Friday, July 7, 2017

Soaring Aloft with West Side Story

I can’t believe it’s been 55 years since I walked into Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to see the brand-new West Side Story. Everyone at my high school was excited about what this stage musical would look like on the big screen. As SoCal kids, we were hardly familiar with the original Broadway production, which had opened (to only modest acclaim) back in 1957 when we were still in elementary school. Maybe we’d heard some of the show’s score on our parents’ cast albums. But West Side Story didn’t become an international phenomenon until the movie was released in October 1961. Suddenly everyone wanted to be a Jet or a Shark, and to dance down New York City sidewalks with fingers snapping to a Leonard Bernstein beat.

And the appeal wasn’t solely to American audiences. A high school classmate, newly arrived from the Republic of South Africa, told me that every boy in his social set yearned to buy a tight purple shirt, in emulation of the Sharks’ handsome Bernardo. That classmate, of course, was white. It was still the era of apartheid, and South African blacks weren’t permitted to see the film, for fear it would give them dangerous ideas.

I relived my high school experience on a seat-back screen while flying from Amsterdam to L.A. I’m grateful indeed to those airline programmers who realize that not every passenger wants to watch the latest shoot-‘em-up. As a matter of fact, one thing that today makes West Side Story seem quaint is that, in a story about rival gangs duking it out in a New York slum, only one gun is drawn. Death in this film is horrific, not matter-of-fact. Would that today’s real-life gang members could be so cowed by the sudden loss of a few young men.

Of course, the creators of the original West Side Story, who included playwright Arthur Laurents along with Bernstein and a very young Stephen Sondheim, knew that their stage production would in no way accurately capture what was happening on the streets of Manhattan. Their aim was to translate Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a modern context, turning the Capulets into recent arrivals from Puerto Rico and the Montagues into white kids whose own immigrant roots go slightly further back. It was a dynamic concept, one lifted into the realm of the extraordinary by Bernstein’s pulsing music and the choreography of the great Jerome Robbins, who also directed. 

When the time came to make the movie, the directorial reins were handed to Robert Wise, a Hollywood veteran who’d edited Citizen Kane before moving into directing. Wise had depicted New York’s mean streets in films like Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), but he had no experience with musicals. That’s why Jerome Robbins was invited aboard as co-director and choreographer. It was hardly a match made in Heaven. Robbins, a perfectionist who could be brutal on those around him, was fired midway through, though he was still eventually honored with a director credit.

Of course one big difference between stage and screen musicals is that stage performers must be able to do their own singing. Hollywood was comfortable hiring attractive stars and then dubbing in someone else’s voice. Poor Natalie Wood desperately wanted to sing Maria’s arias. She strenuously rehearsed, because no one had the heart to tell her that Marni Nixon had already been hired to vocalize her songs. Today perhaps we’re more resistant to the idea of ghost voices (as well as using Caucasians in dark makeup to play Latinos.)

But fifty years later, one thing hasn’t changed. I still shed tears at the ending.

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