“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught to Hate” Part 2 – Exploring Racism in the Musicals West Side Story, Hairspray, and Ragtime

This is the second of a two-part series exploring racism in musicals. The first post included Finian’s Rainbow, Showboat, South Pacific, and the King and I. This post will discuss West Side Story, Hairspray, and Ragtime.

West Side Story

West Side Story premiered on September 26, 1957, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The musical is based on a book by Arthur Laurents, and the storyline is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The following synopsis is from stageagent.com:

On the mean streets of New York City, two gangs are in a long-lasting duel. The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, grapple with the difficulties of assimilating into American society. The Jets, the “American” gang, want to resist newcomers entering their territory. In the midst of this rivalry, a Jet, Tony, falls in love with a beautiful Sharks’ girl, Maria. After a fight between the Jets and the Sharks, Tony ends up killing Maria’s brother, Bernardo. Bitter over losing Maria’s love and the death of Bernardo, Maria’s Puerto Rican suitor, Chino, shoots Tony dead.

The subject of racism in this musical centers around the hatred between the Puerto Rican Shark gang and the American Jet gang. It must also be mentioned that many people have criticized this musical for reinforcing negative stereotypes about Latinos in general and Puerto Ricans in particular.

In the song “I Want to Live in America”, the immigrants express their mixed feelings about their homeland and assimilating into American culture:

West Side Story is currently playing on Broadway. If you are interested in tickets, you can click here.


Hairspray premiered in 2002, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman . The musical is based on the 1988 movie Hairspray. Here is a synopsis:

The musical is set in Baltimore, 1962. Tracy Turnblad, an overweight high school student with big hair and a kind heart, dreams of dancing on the local TV dance program, “The Corny Collins Show”. Although her mother fears that Tracy won’t win a spot because she looks different than the other teens, Tracy takes her father’s advice to follow her dream. She wins a spot on the show and becomes a teen celebrity. This earns the wrath of Amber Von Tussel, the prettiest girl in school and the TV show’s reigning princess.

A visit to detention hall opens Tracy’s eyes to the racial tension on the show, as does the budding relationship between her best friend and an African-American boy named Seaweed. She then successfully sets out to vanquish the program’s reigning princess, win the heart of the handsome Link Larkin, and racially integrate the television show.

Hairspray has two storylines which deal with racism. The first one deals with the courtship between Tracy’s best friend Penny and the African-American boy named Seaweed. In the song, “Run and Tell That”, Seaweed sings about black pride and flirts with Penny. Later, his younger sister, Li’l Inez, joins in and echoes Seaweed’s sentiments about pride:

The second is Tracy’s efforts to integrate “The Corny Collins Show”. The program’s teen dancers and host are all white. However, the show has its weekly “Negro Day” with African American teen dancers hosted by Motormouth Maybelle. When Negro Day gets canceled, Maybelle, Tracy, and her friends march in protest. Maybelle sings “I Know Where I’ve Been” as part of the protest:

Hairspray is currently on tour around the country. If you are interested in finding out more about the tour, please click here.


Ragtime premiered on January 18, 1998, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The musical is based on the 1975 novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. The first paragraph of this synopsis is from mtishows.com:

We are introduced to the social and political climate of the United States in the early 20th century by meeting the all the characters in the show–famous celebrities of the time as well as fictional “private citizens.” First, we visit New Rochelle to meet a well-to-do white family: Mother, Father (a manufacturer of fireworks) and their Little Boy, Mother’s Younger Brother, and Grandfather. They are oblivious to people other than their own kind. Next, we go to Harlem to meet Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime pianist, and his girlfriend, Sarah. Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, and we meet Tateh, an artist who makes silhouettes, and his Little Girl. The lives of these three American families are entwined with the likes of Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman.

Ragtime explores racism through the interactions of the white family (Mother, Father, Little Boy, Younger Brother, and Grandfather), the immigrant family (Tateh and his Little Girl), and the African-American family (Coalhouse, Sarah, and their son). The white family sees the immigrant family for the first time when Mother accompanies Father to the dock to bid him farewell on his trip. Mother becomes acquainted with the black family when she finds a newborn African-American child buried alive in her flower bed. The police arrive with Sarah, the child’s mother. Rather than letting Sarah go to prison, Mother takes Sarah and the baby into her house.

Tateh and his Little Girl struggle to make a living in New York and encounter people who treat them very badly. They decide to leave the city. They meet Mother and the Little Boy at the train station, who, much to the immigrants’ surprise, treat them respectfully. The Little Boy has a premonition that he will see them again.

Coalhouse, the father of Sarah’s baby, comes to Mother’s house to win Sarah back, despite harassment from a group of racist firemen. Coalhouse woos Sarah by playing ragtime piano in the house. Eventually, Coalhouse and Sarah reunite. The couple goes on a picnic together, but when they return, the group of firemen harasses the couple and destroys their car. Coalhouse tries to find justice through legal channels, and Sarah tries to seek help from a visiting vice presidential candidate at a rally. She is mistaken for an assassin, and the police club her to death. Coalhouse seeks vengeance by shooting three of the firemen, burning their firehouse, and demanding that the fire chief be brought to justice. Mother takes custody of Sarah’s baby. The white family moves to Atlantic City so that child welfare officials cannot take the baby away.

Tateh, the Little Girl, Mother, and Little Boy meet in Atlantic City. Tateh has become a famous film director and has re-created himself as “The Baron Ashkenazy”. The children play together, while Tateh and Mother watch from the boardwalk.

Coalhouse develops a band of followers and becomes a notorious celebrity. Later in the musical, Coalhouse and his men take over a library and threaten to blow it up. Booker T. Washington is sent into the library to speak with Coalhouse, assures him that he will have a fair trial and forum for his opinions he surrenders. When Coalhouse leaves the building, he is shot dead by the authorities.

At the end of the musical, Father has been killed during wartime. Mother and Tateh marry and move to California with their children. In the final tableaux, Little Coalhouse runs into Mother’s arms. A new, integrated American family has formed.

At the end of Act I, after Sarah’s funeral, the white family, Coalhouse and Sarah’s friends, Tateh, and Little Girl, sitting up there hope that one day they will be justice regardless of race in the song, “Till We Reach That Day”. This song epitomizes the musical’s overall message of hope for racial integration.

There is currently a revival of Ragtime on Broadway. If you are interested in tickets, please click here.

Source: “We’ll Find a New Way of Living:” Racism in Showboat, South Pacific, The King and I and West Side Story by Linda M. Florjancic. Thesis for Master of Music Degree, University of Akron, Music-History & Literature, 2005

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