The Basics of Tragedy. How Film Musical Dramas reflect social issues

Master's Thesis, 2021

60 Pages, Grade: 2,5


Table of Contents


List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Concepts of Forms of Tragedy, Aristotle, Shakespeare and Musical
2.1 Definition: Tragedy
2.1.1 Aristotle’s´ Poetics
2.2 Shakespeare´s Romeo and Juliet
2.3 Definition: Musical

3 The Concept of the American Dream, Ethnic Problems and Migration to the U.S. in the 1950/60s
3.1 A Brief Concept of the American Dream
3.2 The Great Migration as a Foundation
3.3 Puerto Rican Migration to the U.S
3.3.1 Theatrical Liberalism
3.4 The Reflection of Post-War U.S.-Society through the Movie Landscape around the 1960s

4 West Side Story (1961)
4.1 Motives and Themes within the Story
4.1.1 Tony and Maria´s First Meeting
4.1.2 Juvenile Gang Issues
4.1.3 Representation of the Social Issues and Gang Violence
4.1.4 White Privilege and Puerto Rican Representation
4.1.5 The Symbolism of Death Within West Side Story
4.1.6 The Usage of Theatrical Liberalism and Self-Freedom

5 Modern-Age Film Musicals
5.1 La La Land (2016)
5.1.1 Sebastian and Mias´ Pursuit of Happiness
5.2 Soundtrack (2019)
5.2.1 Sam and Nellie
5.2.2 Interracial Love Issues
5.2.3 The Dream of a Balanced Life

6 Similarities and Differences of Social Issues, Black and Hispanic Representation and the American Dream Effect within West Side Story, La La Land, Soundtrack
6.1 The Depiction of Individualism and the Modern Tragedy
6.1.1 The Romeo and Juliet Idea
6.2 Black and Hispanic Representation within West Side, Story, Soundtrack and La La Land
6.2.1 Black and Hispanic Representation in West Side Story
6.2.2 Black Representation in La La Land
6.2.3 Black Representation in Soundtrack
6.3 Musicals as A Medium for American Reality

7 Conclusion



Firstly, I want to thank my lecturer Ms. Dr. Elizabeth Gilbert for the support and counsel and the whole meta-studies around my teaching program at the University of Cologne which inspired me in my early research for this topic, also the cinematic inspiration of West Side Story as a classical movie.

I also dedicate this Master Thesis to my family who were supporting me all the time during my studies.

Lastly, I am also dedicating this Master Thesis to my great late idols 2Pac Amaru Shakur and Kobe Bryant who both loved storytelling and Fantasy stories. Hopefully your souls may rest in peace.

Manar Marc Soukar

List of Abbreviations

LA Los Angeles

U.S. United States

U.S.A. United States of America

1 Introduction

[...] The musical stage is phantasmagoria. Like poetry, it deals in myth. It incantates the theater. By the richness of its medium, which blends music, dance, verse, costume, scenery and orchestra, the musical drama makes complete use of the theater. It is the one element left in a form of literature that was all poetry originally. (Copans 1979, 80)

From its modern influenced and ballet-like choreography to its unique score and its subject themes of gang-fights, immigration and love, the story of West Side Story seems to have been very progressive for audiences at the time and the topic of teenage-gang fights and culture clashes was particularly accurate. West Side Story, inspired by Romeo and Juliet, is about pre-dominantly two teenage-protagonists, Maria and Tony, who are being lost in the Jungle in the mecca of America, New York City, the metropolis of modernity. Both are pushed into their misery through the hate of race. To this very day, not only the story but the film has become one of the biggest Film Musical Dramas in the history of movies. According to Barrios (2020), on Broadway, West Side Story scored a significant hit and became even more immortal on screen. It was a movie different from anything that had come before (cf. 1). When West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, it caused a massive sensation and became the attraction in the world of musical theatre. Many Americans had seen Shakespeare adapted for the Broadway stage before, according to Andrea Most, West Side Story was a musical based on one of Shakespeare´s tragedies that has drew the conventions of both musical comedy and of Shakespearean tragedy, it tested boundaries of both genres, ultimately inhabiting a hybrid form ideally suited to express the tensions and social concerns of 1950s American liberal culture (Most 2011, 56). West Side Story can be viewed as an act of imagination, as Berson (2011) is claiming, in which the musical envelops the viewer in a mythic world of its own design through the very first finger snap, to its last dying moments (cf. 9-10). In extension to, one must recognize that the film has been adapted from a musical and has become a major part of American Cult history. West Side Story lives under a massive box office and iconic Hollywood success, at the same time it illustrates a variety of elements that are still widely recognized in pop-culture, society, and life: The musical combination of Pop-Jazz, Ballet, Mambo and the street slang and dancing, that is centered around an urban conflict with young rebelling teenagers. However, the racial conflicts and the immigration factor, led by young Puerto Ricans, especially at the beginning of the 1960s play an immense role in this work since it underlines the inner conflict that divides the two young gangs, in the narration itself. In contrast to West Side Story, two modern film drama musicals are being presented as an exemplification and contrast to express the immense change of how Film Musical Dramas are depicted and illustrated in today’s generation. Next to West Side Story the second movie La La Land (2016) is another awarded motion picture movie, followed by a Netflix original TV-Series, called Soundtrack (2019).

