Is It Really Bi-Lingual?

I recently saw the current touring production of “West Side Story,” I felt it had two major flaws one in casting/direction and the other in concept.

The casting/direction problem was caught by many audience members in overheard intermission discussions. Tony could easily be substituted for John Ritter. He was cute and likeable, he had no trace of the hard gang edge that you would expect of such a person, and would eventually lead to his downfall.

The concept problem was more subtle. The Puerto Ricans were given a lot of Spanish dialogue and spoke English with heavy accents. I found it hard at times to even understand their English. This was an interesting and much praised touch. In doing so, the rest of the cast was totally neglected.

I have a good ear for regional accents, and touring shows disappoint me when the cast uses the wrong accent. Gary Sandy (tight jeans, WKRP) spoke Mississippi and Ann Margaret spoke Kentucky in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” In “August in Osage County” taking place in Oklahoma, only the native American maid spoke Oklahoma, the leads tried a fake southern accent for some reason. In “Light in the Piazza,” the mother struggled with a Carolina accent, but totally broke into “mid-Atlantic” when singing. (Mid-Atlantic in this case does not refer to a US region but a pronunciation standard.) I appreciated shows like “Jersey Boys” and “Billy Elliot” where dialect coaches were used and credited in the program.

So what happened? The Spanish speaking cast spoke Spanish and Spanish accented English. The English speaking cast of that production portraying a New York street gang did not speak “New York.”

This all brought to mind a “bi-lingual” production at puppet festival years ago. The native Spanish speakers also spoke the English translations with thick Spanish accents. I am sorry, they were not speaking English. Now there are regional accents all over the place, but there is a standard (mid-Atlantic), that is taught in broadcasting schools and such devoid of regionalism.

Forget the excuse that foreign speakers have a hard time with English sounds (flied lice, yale v. jail, etc.). I took German in college and one of the very first things the teacher hit on was learning to pronounce the German sounds not found in English (namely, the “L,” the umlaut “U,” the throat clearing “CH,” and the rolling “R” that even though this area of the country pronounces “R’s,” the teacher kind of gave up on this one).
So I believe multi-lingual productions should give equal emphasis to all the languages used, not only in grammar and vocabulary, but in pronunciations.

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