A Welter of West Side Stories

Well, here’s another monster post on a theatrical topic that means a lot to me. I’m writing it in late 2022, but backdating it for 2021, for the superstitious reason that the earlier date is the 60th anniversary of the original screen version, and the release date of Steven Spielberg’s remake, but I’ll also have a lot to say about the original Broadway production, as well, as the 1980 revival, which was the first Broadway show I ever saw, during my first trip to New York.

For someone who loves vaudeville so much, West Side Story seems an unlikely choice for my favorite Broadway show, but it is. By more obvious measures it is extremely anti-vaudeville, the apotheosis of the serious, plot heavy musical, a theatre-work rather a “show”. And it’s true that the artists who created this musical were of the generation that was turning away from vaudeville aesthetics in a decisive, fully articulated way. Cain slew Abel; how you gonna love Cain? Well, they’re brothers. They have the same DNA. I’ve always revered West Side Story as the acme of theatrical ambition REALIZED. It was created by a super-group of top American talent and it came together and cohered as an example of the best America has to offer. It was always a vexation to me that others didn’t even try to hit the new bar it set (for a while, anyway. I think Hamilton sought to, and succeeded, hence the jubilation I expressed here). So first, since I (bought up Cain and Abel), let’s talk about the Genesis:

The idea for the show originated with choreographer Jerome Robbins in 1949, then best known for High Button Shoes (which has more than a little vaudeville about it, incidentally!) The original concept was an Abie’s Irish Rose type, Jewish vs. Irish Romeo and Juliet story set on the Lower East Side. Arthur Laurents, then best known for his racially themed play/film Home of the Brave (1946/49) and the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), was called on to write a draft, which they called East Side Story. It seems odd to me that it was only after they saw it on paper that they noticed there were already a zillion scripts with this setting and theme, including the aforementioned Abie’s Irish Rose.

Then about five years later, a conversation between Laurents and modernist composer Leonard Bernstein resulted in the brilliant idea of making it about contemporary gang violence, juvenile delinquency, and immigrant Latinos. It was transplanted to the Hell’s Kitchen/San Juan Hill area, and set among two rival gangs, the Puerto Rican “Sharks”, and their rivals, the “Jets” composed of older New York immigrant stock, Irish, Italian, German, Jews, Poles, etc. Newbie Stephen Sondheim (whose mentor was Oscar Hammerstein II) was brought in to write the lyrics. The combination of Bernstein’s beautiful, lively yet dissonant music, full of strange intervals and Latin influences; Robbins’ acrobatic choreography, which drew from such disparate sources as social dancing, ballet, and the combative moves of street fighters, and was “jagged” in its way as Bernstein’s music; and the witty and weird be bop patois concocted by Laurents and Sondheim for the characters to sing and speak, all clicked into place as one coherent, complex, unprecedented work of art. But it wasn’t just a work of formal experimentalism. It drew on one of the most powerful and beloved works of dramatic literature in the English-speaking world. It packed a huge emotional wallop. It made audiences laugh and cry and get pissed off. And on top of that, it was socio-political. It was about race and racism and class and culture. It was a portrait of America as complex and challenging as the forms that articulated it. Form and content were one, which is what artists should always be aspiring to. The original 1957 Broadway production, produced by Hal Prince, and directed by Robbins, starred Chita Rivera, Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Michael Calin, and ran for nearly two years, then was revived the following year for another seven month run. It was helped no doubt by the fact that Rebel Without a Cause (1955) had triggered an entire juvenile delinquency cinematic subgenre. Its story was an expression of the zeitgeist.

In 1961 came the inevitable big screen Hollywood version co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, from a screenplay adaptation by the legendary Ernest Lehrman (Northwest by Northwest). This is the iteration of the tale most Americans know (even now) and by which most of us first encountered it. I’m not aware of it being HUGELY different from the stage version. The order of some of the songs has changed, and I’m sure some of the more “vulgar” language has been pruned for “decency”. Wise had just come off a gritty pair of films, the Barbara Graham bio-pic I Want to Live (1958) and the racially themed crime drama Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), so he brought that tone to the dramatic aspects of the project, while Robbins and his assistants shot the dance/musical numbers. Surprisingly for such a major film, the only really big star was Natalie Wood, who brought with her resonant associations from Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass. Behind her in the pecking order was Russ Tamblyn, an amazing dancer who was in things like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Peyton Place (1957) and High School Confidential (1958). Rita Moreno, now an American institution, had been a supporting player in several films, but this time went on to win an Oscar for her performance as Anita. Richard Beymer, who played Tony, was a former child actor who’d been in things like The Diary of Anne Frank. George Chakiris had danced in the choruses of many Hollywood musicals, but was elevated to the part of Bernardo after playing the role in the West End production. Others in the cast included the ubiquitous Ned Glass as Doc (“War councils! You couldn’t play basketball?”), Simon Oakland (the shrink in the epilogue to Hitchcock’s Psycho the previous year) as Lt. Schrank, and a pre-Addams Family John Astin as Glad Hand, the social worker who organizes the dance. Elaine Joyce who became better known in later years, had a small part, as did Elliot Feld, who later became a major choreographer.