As West Side Story is there to lay the foundation of this work, the other two motion-picture drama subjects are being analyzed to point out the conflicts with whom the protagonists deal in all the depicted three storylines. Similarities and differences are going to be pointed out in the conclusion on how these musical dramas reflect social issues and how much they deal with them. Throughout this research, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is going to be the main cycle point to return to for comparing similarities, motives as well as specific purposes of the characters. A persistent theme in Film Musical Dramas is the social issues and the struggles the protagonists must face all the time. Main motives such as Dream pursuing and life fulfillment, as well as love, death, immigration problem, juvenile crime and racial issues are going to be the main themes picked out of the three depicted movies. Against this background, the central question that motivates this thesis is: How Film Musical Dramas Reflect Social Issues under the basic aspects of a tragedy. On the subject of sources and reference, it is important to mention that the thematized subjects, in that case the movies, are mostly quoted from the streaming broadcasting platforms such as Amazon and Netflix of their online services. Moreover, the Reclam edition by editor James Bean serves as a stage template for the primary West Side Story quotations in this research as well as the movie scenery , directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1961. Also, all three visual examples are going to be quoted through the number of the sequences as well as their directors, who serve as the establishers, to justify the reference to specific scenes.

The Master Thesis is divided into five chapters: The first is dedicated to the theoretical concepts and Aristoteles´ motives that form tragedy. Also, William Shakespeare´s classic Romeo and Juliet is going to be mentioned briefly. Thus, it is the foundation for the narration of West Side Story and its relation. The second chapter focuses on the concept of the American Dream and the theoretical background of migration to the US and the aspiration of living a new prosper life in the US. Also, the juvenile crime conflicts that occurred in the late 50s and early 60s in the US, moreover, the racial problems that captivated society in that specific period. Besides, a major aspect is going to be the historiography of the Puerto Rican immigration to the US and how much it influenced West Side Story, which is why, there will also be an intensive illustration of the topic of migration and representation of minorities in media and how the movies work with stereotyping, based on the three film examples.

The main part deals with West Side Story as a film and its motives and the representation of the Puerto Rican characters towards their relationships and the imagery within the tragic drama, which then leads to the following chapter of Modern Film Musical Dramas in comparison to West Side Story from a modern perspective. Also explored are the motives of social and racial problems, love, drama and the differences of modern-age Film Musical Dramas as well as their impact on today’s world. Are there racial problems within La La Land ? How is the African American being represented? How would West Side Story look like if the main characters were black and white? In summary, these questions will be answered critically in the course of this Thesis. The Master Thesis will end with the conclusion and an analysis of the extent to which there are connections, similarities, and differences to all motives of the selected films and to what extent Film Musical Dramas reflect social issues and address racial problems and what musicals mean for today’s entertainment value.

2 Theoretical Concepts of Forms of Tragedy, Aristotle, Shakespeare and Musical

The Broadway musical and Film Musical Drama in general are an excellent outbreak from the real world to view the narrative of American life as it is and has been or perhaps should be to create a fictional way of living (cf. Greenspan 2012, 154). Therefore, before these interrelationships are going to be analyzed, a theoretical basis for the emergence of tragedy and the establishment of musical is going to be analyzed -with reference to Aristotle- to understand the true meaning of tragedy and its ancient roots. In addition, the basis for West Side Story is introduced, in which William Shakespeare's Romeo and Julia plays the most important role.

