify which type of Latino we desire to see, which for the remainder of this article will be Mexican representation, those three shows do not apply as they revolve around Puerto Ricans and Cubans.

Mexicans, while they have received a small amount of stage time, are egregiously underrepresented. On top of that, they are often characterized by white male writers. Of the eight examples of commercialized Broadway shows that highlight Mexican characters being brought to the table in this article, only two are written by Hispanic men. With each example, there are many things to observe, such as the stereotypes and the point of history in which Mexicans are being depicted in. Most importantly, however, is that Mexicans can have a place on Broadway and, with the proper care and the adequate representation of the table, it can be done in such a way that celebrates all people onstage in a respectful and accurate manner.

1944: Mexican Hayride by Cole Porter

If you are unfamiliar with the work of Cole Porter, it is important to know that people of color and minorities do not fare well in his musical works. Often they are one-dimensional characters who are rooted deeply in their stereotype (i.e. Ching and Ling in Anything Goes). For this reason, finding out that Porter had written a Mexican storyline was enough to make anyone nervous. While the cast recording is reviewed to be lackluster in showcasing what exactly earned the show its 481 performance run, the music that is available demonstrates a lack of understanding of what Latin music sounds like. The story revolves around a female bullfighter, Montana, who runs into trouble with her brother-in-law and falls for an American man. Aside from the loose plot and the all-white cast (Montana was played by June Havoc, the real-life “Dainty June” and sister to Gypsy Rose Lee), there is a considerable lack of understanding in what sounds authentic to Latin music since the songs sound as though Porter tried to force Spanish lyrics and ideas to fit into American styles and popular music.

1951: Paint Your Wagon by Alan J. Lerner & Frederick Loewe

Set in Gold Rush-era California, Paint Your Wagon follows the story of a father and daughter who set out to stake their claim in the golden state. Included in this male-heavy cast is the story’s token outsider, Julio Valveras, who is forced to live outside of the mining camp based on the fact that he is Mexican. He and the miner’s daughter, Jennifer, fall in love in the course of the musical but face many adversities. At the beginning of Act II, Jennifer’s feelings for Valveras are discovered and she is sent away. The role of Valveras is used to create conflict within the show and to contrast the failed relationship between the shows other romantic leads, Ben and Elizabeth. The music which is written for Julio Valveras is swelling and has a crooning feel. In the sea of rowdy men who are unsure of how to be a gentleman to a young lady like Jennifer, Valveras exudes the idea of a romantic Latin lover and his sensitivity, which he shows in songs such as “I Talk To The Trees,” are what win Jennifer’s heart.

1962: We’ll Take The Town by Matt Dubey & Harold Karr

Although the musical closed on the road before it could head to Broadway, We’ll Take The Town tells the story of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa who, because of his ability to invoke fear and impose threats to the order on both sides of the border during the Mexican Revolution, was seen as a modern Robin Hood. The show, which was adapted from the screenplay Viva Villa!, promised a star in the role of the former governor of Chihuahua and had many plans to move to Broadway with glorious sets and a stellar creative team. However, time became the shows worst enemy and as the 60s rolled on, actors, directors, and choreographers began to call out of the project, and, eventually, the whole plan was scrapped. In the numerous rehires, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Barbra Streisand all had had their name on the billing at one point or another. Eventually, Robert Preston was offered the role and he continued to swear by it as his favorite role he has ever played. Aside from the fact that Preston is not remotely Hispanic, the show, which was billed as “a musical adventure,” found errors in many areas. The show was too long on top of being congested with historical facts and people who may not have been necessary to the plot. The show also ended on a rather sad note as Pancho Villa was assassinated in 1924 for reasons still unclear to this day. However, the consensus included that while Pancho Villa may not be a hero to many to hear his story, Preston portrayed the character phenomenally.

1981: Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez

The play Zoot Suit, written by Luis Valdez, who is also best known for his screenplay for the film La Bamba and his contribution to Chicano theater with El Teatro Campesino, made its stage debut at the Winter Garden Theater in 1979 after a highly successful run in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum. The play follows the historical events of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and Zoot Suit Riots which were outcomes of growing tensions following the illegal arrests of approximately 700 Mexican-Americans due to racial profiling. It was the first Chicano play on Broadway but was short lived as it closed after 41 performances and 17 previews. The reason was due to the fact that the audiences, again, primarily white, had no interest in seeing the story of racial oppression on the stage. Even for Hispanic people in New York City, the Puerto Rican and Dominican experience varied from that of Mexicans who primarily populate the west coast and the south. Edward James Olmos was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of the show’s narrator, El Pachuco, and the film adaptation was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy in 1982.