The most dated aspect of the original film (other than the slang, but I think the slang is awesome) is the casting. Of the 20 or so Puerto Rican characters, only around 4 or 5 (including Moreno) were actually Latin. 80% of the Sharks seem like Jets with brown shoe polish on their faces. Chakiris is Greek American, Wood was Russian-American. Moreno was a very vocal critic of this aspect of the film, for decades.

Other aspects that are of their own time are more positive, such as its gorgeously lit, stylized sets, which poetically evoke earlier urban fairy tales like Street Scene. And the hilarious comedy to balance out the tragedy (lots of Jerry Lewis and Dead End/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys influence, for those with eyes to see.)

My first exposure to the original West Side Story film on television as a kid was premature I think. I was about 11, and musicals that spoke to me back then were more like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Oliver. But only a couple of years later, when I was a freshman in high school and 14 years old, a truly excellent drama teacher took us to New York on a field trip and brought us to see the 1980 revival of this show, directed by Robbins himself. Furthermore Debbie Allen from Fame was in the cast! The teacher in question didn’t just “take us to a show” (as many another teacher might have done). She laid it all out, why it was great, who the principal artists were, and even engaged us in textual analysis comparing West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet. So this was when I became a fan. I bought the cast album and listened to it a thousand times. We even begged, begged our teacher to put on the show so we could be in it, but I’m glad her cooler head prevailed because it would have been horrible! Did I mention that I can neither sing nor dance? Well, I can, but only like a longshoreman with laryngitis wearing untied boots. Haha, basically very few human beings on earth have the skill set to be in a live production of this show, anyway. But I was a teenager, and a romantic one at that. I realize in retrospect that I didn’t so much want to play Tony as BE Tony, you know, and not really. In a rumble I would not be fit to be the kid who holds the bag full of zip guns. I’m fit to be in the show NOW though! As Doc, Schrank or Glad Hand! (Postscript, many decades later I became chums with one of the associate producers on that production. Fate is sometimes kind rather than cruel). Anyway, we ended up doing a parody of it in my high school talent show: with preppies and stoners replacing Sharks and Jets.

So…40 years later, and Spielberg. This will be less a review per se than some thoughts, impressions, and questions. My initial impression when I heard that it existed was “Why?” and I was well prepared to hate it. Upon viewing the film, I feel my question has been partially answered, and discovered that, while I certainly have criticisms, I don’t hate it. In fact, it definitely seems like one of those occasions which occur in Spielberg’s career every few years, where he attempts to exercise new muscles and explore a new direction, and palpably grows. My particular fear about this film was borne of the fact that his previous romantic movie Always, is really dreadful (in fact I ranked it as Spielberg’s worst film on this list a few years ago). And as a broader issue, I’ve always felt he doesn’t do “real people” well, though he has slowly gotten better at it over the years. And he actually has directed the human part of this production really well, the emotional arcs and the performances are all in place, in an affecting way. For the most part he didn’t cheapen it, although I will say the Tony Kushner screenplay lapses into the obvious and “on the nose” more than a few times, I’m assuming for the benefit of the young people they might have been hoping to appeal to.

This youth-oriented movie tanked at the box office notwithstanding and the answers as to why ought to be kind of obvious. Yes, it is great that the Sharks are now all played by actual Latinos, BUT now there is also In the Heights (2021), which is actually BY a Latino, and contains music that young people like, and speaks a language that young people speak, and is a contemporary story, not a period piece. All that. And though the dialogue in the new West Side Story was mostly rewritten to be more contemporary, it feels like the wrong impulse. If anything I’d have gone in a MORE stylized direction — there is a line that connects the Beats and hip hop, after all. The new screenplay is more realistic, but this is Romeo and Juliet, a timeless story of romance, set in a universe parallel to this one. That’s the way I see it. We’re looking at the real world through the distorting prism of art, not pointing a video camera on it. I mean it didn’t make me pull my hair out or anything (as it well might have) but stripping out all of the verbal style DID make some of the lyrics in some of the songs stick out like a sore thumb, notably “Cool”. That song fit in when all the Jets’ dialogue sounded like the words to that tune (“Breeze it, buzz it!”). By itself, it’s like some sort of weird stylistic island.

Kushner’s major contribution (with impacts both positive and negative) it seems to me, is in re-setting the story just a hair later in time, when the neighborhood the story takes place in is being torn down to make way for Lincoln Center. This really happened, by the way, so there is this meta quality to it. The original West Side Story was shot in the actual neighborhood where the story takes place, just before the neighborhood was torn down. So it wound up being a documentary record of the area, as much as it was a story set there. The 2021 version is a story about a West Side that doesn’t even exist any more. And Kushner (and Spielberg) expose something eloquent about that situation. Lincoln Center, which was to become an artistic home to a lot of work by Bernstein, Robbins and Sondheim, can be looked upon as a kind of playground for elites. Neighborhoods that people loved were knocked down so rich people could have a suitable setting for their pleasure. I’m sorry if that offends some of you, but isn’t that what happened? Most of the people who were displaced by that “slum clearance” didn’t benefit from this project in the end.