2.1 Definition: Tragedy

As for the definition of tragedy, one must consider that it can be divided into three main philosophies, which focus either on the hero, the plot and its constellation or the effect: All three elements are already established in the 4th century BC. Its title Poetics, written by Aristotle, contain certain discussions up to the present day and can also be found in isolated cases in the theoretical texts of the Middle Ages (cf. Toepfer 2013, 25). A much broader analysis of his Poetics will take place in the next chapter. Also, to show traces of a historical examination of this genre, the Middle Ages, in which tragedy evoked, were always referred to as the 'dark age' (cf. Kelly 1993, 67), which “like an unbridgeable abyss” (Ibid. 67) separates ancient tragedy from its first humanistic imitations. Although from the 5th to the 13th century, tragedies were neither produced nor received; instead, productions of Christian subjects such as passion, legend and mystery have dominated the stages (cf. 2013. 2). A tragedy was once titled as a goofing praise, a goat song or a stinking song and dealt with the cruelest things, for example, how someone killed their parents or ate their son. According to Toepfer (2013), in the Middle Ages, the tragedian was given a buck, not because no more appropriate reward was available, but to provide an indication of the stench of the material (cf. 2013, 23). This could be seen as a symbolic gesture. Nevertheless, in the early Middle Ages not only were there no traces of the reception of the three great Greek tragedians, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, which can be explained by the cultural distance at that time but also the linguistic hurdle. This makes it evident that there is a lack of knowledge of ancient tragedies and their authors mostly can be seen on the one hand of handwritten tradition and on the other hand in medieval textbooks, commentaries, and poetics (cf. Ibid. 4). According to Annette Johana Schneider (2009), her definition of tragedy depicts one’s own suffering. Therefore, tragedy can be viewed as a form of literature that depicts a symbolic event, performed by actors, and focuses on horrific human suffering (cf. Schneider 2009, 30). She then continues to claim that “it reminds of one’s own forgotten and repressed suffering and that of one’s relatives and all of humanity.” (cf. Ibid. 30).

Moreover, it can be assumed that it leaves the recipient with a sense that suffering is universal, not just a coincidence in one’s experience. Furthermore, that courage and perseverance in suffering or dignity in despair are admirable and usually that a worse fate than one’s own can be experienced as uplifting (cf. Ibid. 30). Another important factor that forms the structure of tragedy is the aspect of guilt at the very end of any narration. According to Toepfer (2013) the guilt aspect can be underlined as a fundamental category for “evaluating a tragic act for it does not only look at the cause-effect relationship, but it also illuminates the motivation for the misfortune” (cf. Ibid. 85). One can assume that the consequences in the narration can change immediately for the protagonists. Furthermore, in ancient literature, love and death are closely related, and love stories also end fatally in medieval works, which is a primary representative aspect for a tragic love. It can be assumed that a tragic love has arguably the most prominent cases in which an epic narrative is accepted and interpreted as a tragedy with one protagonist or both always ending up and committing suicide because of the close love and death relation (cf. Ibid. 322) as described.

2.1.1 Aristotle’s´ Poetics

According to Kelly, Aristotles´ Poetics (c. 335 BC) serves as the classical application of tragedy. He also claims that Aristotle almost always has some role to play, whether it is a question about any modern discussion of tragedy (cf. Kelly 1993, xiii) therefore it is important to mention that his work of Poetics needs to be observed to provide the basis and idea of tragedy and its theoretical studies: In Aristotle’s second chapter of Poetics, he introduces the epithets, in that case, nickname of spoudaion and phaulon, which according to Kelly, are essential to his definitions of tragedy and comedy (cf. Ibid. 1), which is vital to mention primarily. In Aristotles´ Poetics, men are either defined to be spudean, which means to be above the average, of high character, good, superior, noble, and heroic or phaulic, which means to be below the average, of low character, inferior, bad and ignoble (Aristotle, 2.48ai-18; i.e., chapter 2, Bekker p. 1448ai-18) while, according to Kelly, this can all be observed for the artistic imitation. Meanwhile, Homer´s characters are spudean, and so are those of dramatic tragedy, whereas the persons who appear in comedy can be referred to as phaulic (cf. 2.48ai-18, i.e., p.1448ai-18) in which comedy tends naturally to imitate men worse than average and tragedy to imitate men better than average, according to Aristotle descriptions (cf. Kelly 1993, 2). It is also being mentioned that Aristotle connects epic with tragedy, of which he claims to be much alike and a large-sized imitation of spudean matters, in this case men or events in verse, in which they are all possessed by tragedy (cf. Ibid. 2). Therefore, one can assume that Aristotle´s accurate definition of tragedy is primarily an imitation of an action that is a man or an event, in this case spudean.

