A Curtain of Color: Immigrants on Broadway

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I was no older than three years old when I learned that the circle block does not fit into the square hole. I barely knew anything about the world, and yet the concept of “fitting in” seemed so lucid. It would seem that human society couldn’t be that much more complicated. Wrong. So wrong.

In thinking that solidarity in American culture can only come from a homogenous people, we mistake uniformity for unity. Why should we expect all of our citizens to look the same, think the same, and act the same?  If we hold to heart the same American principles of unconditionally respecting the rights of our fellow citizens, promoting discourse and dialogue for the sake of refining and clarifying ideas, and priding ourselves on how opportunities are more readily available for social mobility than in any other country, only then are we a united people.

A breeding ground for these essential principles that embody American culture is Broadway Theater. The messages from some of the most popular shows on Broadway depict the struggles that both immigrants and US-born face of fitting in and understanding one’s identity.  West Side Story, for example, portrays the impact of intolerance and hatred between two rival gangs – Puerto Rican and White – and how the invisible boundaries of racism can unnecessarily hurt families and communities.

Interestingly, the original story was based on a rivalry between Catholics and Jews, but a play called Abie’s Irish Rose had already been written that was too similar to the theme. The fact that the experiences of Catholics and Jews can be compared to those of Puerto Ricans and Whites shows how universal immigration truly is, because the consistent theme of exclusion between ethnic groups taints any potential relationship of cooperation.

When we examine the inspiration behind West Side Story, we find that a musical that resounds so powerfully with the American people was written by Arthur Laurents, a middle class Jew and composed by Leonard Bernstein, a Jewish immigrant.  In fact, immigrant composers and writers have been and continue to be  integral to Broadway, like second generation Russian Jew Irving Berlin, who composed some of the most quintessential American songs like “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.”

What I hope comes from realizing the incredible impact of immigrants on Broadway is the notion that immigrants don’t have to fit into American culture because they make American culture what it is. If we view immigrant assimilation as pushing a circle block into a square hole, we’re asking for there to be a uniformity in the profiles of American citizens that has simply never existed.  Though our experiences, thought processes, language, and traditions may not be the same, what defines American culture are the central principles of respect and tolerance that we all ascribe to, and that means that our culture includes anyone and everyone that calls America home.

3 responses to “A Curtain of Color: Immigrants on Broadway

  1. The “America” song from West Side Story seems like the exact stream of consciousness immigrants (at least the ones in my family) experience. There’s always the push-pull where they don’t like the way they are treated in this country, having to start from scratch, or they are uncomfortable in their new culture, yet they still kind of think that it’s better than where they were before: One part of them is like “life can be bright in America!” and the other side is like “…if you’re a white in America.”
    For example, when my dad would shout “I hate the smell of paper mills in Longview!” my grandpa would reply “It’s better than the smell of sulfur in La Oroya!”
    What’s interesting though is, contrary to the song, it always seems to be the women who are like “I think I go back to San Juan” and the men who are like “I have my own washing machine!” hahaha

  2. This blog post was excellent because it was entertaining and effectively drew the connection between immigration and Broadway. Using Broadway to prove that Americanization and assimilation are unnecessary is an innovative approach to a common notion. Another Broadway show that captures the main idea of this piece is In the Heights. This show indicates that embracing one’s culture and not fervently pursing another’s culture yields the best results.

  3. I feel that immigrants contributions to the arts go unjustly unnoticed even though they have added such distinct perspectives to American Art. Without immigrants like David Lean it is arguable that we would not have the modern day blockbuster.

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