Kushner, who is gifted with the generous soul all truly great artists have, sees even further than that. Because the other reason for doing this story, and for telling it in these times is obviously that in our time, nativist resentment is being ginned up by politicians against people of color, people of Latin origin in particular. I’m not sure everyone will notice this but Kushner has introduced little verbal touches in the dialogue addressing the idea of the Jets being marginalized and displaced by the new immigrants, and that they’re just as poor and probably worse off because they’re directionless. They might as well be wearing red caps. In the simpler 50s-60s formulization the real enemy had been racism, full stop. Kushner seems to be implying that at the root is cold, indifferent capitalism screwing over both groups, cutting them out of opportunity, leaving them only scraps that they’re compelled to fight over.

That’s valid in theory, but using this particular musical with which to do that is just weird and probably too subtle for the people who need to hear its message to register. The best way to accomplish that would be to do what the original creators did, start from scratch and create a project that speaks to the audiences of today. Watching this new remake of a 60 year old vehicle was not at all unlike the experience of watching Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear complete with Bernard Herrmann soundtrack. This version has redeeming touches, like the authentic casting, extended passages of Spanish dialogue, and the highly magical presence of Moreno, who moved me to tears by singing “There’s a place for us” — a kind of wish for a future where people don’t kill each other over skin color. (I’m sure glad they didn’t give Ned Glass, the original Doc, that song to sing!)

BUT, I don’t think she should be Doc. An abluela for one of the Spanish kids maybe, or the lady who owns the dress shop, but not Doc. Why would the Jets go in her store, that being the case? If Tony has a Latina mother figure, how does this story even happen? And why is is Tony now an ex-con who nearly killed someone? That absolutely doesn’t scan at all. He spent time in prison, and he’s not angry, cynical and hard? And why is Bernardo a boxer? If he’s a boxer, he’s not trapped there, nor is he fighting in a gang. He’s got better things to do, and reasons to keep his nose clean. These changes all feel like they hurt the integrity of the story rather than help it.

We wrote here about how musicals were the shoals on which many New Hollywood directors (nearly all of them) wrecked their boats to one degree or another. Spielberg is one of the most powerful men on earth, so it would take far more than one mixed film to ruin him. Yet his version of West Side Story remains in the red, it did not make back its investment, a very rare occurrence for a Steve Spielberg movie. Oddly, it’s not even a bad movie, just a flawed, miscalculated one. But like the musical projects attempted by the likes of Coppola and Bogdanovich there is a certain arrogance and hubris about the project, beyond the obvious presumption one of having more white guys telling somebody else’s story (Spielberg having learned no lessons from responses to The Color Purple, I guess). West Side Story deserves better than some old guy striking an item off his bucket list. “Musical. Okay, did that.”

So lastly we find ourselves having the unprecedented opportunity to criticize Spielberg on technical grounds. His choices in shooting the musical numbers are frequently odd, off-putting and wrong. I’m assuming that he felt the need to reimagine them to distinguish the film from its predecessor, but many of his solutions are terrible. He has Tony singing “Something’s Coming” while he puts cans on shelves in the store where he works, instead of making it a prayer to the universe, the sky, outdoors. (“Something’s coming — oh, yes, it’s the man from Boar’s Head! Just stack it over here). Also he does this while Rita Morena is standing there listening to this internal monologue. I wanted her to go, “Sure, sure, kid. One thing, though — we have a spill in aisle five.” Spielberg also changes that wonderful moment where Tony and Maria meet and time stops right in the middle of the dance floor, into a thing where they’re clambering for a glimpse of each other like that kid losing his parents in Empire in the Sun. Then they sneak behind the stadium seats like they’re doing something dirty. Far from it, their love for each other is supposed to be the only clean thing in this rotten, stinking world. And “One Hand, One Heart” is now at The Cloisters? These kids go to The Cloisters, back in the 1950s? I guess they’re not trapped in their neighborhood then, and have some civilized outlets? It’s clearly just there for the gimmick that it looks like a scene from Romeo and Juliet. But the entire point is that it has been transplanted. If you can’t see beauty in New York City, baby, this show is not for you. Throughout the movie Spielberg’s forever staging numbers indoors in quarters far too cramped and crabbed, and shooting them way too close, so large portions of the choreography are out of the frame. It’s pretty WTF and a pretty strong indication that this genre doesn’t speak to him. This aspect of the film bothered my wife so much it kept her up last night!

Look, this movie was nominated for many Oscars, and Ariana DuBose won a well deserved one for her performance as Anita. And there is something just alchemical about seeing Rita Moreno tear it up onscreen at this late date in history. Hard to regret that those things happened. But it would have been even cooler if they had happened in something new? Organic? Authentic? Appropriate?