On the one hand, a tragic event can be viewed as a form of suffering that suddenly evokes because otherwise it could not itself arouse suffering of the effected, yet according to Aristotle it has to be arbitrarily imposed (cf. Ibid. 2), a stroke of fate, one could assume: Aristotle also refers to the outcome of the story, and that it contains pathetic events and results as a form of catastrophically ending, which is a desire of a tragic effect (cf. Ibid. 3). He then produces a ranking of tragic plots, in which certain plays with happy endings are declared to be the best to his notion. These plots are also being interpreted by Kelly (cf. Ibid. 4) as:

1. The protagonist intends a heinous deed and commits it
2. The protagonist commits such a deed and only later realizes its heinousness
3. The protagonist intends to commit such a deed but realizes its heinousness in time to refrain from action
4. The protagonist intends to commit such a deed, well aware of its heinousness, but does not (for some reason) commit the deed. (Ibid. 4)

Aristotle declares the third tragic plot to be the most effective and the fourth to be the worst (cf. Ibid. 4). Moreover, one could assume that it serves to show that the protagonist can learn from his actions to avoid the committing of a specific action and to also to avoid a tragic incident.

2.2 Shakespeare´s Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare´s tragic drama of Romeo and Juliet (1592) is about a life-and-death struggle, as Dympna Callaghan (2003) refers to, that can be pointed out as arguably “the preeminent document of love in the West” (1) and heightens the desire for a tragic love story that has been pursued in many forms, such as novellas, novels, films, musicals, and operas (cf. Kottman 2012, 1). This tragic story of two individuals of whom their families, in Montague and Capulets, are fighting each other is less elemental and less dramatic compelling to their love relation (cf. 2012, 9). The themes of the interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, mostly in any kind of adaption, deal with the conflict between the lovers´ individual desires and the reigning demands of family, civic as well as social norms in relation to which those desires are formed (cf. Ibid. 1). Two brief examples by Pau. A. Kottman (2012) might clarify this concept of the paradigm of the modern tragedy that a Shakespearean drama defines: “It takes for its proper subject matter (…) the subjective inner life of the character who is not, as in classical tragedy a purely individual embodiment of ethical powers.” (Hegel in Kottman 2009, 73). One can assume that Romeo and Juliet portray the tragic beauty of a love that is shattered by a higher cleverness from above or a tragic fate as the story progresses. Another example by Kottman describes the lovers´ desires that cannot be reconciled to the life of the family or society from which they spring, which is why they must extinguish themselves (cf. 2012, 2). Moreover, this leads to a pure self-destruction by one or even both lovers, in that case, the act of being killed. More precisely their suicides at the very end constitute their love affair towards each other and reveal that not even mortality separates or individuates them. Still, they must actively claim their separateness if their life is to be owned just by them (Kottman 2012, 38).

2.3 Definition: Musical

Musicals can be seen as a form of art, because they express emotions through the combination of song, dance and drama (cf. Walsh; Platt 2003, 1).

This distinguishes the musical theatre from other theatrical genres and beliefs. Conventionally, musicals work to produce a utopian view of life for audiences as their pleasures can be found in how they can lead into realism where qualities that audiences´ real lives lack, can find visual and verbal expression through the musicals portray (cf. Ibid. 1). One can see the musical as a metaphor that stands for escapism and entertainment. Moreover, the musical show offers an open, direct, and ideologically unapologetic expression of the ideals, dreams, anxieties, feelings, fulfillments, and frustrations of its audience (cf. 2003, 1). Walsh et. al (2003) also claim that musicals "can become powerful vehicles of popular collective expression by articulating symbolically, in the patterns of their narrative, lyrical harmonies, and dance, the tensions and reconciliation of everyday relations between individuals and society “. (Ibid. 1) By referring to the claim of Walsh, it is evident that musicals use their narration to express the issues of society and the every-day issues in life through harmonies and dance. With reference to the United States of America1, where the birthplace of musicals has been paved, it has been primary and accessible as a voice through which the American way of life is expressed itself to the people of the US and also to much of the rest of the world (cf. Ibid.2). Walsh et. al continue to claim that musicals shaped the culture of America and changed the culture to a reflection of American society that helped to form, articulate, and shape the country (cf. Ibid. 2) as this leaves the impression of salvation to help the American society form itself through the era of World Wars and depression. Besides, Musicals developed different expressions of American national and political identity over the 20th century through a whole variety of forms, such as ballad, opera, vaudeville, burlesque, blackface, melodrama, farce comedy, operetta and musical comedy, lastly (cf. Ibid. 2), which is to be considered.

