Friday, December 31, 2021

Restoring (and Rescoring) “West Side Story”

What does it take to remake the beloved 1961 musical, West Side Story? I’d say it requires two things: chutzpah and cojones. And Steven Spielberg has plenty of both. As a lover of the original film, which won ten Oscars in 1962, Spielberg sought to preserve the greatness of the original. But he clearly saw a need to re-contextualize a story (of feuding street gangs and a forbidden love affair) that has come to seem hackneyed over time.

 When the stage musical that melded the talents of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins first burst onto the Broadway scene in 1957, the contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet seemed bold and fresh. Years later, though, we can’t ignore the creakiness of the material. And today’s sensibilities aren’t comfortable with the casting of Anglos in dark makeup as Latinos. (In the 1961 film version, the supposedly Puerto Rican Sharks gang was comprised of dancers from as far afield as Japan. Though Rita Moreno was genuinely born—like her character—in Puerto Rico, fellow Oscar winner George Chakiris is of Greek descent. Nor was Natalie Wood a PC choice to play the film’s romantic heroine,)

 Along with correcting the casting faux-pas of the original film, Spielberg gave his version a sense of the historical forces at play. New York City, circa 1960, was a place where slums were being noisily demolished to make room for Lincoln Center. In the opening, we spot at a construction site an idyllic sketch of the theatres and concert halls that will soon be springing up. A cop-character tasked with keeping order among the slum-dwellers drives the point home: one day the area will be filled with glitzy apartments owned by wealthy whites. Any Puerto Ricans still in the vicinity will be doormen and maids. And the feckless white kids who make up the Jets will continue to descend the social ladder, crowded out of their own turf first by immigrants, then by gentrification.

 I give playwright Tony Kushner full credit for fleshing out many characters, hinting at backstories for Jets like Tony and Riff, while also showing the aspirations of the immigrant Sharks. (Bernardo in this version is an up-and-coming boxer.) Fresh attention is paid to the women, who are given far more heft and dignity than in the previous film. Anita (at least sometimes) campaigns against the violence of the street gangs, Maria is less of a delicate flower than previously, and there’s an important moment late in the film when the women on opposite sides of the conflict are seen trying to look out for one another. The major addition to the familiar plot is a brand-new character, Valentina. Played by Rita Moreno, now an astonishing 90, she fills the function of Doc, the sympathetic Jewish drugstore owner of the first film. We learn she is Doc’s widow, a living example of how an interracial couple could thrive even in these fraught surroundings. As Tony’s confidante, she is in an ideal position to project the fundamental optimism behind the whole project, that SOMEWHERE there’s a place where love can survive.

 This new film is hardly perfect. There are a few serious gaps in plot logic, and the distinctive personalities of the Jets (so memorable in the earlier film) get lost here. I appreciate, though, the bleaker, tougher visuals, as well as the smart new use of the song ‘Cool” to lead into the climactic rumble. I suspect, though, that the new film will never have the same power for its audiences as the one I thrilled to back in 1961.


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

New York Jews in a Pickle: “Shiva Baby” and “An American Pickle”


For those who’ve been desperately waiting for the return of Mrs. Maisel, have I got a movie (or two) for you? Mrs. Maisel, of course, is the much-honored TV sitcom involving the adventures, romantic and otherwise, of an upscale New York Jewish family. Set in the youthful, idealistic, and all-too-brief Kennedy era, it focuses on an affluent young wife and mother struggling to make her way as a stand-up comedian.

 On a recent much-delayed flight (don’t ask!), I watched two movie comedies that make full use of Jewish gallows humor. The first features the sort of kvetchy, semi-stereotypical New York Jewish mamas of whom Mrs. Maisel makes full use. But Shiva Baby, written and directed by a young woman not long out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, unfolds very much in the present day. A shiva, the traditional gathering following a Jewish funeral, is generally a place where long-lost friends and relatives re-connect in an atmosphere of familial warmth. But the shiva at the heart of this film contains more than a few outrageous surprises. Its protagonist is Danielle, an appealing but clearly unmoored recent college graduate, who has found a rather unsavory way to get by in life. Urged by her parents to show up out of respect for the family of the deceased, she’s shocked to encounter, over a plate of gefilte fish, the person she least wants to see. And he turns out to be an old friend of her father too! It’s basically an oddball comedy of manners, with such issues as gender identity and eating disorders thrown into the mix. (The implications of the title only become fully clear at the film’s tail-end.)  A small indie, well-cast and well-filmed, of the sort that promises big careers down the line.

