Broadway star Sierra Boggess has withdrawn from a concert performance of West Side Story at the BBC Proms after complaints about “whitewashing”.
Boggess, from Denver, Colorado, was due to have sung the role of Maria, who is Puerto Rican, at the show in August.
But, she wrote on Facebook: “After much reflection, I’ve realised that if I were to do this concert, it would once again deny Latinas the opportunity to sing this score, as well as deny the IMPORTANCE of seeing themselves represented onstage.”
That would be a “huge mistake”, she said.
‘Voice of change’
“Since the announcement of this concert, I have had many conversations about why this is a crucial time, now more than ever, to not perpetuate the miscasting of this show.
“I apologise for not coming to this realisation sooner and as an artist, I must ask myself how I can best serve the world, and in this case my choice is clearer than ever: to step aside and allow an opportunity to correct a wrong that has been done for years with this show in particular.
“I have therefore withdrawn myself from this concert and I look forward to continuing to be a voice for change in our community and our world!”
Boggess earned a an Olivier Award nomination for appearing in Love Never Dies in the West End in 2011 and has starred on Broadway in The Little Mermaid and School of Rock.
Boggess was due to play Maria in a concert version of West Side Story with the John Wilson Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London to mark the centenary of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth.
But Boggess faced a backlash after her casting was announced. One Twitter user wrote: “You are a Caucasian woman and this character is Puerto Rican. It’s not like you’re hurting for job opportunities. Stop taking roles from actors of colour.”
Another said: “I love Sierra Boggess but Maria is seriously one of the only leading roles for Latina women in musical theatre so can we please cast one of the many talented Latina women out there who would KILL to play this role?”
A BBC statement said: “We respect Sierra’s decision to withdraw from West Side Story at the BBC Proms this year and will announce her replacement in due course.”
The character of Maria was made famous by Natalie Wood, an American actress of Russian descent, in the 1961 film version.
‘We want authenticity’
Ayesha Casely-Hayford, an actor and chair of trustees of the charity Act for Change, said the situation was “very telling of the times we’re living in”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have an amazing ability now with social media to hear audience reaction immediately and it shows that we want more diversity on our stages, and not only that we want authenticity.”
Casting directors should take “a lot of the responsibility” for bringing about change and equality, she added.
“West Side Story is set in a certain cultural background, and we’re saying that when someone’s personal characteristics are relevant, then use that.”