3 The Concept of the American Dream, Ethnic Problems and Migration to the U.S. in the 1950/60s

The United States of America has celebrated itself as a land opportunity for anybody, any immigrant that came to the so-called New World. However, it can be viewed and discussed as a Perception of Class. These factors are going to be described, including the Concept of the American Dream and the increased immigration that came with it, leading to the Puerto Rican immigration in the late 50s and the racial conflicts that have been brought up within that era.

3.1 A Brief Concept of the American Dream

At the specific time, the immigrants from Europe come to America, as it could be viewed as the new landscape for immigrants into a new field of hopes, desires, and dreams. Vannemann and Cannon (1987) refer to it as the New World to escape class barriers and search for the land of opportunity (1987, 257). The roots of the American Dream lay in hard work and talent (cf. Ibid. 257). These explanations complement each other and help to illuminate the phenomenon of the American Dream. Also, Reeve Vanneman and Weber Cannon, colonial America lay the foundation for the American Dreams’ roots. Hanson and White (2011) remark that the resiliency of the American Dream can be traced to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its promise that citizens of the new nation were already endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, which include life and liberty, and moreover that these same people were entitled to engage in many varied pursuits of happiness (cf. 2011, 1). Adding to this claim, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that the Americans he encountered had “acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants” as he added that they “owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man, they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.” (Tocqueville 1989, 194). One can assume that this belief of destiny prophecy describes that the American people are their own creators of happiness as they can decide what to pursuit to become happy in life. Later, this foundation increases during the rise of industrialization in the late nineteenth century (cf. 1987, 257), where mobility dominated this new landscape: “[...] this Dream seemed the perfect immunization against the dangers of militant class consciousness. It promised vision to all Americans, works and bosses, the poor as well as the rich” (Ibid. 257). According to James Truslow Adams the American Dream is defined as a symbolic manifest that life should be better and richer. Moreover, social mobility is openly approached for everyman (cf. Caldwell 2006, 37):

[...] the American Dream defines a life that should be better, richer and fuller for everyman and that social mobility, the prudential values, and universal education; land, free government, free thought, and human dignity; economic plenty and industrial power are also being approached. (Ibid. 37)

One can assume that its opportunity, as James Truslow Adams recalls it, was the product of the new land itself and the seeds were pushed by the European immigrants coming from overseas (cf. Caldwell 2006, 37). The American Dream is known for being influenced by its mythology and the opportunities that come with it for men who are being rewarded, for who are the most deserving the hardest and brightest of all (cf. Sternheimer 2011, 8). Furthermore, the American Dream can be considered to be a dream of freedom, which can have different forms of meaning as pilgrims and puritans were motivated by a dream of religious freedom that was understood as religious tolerance as also the embracement of work ethic and economic prosperity (cf. Hanson et. al. 2011, 19). Also, individualism plays an immense role in the pursuit of the dream. The American Dream promised a common vision to all Americans, workers or bosses, the poor (cf. Ibid. 257) as well as the rich and in an open America it did not set boundaries, there would be no class since dividing class would not exist (cf. Ibid. 257) according to Vanneman (1987).

