November 3, 2010

#51: West Side Story

"There's a place for us ... somewhere, a place for us..."

West Side Story holds a special place in my heart. The stage show, not the movie. Ten years ago I was in a production of the Bernstein/Sondheim/Robbins musical in my hometown with two of my dearest friends (both of whom were here tonight) and it was an amazing experience, not in small part due to the incredible story (that source material ain't shabby) and music. To a lesser extent, the film version strikes a chord, and although it is outdated in many ways, it still remains an incredible example of a musical story transferred to the screen.

Company: Kecia, known as Rosa (a Shark) in that production; Ali, known as Consuela (also a Shark); Sheena, Sondheim fan; Katie, wants to dance like that (don't we all); and Matt, Katie's berfrend who showed up in the middle

Cuisine: We went all out! The roomie was in her element here as she cooked up a film-appropriate feast:

first, chicken and black bean empanadas (for the Puerto Rican faction) ...

... followed by New York-style pizza, one veggie ...

... and one margherita. I have not eaten this well for any movie so far (except maybe Cabaret, damn those fish were tasty! What is it about musicals that make me want to eat extravagantly?) and it left me full for several days.

Onto the movie! West Side Story won ten Oscars in 1961, nominated in nearly every category it was eligible (notably, and appropriately, not in the leading actor categories, as Richard Beymer [Tony] and Natalie Wood [Maria] did none of their own singing) and still stands as a major achievement in the history of the movie musical. Telling the story of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in present-day New York amongst warring immigrants is ballsy, but composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim (a baby!) and choreographer Jerome Robbins created a masterpiece that, while somewhat dated, still rings true and presents the most consistently masterful score, with tunes like "Somewhere," "America," "Maria," "Tonight," and "Mambo."

What's still groundbreaking about the musical is its brilliant musical storytelling. The entire prologue is without words, and yet we are told an entire story through song and dance (but mostly song). So many musicals written now forget to, or can't manage to, weave a musical narrative, but West Side Story is a textbook example of blending story with song.

I always thought the screen version felt long, and at two and a half hours it does start to drag. The musical numbers were rearranged slightly to lessen this problem, but it slows nevertheless. That is not as much of a problem for me as what wasn't really an issue then but what's glaringly apparent now: the cultural casting of the Sharks and the Jets. Natalie Wood (Maria) is a Russian American woman playing Puerto Rican, and George Chakiris (Bernardo) is Greek, and while it's perhaps only a technicality, it does interrupt a story that's mostly about relations between two warring factions. Partially as a result of this, Natalie Wood's performance as Maria suffers from lack of believability. Add to that that Marni Nixon dubbed all her singing and she's very easily forgotten. The performance is bland.

But what you remember about her and Richard Beymer (as Tony) is not their acting, and certainly not their chemistry, which Robbins and co-director Robert Wise try to inflate with directorial flourish. It's a love story, folks: we need to believe these two are in love, and we need to care deeply. Richard Beymer (also dubbed but at least ethnically appropriate, although just as tan as many of the "Sharks") has the range of a styrofoam cup.

Perhaps these two lead performers are doomed to walk in the shadow of the much showier supporting roles, Anita and Bernardo (Oscar winners Rita Moreno and Chakiris, respectively). At least they do their own singing.

Casting and the out-of-date vernacular aside, we're left with a gorgeously romantic epic about forbidden love that's clearly told with visual panache. Most of the numbers transfer very well to the screen (the Mambo at the gym is one of the most exciting dance sequences in cinema, and "Gee Office Krupke" is great fun), while others suffer from cinematic treatment (the quintet that ends Act One fails to find a way to cinematically represent all five points of view at once, something that's comparatively simple onstage).

Where the film enhances the source material is through Wise's and Robbin's direction. I particularly love this shot, after Bernardo and Riff lie dead and abandoned after the Rumble under a red overpass, as though the city and their surroundings have finally gotten the best of these arrogant young kids constantly toying with death. If there's any blood on the ground, we can't see it, but the image is bold and haunting.

My other favorite shot is this one, from "Somewhere," the hopeful if not altogether convinced number in which Tony and Maria affirm "a place for us" that exists outside their realm of knowledge. The stark colors behind them, as well as the lighting on the actors faces, suggests doom: sometimes, it truly is black and white, and gray doesn't stand a chance. The directors know it, the audience knows it; only Tony and Maria are still wishing against wish that the colors can be blended, that they can be together.

I just had to include this shot. Air!

West Side Story broke new barriers for musical theater, and is still a gold standard by which other musicals today are judged (amazingly, it won the Tony for Best Musical in its year to the safer The Music Man). The film adaptation is a classic in its own right but is not without its problems. I don't think this is an invitation for a remake, but I wouldn't rule it out, folks. Hollywood goes that way.

Now. I must take a moment to recognize that with the publishing of this entry, my blog is half-way finished. Only took me ten months! Yes, it's going slower than I expected, but slow and steady wins the race, my little chicklets. A cine-smackdown, and then onto the newest film on the list: the first entry in Peter Jackson's visionary saga The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

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