Saturday, May 25, 2013

Stubs – West Side Story

West Side Story (1961) Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris. Additional singing by Marni Nixon (for Natalie Wood). Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Screenplay by Ernst Lehman. Based on the Broadway Musical West Side Story, conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, words by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. Produced by Robert Wise. Run Time: 152. Color. U.S. Musical.

In 1947, Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about a contemporary musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, which itself was a retelling of an Italian tale. Originally conceived as a love story between an Irish-American boy and a Jewish girl, the idea evolved over the next ten years. The musical that opened on Broadway in 1957 took place on the ethnic and blue collar streets of New York City with the feuding Capulets and Montagues replaced by two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Given the talent involved, it should come as no surprise that the musical would be well represented in the 1958 Tony Awards, being nominated, but not winning, the award for Best Musical. It would lose out to The Music Man.

After its run on Broadway, the musical would open on London’s West End, in 1958, tour the U.S. in 1959 and a return to the Great White Way in 1960, the musical would be turned into a film and released in 1961. The film would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Art Direction (Color), Cinematography (Color), Costume Design (Color), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Original Score and Best Sound.

Having never seen the musical on stage, I cannot comment on how the storytelling might differ between versions. While watching the film, I was reminded of On the Town, in as much as West Side Story was shot, in part, on location in New York City and features some very physical and athletic dancing. While some of the film’s dialogue seems as fresh as an old Dragnet episode, the story is still powerful and the music quite memorable.

The Jets, lead by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) dancing through New York City.
In a lot of action movies you know that the fights are choreographed so that actors and extras don’t accidentally hurt one another. But this is nothing compared to West Side Story. This is a musical after all and the fighting is depicted in highly choreographed dance sequences. While the finger snapping and leaps may seem odd to modern audiences, it is hard to imagine what a Michael Jackson video would have looked like if this movie’s choreography hadn’t been there as a blueprint.

While it seems so many of today’s musicals are either retold movies with music or stories put to already written music catalogs, West Side Story boasts some very original and iconic songs: “Maria”, “America” and “Tonight” from the first Act and “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere” from the second come to mind. The clash of immigrant and native-born American is still relevant today, especially with the current legislation pending in the Senate, but I will leave it to more political blogs to discuss that aspect, if they so desire.

The Jets are a white-boy gang on the West side of New York City. Led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), it’s good to be a Jet. That is until the Sharks, a Puerto-Rican gang, show up to test its dominance. Led by Bernardo (George Chakiris), the two gangs pick fights with one another until at last Riff can’t stand it any longer. He calls for a War counsel to set up the rumble that will once and for all decide superiority.

Bernardo (George Chakiris) leads the Sharks. 
Riff wants Tony Wyzek (Richard Beymer) to stand up with him against the Sharks. Tony, a co-founder of the gang, has left street life for a delivery job for Doc’s (Ned Glass) candy store. But loyalties being what they are, Tony agrees to go with Riff to the dance.

Confrontations between the Sharks and Jets leads to a War Council.
Bernardo is also going with his best girl, Anita (Rita Moreno) and his kid-sister, Maria (Natalie Wood). Maria is new to America and this is her first night out.  Once there, though, Maria falls hard for Tony, who likewise falls for her. When the two lock eyes across the dance floor, everything else disappears from their world. Tony walks the streets of New York singing “Maria” as an ode to the girl of his dreams.

It is love at first sight between Tony and Maria.
The famous balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is reinterpreted here as a fire escape off an alley, where Tony goes to woo Maria, after Bernardo has taken her home from the dance. The two share their love with the song “Tonight”.

Tony and Maria on the fire escape singing Tonight (though Marni Nixon is singing for Natalie Wood).
Meanwhile, up on the roof, the Puerto-Rican men and women differ in their world view. The song “America” with its broken English lyrics illustrates that the women, led by Anita, seem happy with their new country, which offers them freedoms and opportunities they didn’t know back home. The men’s counter lyrics show their disdain for their treatment and new lives, though no one seems in a real hurry to go home.

Anita (Rita Moreno) leads the other Shark girls in praising "America".
West Side Story takes what I would consider a liberal slant towards street gangs. They are not portrayed as doing anything more illegal than stealing fruit from a cart. Their drive for neighborhood dominance is not to corner the drug trade or extortion. There really is no reason given other than “this is our street.” This is not what I would consider a realistic depiction of street gangs, but hey it’s a musical. The authorities, in the form of Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and his right hand man Officer Krumpke (William Bramley) appear helpless and uninformed and in fact, Schrank comes across as an out and out racist, even offering to help the Jets in their battle with the Sharks.

In the comedic-toned “Gee Officer Krumpke” the gangs are depicting themselves as nothing more than downtrodden children finding a family on the streets to combat the lousy role models (drug-using hooker moms and drunkards for fathers) they have back home. As juvenile delinquents they’ve been run through the ringer of society, from being before a judge, to seeing a shrink to seeing a social worker to going to jail, none of which seems to change them.