3.2 The Great Migration as a Foundation

The Great Migration, which happened between 1910 and 1970, mostly out of African American migration from the old Confederacy to the North and West, is recalled by John Tirman (2015) which was spurred by the continuing mistreatment from black slaves and their progeny in the South (cf. 5). It rapidly changed the racial compositions and the social and cultural dynamics of US cities like Detroit, Chicago or New York but also Latino migration played a huge role in it too: Migration happened mainly from Mexico but also significantly from Central America, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Tirman (2015) goes even further and points out that “this has been equal or larger in scale and arguably as significant in reshaping parts of the American culture” (Ibid. 5). It is clear that immigration is part of the DNA of the United States. Whether motivated by the search for economic opportunity or by religious and political freedom, immigrants (cf. Ibid, 5), which Tirman (2015) points out. Also, immigration itself has had a tumultuous history, one in which some ethnic groups have been intermittently the target and made illegal by sudden changes in the rules that govern entry (Ibid. 1). He points out that there always has always been discrimination by the white culture, to which he refers to as privileged and conservative which led violently across the whole continent (cf. Ibid. 1). Tirman (2015) also draws a comparison between the Great Migration of African Americans, who fled racism and poverty in the South and settled in northern cities, and the northern migration of “Hispanics”. One can assume that debates about “who belongs” and “who should be allowed in” (cf. Ibid. 5 f.) are as old as the nation itself. Clearly, this debate is all about culture and anxieties of foreign people who assimilate into the American life or who could represent a threat to culture. Furthermore, this migration transpired mainly after World War II, and in the civil rights and black power movements and the continuing scourge of white racism and marginalizing the African Americans. Obviously, they were escaping the desperate conditions of the economic, social, and cultural repression of the old South. Lastly, Tirman (2015) points out that they were welcomed by the northern states into wilderness and the new aspects of daily life, although their dignity burdens heavily for decades until today (cf. Ibid. 7).

3.3 Puerto Rican Migration to the U.S.

World War II changed the manifestation of the U.S.A rapidly and put the country in a more dominant position towards their very own neighboring countries. The U.S. claimed Puerto Rico, as well as Mexico, under the wing of subjects of state-sponsored mass labor importation program, beginning with World War II and throughout the 1940s and 1950s (cf. Wells 2010, 100). Immigration, which had been steadily flowing since the 1830s, became in legal terms, migration after Puerto Rico became a US possession in 1898. Also, the Johnson Act of 1921, which restricted European immigration to the United States, made migration much easier and more lucrative (cf. Ibid. 100). As Lilia Fernández (2010) continues to state on the case of Puerto Ricans coming to the U.S., they became labor migrants as part of the island´s modernization, unemployment, and overpopulation (cf. 7). Puerto Rican migration had begun in 1946, immediately after the war and was evoked by the postwar economic boom and newly affordable air routes between New York and San Juan. As historian Lorrin Thomas notes, “the postwar boom inspired a migration that nearly doubled New York City´s Puerto Rican population in two years”, with every following year bringing tens of “thousands of new Puerto Rican migrants [...] streaming into New York´s ports and airports.” (Thomas 2010, 135-136). One can assume that not only the United States of America as a country, seemed to be the land of prosperity but especially New York, as an urbanized city served as a gate for inner prosperity, which is significant to mention here. Thus, it came profitable for Puerto Ricans. By the 1940s, it became more lucrative for Puerto Ricans to move to the U.S., because they could earn double then what they had earned in their homeland for the same work (cf. Wells 2010, 101). The motivation in escaping Puerto Rico’s poverty became the primary goal, while similarly, to the American Dream, evidently these immigrants strived for a new life and hope in the U.S.

Therefore, 1946 can serve as the astonishing explosion, when Puerto Rican arrived in the U.S. “what continued for the next fifteen years” (cf. Gonzalez 2011, 81), as historian Juan Gonzalez (2011) continues to mention. But this migration also brought up critical elements with it, such as ethnic labels like “Latina/o”, “Hispanic” that immediately led to labeling and categorizing these ethnic minorities in a shared Spanish colonial heritage pod (cf. 9) as Fernández (2010) examines. Even though, these immigrants came to the U.S. as a result out of economic, social, and political prosperity, they represented a relatively new ethnic minority, inserted in the racial and ethnic landscape of the mainland which seemed to be complicated for Americans to observe at that time. Fernández even continues to claim a consolidation with the privileged “whiteness” and black migrants in comparison faced “blackness”, while Puerto Ricans’ racial heterogeneity and ambiguity marked them as a form of “other” despite their American citizenship (cf. Ibid. 12). These elements seem obvious in West Side Story, which is to be examined too in the following chapters. By 1950, New York City´s population of Puerto Ricans was about 240,000; African Americans about 728,000; and whites dominated approximately 6,891,000, in comparison by 1960 the population of Puerto Ricans had grown to just over a million and the white population had begun to decrease to 6,052,000 as Foulkes examines. (cf. Foulkes 2007, 231). One could assume that white people might have fled the immigration process into a suburban life to become isolated. Yet Foulkes continues to list demographic changes within the next ten years later; The Puerto Rican population increased to 847,000, while the African American population increased to 1,526,000. These changing demographics were particularly noticeable for the inspiration of West Side Story to show the ethnic change not only within New York City but within the landscape of the U.S. (cf. Ibid. 231). Although the immigrants´ goal was pure prosperity and escaping from impoverishment, some families fell into the collapse of a divided America and their children were looking for a balance in crime and gang-connection, which is going to be analyzed in the next chapter under social issues.