 Then there’s An American Pickle, another 2020 movie (this one an HBO production) that didn’t make much of a splash. It contains some of the outrageousness of Borat, along with an underlying sweetness that has stayed with me. Yes, the star is perennial bad boy Seth Rogen, but sex and weed don’t make an appearance. Rogen first appears as Herschel Greenbaum, an old-world ditch-digger with a big beard and a Tevye-type accent. When Cossacks destroy his shtetl on the night of his wedding to his beloved Sarah, the two of them boldly set out for New York, where he finds work in a pickle factory. But his life in America will soon be changed forever, once he falls into a vat of pickle brine that will preserve him for a century.

 Discovered and resuscitated in 2019, Herschel learns that his only living relative is a great-grandson. Ben, also played by Rogen, is a bit of a geek, a good-hearted but rather wimpy computer nerd working on an app with which he hopes to make his fortune. Ben welcomes Herschel into his life, but their differences create a strain between them. The mild-mannered Ben finds it hard to handle Herschel’s emotional nature, which includes a fondness for making “big violence” whenever his highly non-PC opinions are challenged. Once Herschel starts producing and bottling scrounged Kosher dills in a way that the nation’s foodies regard as “artisanal,” Ben can’t contain his jealousy. Hilarity ensues. I realize that critics have been hard on this film, and it’s true that its silliness is sometimes overplayed. But I’ll remember the genuine schmaltz of the moments when family feelings win out. And when was the last time you saw a film that sincerely exalts the power of prayer as a way to cope with tragedy?


Friday, December 24, 2021

Send in the Crowns: Stephen Sondheim, King of Musical Theatre

“Not A Day Goes By” is the title of one of my favorite Sondheim ballads. This haunting tune doesn’t hail from one of the master’s greatest hits, like Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd. Instead it was introduced in a rare late-career flop, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along. This is hardly among Sondheim’s most bravura shows: no murderers, no witches, no giants, no exploration of the history of modern art. Still, as a musical pinpointing what career success can do to a young composer, it perhaps may be one of his most personal. Or not: Sondheim doesn’t easily give himself away.

 I start with “Not A Day Goes By” because I’m guessing that every single day there is someone, somewhere, parsing a Sondheim lyric or humming a Sondheim tune. I know that, especially since his recent death at age 91, my own head is full of them – “Pretty Women,” “The Miller’s Son,” “Children and Art,” “Someone in a Tree,” “No One is Alone.” And Sondheim’s lyrics (along with Leonard Bernstein’s tunes) are an integral part of West Side Story, which is now enjoying its second go-round as a major motion picture.

  I’ve just discovered that Merrily We Roll Around too has been tapped for the movies, with Richard Linklater set to adapt and direct the Sondheim/George Furth play. Ben Platt (of Dear Evan Hansen fame) and Beanie Feldstein are solid choices to play two of the story’s three central characters, and I’m hoping for the best. But this is a play in which chronology works backward, and Linklater (who famously made Boyhood over eleven years to capture the ageing process) apparently wants to shoot off and on for two decades, so don’t expect a premiere anytime soon.

 For a man devoted to the Broadway stage, Sondheim always loved movies. That’s why some of the best of his musicals have—successfully or not—ended up on screen. I don’t have much to say about the 1977 film adaptation of A Little Night Music, a musical that was itself based on an Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night. Even though it was distributed (incredibly enough) by my former boss, Roger Corman, I haven’t seen it. But the snatches I’ve found on YouTube of Elizabeth Taylor, as the glamorous Desiree Arnfeldt, singing Sondheim’s indelible “Send in the Clowns” are hard to take. It’s not the singing (the song was originally crafted for non-singer Glynis Johns) that’s the problem. But Taylor is so stiff!

 More recently (2007), Tim Burton directed an all-star version of perhaps Sondheim’s most popular musical, the gruesome but somehow delightful Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Featured in the cast of this London-set extravaganza are some of Britain’s finest: Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall as his sinister sidekick, Beadle Banford, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the huckster Pirelli. Burton’s own love interest, Helena Bonham Carter, made a suitably bedraggled Mrs. Lovett. But the title role went to an American, Johnny Depp, whose generally dour demeanor worked surprisingly well for the haunted barber. (I’ve heard his performance as Sweeney was one of Sondheim’s favorites.) The most memorable moment for me? The “By the Sea” fantasy number, in which Sweeney sits with Mrs. Lovett on the beach at Brighton, still wearing his black suit and his sour expression.

 Then there’s 2014’s lovingly adapted Into the Woods, for which Sondheim and book writer James Lapine approved all plot changes. In the big ensemble cast, I’ll remember most fondly Meryl Streep (The Witch), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), and Emily Blunt as the plucky Baker’s Wife.