1989: City of Angels by Cy Coleman & David Zippel

In a show that centers around the themes of artistic integrity and fame in 1940s Hollywood, it seems unlikely to find a Mexican character due to the fact that the industry during this time was notorious for white-washing and placing brown bodies into brown roles. Yet, the show’s creators chose to insert the character Manny Munoz, whose presence and dialogue alludes to the Zoot Suit Riots and racial discrimination in Los Angeles. The musical takes place in the real world and in a black & white film noir. Munoz is the former partner of the film’s protagonist, Stone, who he holds animosity towards because of his privilege as a white male on the police force. His role is very much shaped by stereotypes that are not far from something that would be seen on the big screen in the 1940s. His song “All You Have To Do Is Wait” is saturated in cliche sayings, generic latin rhythms, and imagery that is borderline racist. Yet, the purpose of these artistic choices are to make a point that Mexicans and Hispanics have been and continue to be subjected to this type of portrayal in the movie industry. Munoz’ presence in the script adds to the show historical context, contradicting ideologies, and a reminder that the glitz and glam of Hollywood were only available for those who privileged to have the opportunity.

2000: Four Guys Named Jose ... and Una Mujer Named María by David Coffman & Dolores Prida

Backed by Latin pop singer Enrique Iglesias, the Off-Broadway musical Four Guys Named Jose follows the story of four men who meet over the commonality of their name and share a dream to perform on stage in order to counteract negative stereotypes towards Latin people. The jukebox score includes popular Latin music from artists such as Ritchie Valens, Pete Rodriquez, The Sandpipers, Santana, and many others. Though the four men come from different Latin backgrounds (Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican and the Dominican Republican) they work endlessly to put on a show to exemplify Latin standards while madly falling in love with their leading lady, Maria.

2004: Senor Discretion Himself by Frank Loesser

Having been abandoned by Frank Loesser before he died in 1969, this musical based on a short story of the same name by Budd Schulberg was refurbished by the Chicano trio Culture Clash and premiered at Arena's Fichandler Stage in Washington, DC. The story takes place in a lost Mexican town called Tepancingo where three priests decide, for purely their own entertainment, to fabricate a miracle for the disliked, illiterate, and often inebriated town baker. The highly unliked character named Panchito was played by Shawn Elliott, who originated the role of Lieutenant Munoz in City of Angels, and the show received many mixed reviews, often with many complaints that the script was overwhelming with too many ideas.

2009: Giant by Michael John LaChiusa

Based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber, Giant explores many themes including marriage, greed, fortune, and bigotry, specifically between the Texan settlers and the Mexican workers in 1922 Texas. The show opens with a beautiful song in Spanish and the Mexican chorus sings intermittently throughout, proving a beautiful landscape for Texas, a state which once belonged to the country of Mexico. The main character, Bick, has grown up on the idea that outsiders are not welcome and treats the Mexican-Americans with no respect. His wife later takes part in helping the Mexican-American workers and his son falls in love with a Mexican woman whom he marries, all which influence Bick to change his views on the Mexican people. This show, which originally ran for four hours during its premiere at the Signature Theater, explores a number of topics, yet the racial conflict ceases to be in the heart of any reviews or takeaways from theater critics. What is very beautiful about this show is that in personifying the vast land that is Texas, the composer and the writers chose not to omit the voices of the oppressed group of people in this time. Standout moments include when the Mexican characters Angel and Juana take to the stage to sing, respectively, “Jump” and “There Is A Child.” Though it only ran for a limited engagement of two months Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, the treatment and inclusion of Mexican characters allows for just one more opportunity for Latinos to be seen onstage.

With almost 100 years of theater history under Broadway’s belt, it is frustrating that the most popular and commercial shows depicting Mexicans can be counted on both hands. With approximately 50 million people in the United States identifying as Latino, this lack of accessibility to Hispanic stories cannot be blamed on the inability to find an audience but rather on the lack of effort from those with the power to change the landscape of contemporary American theater. Even in these eight examples, there are still moments of racial stereotyping, inaccurate casting, and raising questions on the authority that some of these white males have in speaking on behalf of the Mexican experience. Of course, we must remember that this type of dialogue is all new to the theater scene and it is important to remember the time and context in which the shows were written. That being said, I look forward to the day were Mexicans are no longer seen as just an opportune comedic bit or the oppressed individuals in a story of the white man’s journey to success and economic gain. I want to see an everyday household with everyday Latino people who experience and undergo the life-altering changes that Broadway has deemed as inaccessible and reserved exclusively white families. It’s a matter of being celebrated for our achievements and not being pigeonholed to the very tropes and inaccurate stereotypes that people all over the country, and within our government, use to alienate and discredit us.

With the greater awareness people are beginning to have about representation on stage, we can hope that the future will bring new writers, directors, casting agents, and actors of color who will change the rules and kick the door wide open for Hispanics and any other group of people who desire to see themselves onstage. Theatre is supposed to reflect the world we live in but it cannot do that successfully until it manages to look like the vast diversity of individuals who live in it.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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