BBC Proms: Sierra Boggess withdraws from West Side Story concert over 'whitewashing' claims

Sierra Boggess said she was stepping aside to 'correct a wrong' - FilmMagic
Sierra Boggess said she was stepping aside to 'correct a wrong' - FilmMagic

The BBC Proms has lost one of its star performers after a row over the “whitewashing” of the female lead in West Side Story.

Sierra Boggess, the Broadway and West End star, was due to perform as Maria in a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein.

But her casting led to an angry backlash in the US from critics who said the role should go to a Latin-American performer. Maria and her family are Puerto Rican in the original musical. The 1961 film version is sometimes cited as an early example of whitewashing, with Natalie Wood cast as Maria.

In a statement, Boggess said: “After much reflection, I've realized 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. And that would be a huge mistake.

“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 apologize for not coming to this realization 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“I have therefore withdrawn myself from this concert and I look forward to continuing to be a voice for change in our community and our world!”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 said she had agreed to appear “because it was a concert presentation and not the show proper - I had signed on to lend my voice to honor [sic] Leonard Bernstein in his centennial this year, with an orchestra I have loved singing with for years, following in the long list of sopranos who have all sung the score before me.”

Natalie Wood in West Side Story - Credit: Christophel/Alamy 
Natalie Wood played Maria in the 1961 film of West Side Story Credit: Christophel/Alamy

She has played Maria on stage before but confessed to mixed feelings about it. Two years ago, Boggess said she had been the “wrong” choice. “This is a dream role and I’m really glad I got this, but I’m not Puerto Rican,” she explained.

Boggess, who was born in Colorado, is best known for her starring roles in The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel, Love Never Dies. She also originated the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid on Broadway. More recently, she appeared in the Broadway production of School of Rock.

One US theatre blogger criticised the Proms for failing to cast the West End Story role appropriately, asking: “Proms couldn’t find a talented, box office drawing Latino actress in the United Kingdom for a one-night concert? If they couldn’t find one in the UK, since they hired Ms Boggess, couldn’t they find a talented, box office drawing actress in the US?”

Another blogger of Latin-American heritage wrote: “I’m heartbroken and ashamed of the industry I love so much. I feel betrayed by the fact that the one show that was supposed to be for me and my community is being stripped away and handed to actors who have opportunities left and right.”

A spokeswoman from the BBC 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.” Ross Lekites will continue to perform as Tony.

Steven Spielberg is currently auditioning for a big screen remake of West Side Story. The casting calling asked for young performers of Latin-American heritage.