West Side Story role recast for Proms after 'whitewashing' backlash

Sierra Boggess and Mikaela Bennett.
Role change … Sierra Boggess and Mikaela Bennett. Photograph: Getty

The role of Maria in a BBC Proms performance of West Side Story has been recast, after the previous singer pulled out amid accusations of the role being “whitewashed”. Sierra Boggess quit the role of Maria, a Puerto Rican character, in April, saying that to take it “would once again deny Latinas the opportunity to sing this score, as well as deny the importance of seeing themselves represented on stage. And that would be a huge mistake.”

The concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s musical will now feature Canadian soprano Mikaela Bennett, who has previously performed songs from West Side Story with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. The BBC haven’t commented on Bennett’s ethnicity but said in a statement that she was cast “on her merit and suitability for the role”.

The news comes amid increasing pressure for the casting of appropriate actors in roles on stage and screen. British actor Ed Skrein turned down a role in the comic-book movie Hellboy after discovering the character was of Asian heritage, saying: “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people and to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts.” It followed criticism after Tilda Swinton was cast in the role of the Ancient One in another comic-book movie, Doctor Strange, who was a Tibetan man in the original books. There was also criticism for casting Zoe Saldana in a Nina Simone biopic over the colour of her skin, and for Emma Stone in the Hawaii-set Aloha.

Scarlett Johansson was recently cast as a trans character in Rub & Tug, prompting another backlash. After initially defending the casting, she decided to step down. “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realise it was insensitive,” she wrote in a statement. It was the second casting controversy Johansson had become embroiled in, following the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, in which she played a character that had been Asian in the original anime film.