The Jets try to explain themselves in "Gee, Officer Krumpke".
The Jets and the Sharks meet at Doc’s shop to discuss terms for their rumble. Date, time and location are discussed and agreed to, but once they start talking about weapons, things get out of hand quickly and like the then raging Cold War, each side ups the ante. But Tony arrives and influences the proceedings enough to get an all-out rumble with rocks and bricks downgraded, as it were, to a one-on-one hand-to-hand fight between each gang’s best fighters. While Bernardo is anxious to get his hands on Tony and agrees to the scaled down conflict, Riff selects a different champion, Ice (Tucker Smith).

The night of the big brawl, Tony goes to meet Maria at the bridal dress shop where she works with Anita, who is there long enough to see Tony come in the back way. Tony and Maria are a couple of crazy kids so much in love, but still know there will be societal issues and barriers to cross. Maria’s not convinced her parents will accept Tony, but he’s confident he can bring them round; just as he’s confident his mother will warm up to Maria as well. The two are so convinced that they stage their own mock wedding with the clothes they find in the shop.

Tony and Maria marry themselves.
Meanwhile, Riff and the Jets and Bernardo and the Sharks meet for the fist fight to settle their differences. But both sides come with secret weapons and before long a knife fight breaks out between Riff and Bernardo. Despite their flying about and acrobatic movements, Riff finally finds the business end of Bernardo’s knife. Tony, who had come to stop the proceedings, gets drawn in. When Riff, someone he considers a brother, goes down, he has no choice and fights and kills Bernardo in revenge. A rumble naturally ensues, but the fighting stops and the gangs scatter when the police arrive.

Tony (rear) arrives to try and break up the rumble, but he only escalates things.
Chino (Jose DeVega), Bernardo’s best friend and sometimes escort for his sister, goes to tell Maria that Tony has killed her brother. Chino then goes out, this time with a gun, to seek revenge. Tony meanwhile shows up at Maria’s apartment (whose parents are perpetually out) and receives her forgiveness. Apparently, her love for Tony is stronger than anything else. While not shown, this is the early 60’s for goodness sakes, we get the idea that like Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria consummate their relationship that night.

But Anita shows up and Tony leaves through the window, promising to meet with Maria at Doc’s and form their runaway. While Anita doesn’t approve, she still helps Maria. When Schrank arrives to ask questions, Maria sends Anita to meet with Tony. Being a good friend, she goes.

With Doc out raising money for Tony, who is hiding in the cellar, the candy shop is left to the Jets to man. When the pretty and headstrong Puerto-Rican Anita arrives, she does not get a warm reception. Instead the boys try to make her leave, but when she insists on seeing Tony, we’re shown through dance, their manhandling and almost rape of the girl. The action is broken up by Doc, who comes back and chases everyone away. Anita, who up until then has loved America, now sides with Bernardo in her hatred. As she leaves in anger, she tells everyone that Chino has killed Maria with a gun and that he is looking for Tony, only the latter of which is true..

When Doc tells Tony that Maria is dead, Tony runs outside looking for Chino, wanting to be killed so he can join his love in death. But Maria is not dead and she has come looking for Tony. Chino, Maria and Tony are on a collision course which ends with Tony and Maria hugging just as Chino (who turns out is a really good shot) shoots Tony dead in the climactic scene.

No happy ending. Maria tends to a dying Tony after he's been shot by Chino.
Maria is distraught about the senselessness of the violence. Both gangs gather round as Schrank and Krumpke arrive. When the Jets pick up Tony’s dead body, a couple of Sharks help them carry him away. (Great job protecting the crime scene Schrank.) One by one and two by two the gang members disburse, leaving only Chino and the cops, who start to take him away.

We’re left at the end with a sense that nothing really has changed and with all of our leads, except Maria dead, there is really no one in either gang to take control. And the police are really only good at cleaning up the mess, not preventing it from happening. Can you say social commentary?

If you have never seen West Side Story, I would recommend that you see it. This was truly a revolutionary musical in that it tried to tell a then modern day story with modern (jazz influenced) music in a modern way. As in life, there are not always happy endings and everyone has blame in what society has wrought. The problem with what is modern in 1961 is not fifty years later. The last movie I remember hearing someone say “Daddy-O” in was Blackboard Jungle (1955), an early attempt to discuss juvenile delinquency on film. Maybe kids really talked like that back then, but it always comes across as sounding like that’s how adults think kids talk.

The choreography is phenomenal. Building on the athleticism of Gene Kelley’s choreography (I had mentioned On the Town earlier), Jerome Robbins builds upon that and literally takes everything to new heights. I’ll admit the dancing for strutting and fighting takes a little getting used to, but once you get past that, look at the moves these men and women are making. These are not just great dancers, they are practically doing parkour with acrobatic moves, leaping about and pulling themselves up on pipes and fences.

ven aged, the film has a certain power that resonates through the years. The story of Romeo and Juliet has been made many times on stage and screen, but none are quite as unique and well done as this film adaptation of the retelling. You weep for the young lovers who will never live out their dreams.

If you read this, please feel free to leave comments.

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