The Puerto Rican immigrants settled in little communities around East Harlem, which have been referred to as “El Barrio” or “Spanish Harlem”. However, they witnessed poverty, illness, and overpopulation too (cf. Wells 2010, 101). Yet, New Yorkers were anxious that a new community was suddenly taking over and increasing youth crimes were continually increasing with the immigration around the city, too (cf. Wells 2010, 101). Specifically, as Herrera examines, there was a perceived upsurge in youth criminality, and the question was raised whether the new Puerto Rican migrants might find a place in the ethnic and racial structure or where to be placed under a file in a still largely segregated America (cf. Herrera 2012, 236). It is evident that Puerto Ricans were seen as part of an ever-increasing threat (Wells 2010, 103) to the safety and of American, mostly white people. At precisely the same time, West Side Story opened on Broadway (cf. Ibid. 103) and evoked much more pressure on the topic of immigration, one can assume.

3.3.1 Theatrical Liberalism

According to Andrea Most (2011), the term Theatrical Liberalism is a world view developed from the encounter of immigrant Jews with Protestant American Liberalism in the early and mid-twentieth century. The term of Theatrical Liberalism was invented and thrived in the early and mid-twentieth century, particularly between the two world wars (cf. 2011, 62). The desire was to negotiate a space for themselves within the American public sphere, with large numbers of first as well as second-generation Jewish Americans turned to the world of popular entertainment to articulate a model of secular space which re-imagined familiar Jewish values, practices, and attitudes in theatrical terms (cf. Ibid. 62). One can compare this to the great diaspora of the Jews, in which they desire to live freely to keep their culture intact alive. This topic is important to mention because it can be viewed as a result of the dream of the belief in the American Dream to express oneself freely, no matter what religion or desire. Moreover, simultaneously in the U.S. this liberalism was established to create enormously successful works that tapped into early twentieth-century America´s inherent theatricality (cf. Ibid. 61). Andrea Most also points out that a form of new genres emerged to express this secular and theatrical Judaism like backstage musicals, fast-talking comedies, musical plays of both Jewish and American. Four key features define works of Theatrical Liberalism: The first to mention is the theatre work as a sacred space, a venue for spiritual expression and the performance of acts of devotion, thereby turning theatricality into an acceptable cultural mode. Secondly, these plays and films privilege a particularly Jewish attitude towards action and acting in the world, stressing the external over the internal, public over private (cf. Ibid. 62). Thirdly, these works promote a particular kind of individual freedom which is based on self-fashioning.

Theatrical Liberalism guaranteed the freedom to perform the self, freedom particularly cherished by a people so often denied the right to self-definition, whether by Christian dogma, as she mentions, or racial science (cf. Ibid. 62). It is essential to mention that Jewish writers shaped a new American comic genre, one that thrived on fast-talking wisecracks, had urban settings and cosmopolitan characters, and one that was self-consciously a theatrical behavior that shaped reality (cf. 62), which can be related to the cinematic style of West Side Story.


1 Abbrev. U.S.

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The Basics of Tragedy. How Film Musical Dramas reflect social issues
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar II)
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Film, Drama, Musical, Musicals, West Side Story, Racism, Rassismus, Stereotypes, Stereotyping, USA, American Dream, Puerto Rico, Migration, Film Musical Drama, The Great Migration, Self freedom, Soundtrack, La La Land, La-LaLand, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare
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Manar-Marc Soukar (Author), 2021, The Basics of Tragedy. How Film Musical Dramas reflect social issues, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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