If West Side Story seems even more titanic an achievement than ever, it's not just because today's musicals are so lacking - the 1961 70mm roadshow attraction was produced on a scale only dreamed about in today's practical Hollywood.
Musicals were fading by the 1960s - MGM's diet of 6 a year fizzled half a decade before, and the turf had been taken over by Rodgers and Hammerstein literal stage adaptations. West Side Story isn't a screen original, but it was rethought for film in visual terms by some impressive talent: Robert Wise, known mostly for efficient thrillers that came in under budget, and Jerome Robbins, an incredibly talented Broadway choreographer who strained the schedule and United Artist's checkbook in search of a perfect wedding of film and dance. With a powerhouse company of mostly stage dancer-actors, led by a perfectly-cast Natalie Wood, West Side Story is a sight to behold. This special edition followup to a 1998 plainwrap disc has a lavish array of extras, but can also boast a more sophisticated audio mix, and the benefit of improved compression and encoding technology.
At a dance at the Gym, the two sides come together to choose a battleground. But Tony and Maria meet on the dance floor, and a certain star-crossed classic tragedy is about to be repeated.
West Side Story is a superb musical, one of the best combinations of music and dance ever put to film. This seemed to have been the underlying quest of Gene Kelly's career at MGM - as soon as he was successful enough to push his own ideas, his musicals steered toward complex ballet sequences. Jerome Robbins apparently had the same filmic goal. There are plenty of musicals that display some of the charm of original Broadway choreography, such as Fosse's Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game, but West Side Story seeks to re-invent the stage dancing for the camera. The guts of the play are the dancing and the music, and both are heavily altered.
The most famous obstacle was making the teenage hoodlums dance ballet on city streets, and not be laughed off screens. The music takes care of that problem - Bernstein's Prologue makes everyone feel lighter on their feet. Once that's successfully overcome, the audience has no problem accepting all of the film's other stylistic stretches.
The Anglo gang is less like any real gang, than it is an anachronistic flip-back to the East Side Kids. Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey must have felt robbed, to see their culturally-reviled comic schtick suddenly become classy in the hands of Broadway writer Arthur Laurents. With typical nicknames like 'Action', 'A'Rab', and 'Joyboy', these guys are stylized exactly like The Bowery Boys. 1 The Jets are a racist, sexist group of antisocial losers bursting with energetic hostility. They're sexually active (if not obsessed), and sing about drug use and alcholism, vices attributed to their parents' generation. Their main occupation, in Gorcey terms, is the mocking of authority while defending their turf against all comers ... essentially Gangs of New York without the stove-pipe hats. In this cold-war gang war, the fight is not for plunder or working rights, but for issues as basic as territory and as abstract as hate itself. It's primitive barbarism in the capital of Western civilization.
Soon after the Broadway show opened in 1957, a New York Sunday-morning religious television program invited Jerome Robbins and his cast to appear. In between the musical numbers, Robbins fielded questions about the play's philosophy. Robbins responded with a chestnut of an answer that distilled the essence of 50s alienation. The disaffected youths in the play were an expression of the malaise and anxiety fostered by a hostile and corrupt world of nuclear bombs, vast consumer wealth and limited opportunities. Either Robbins had just read an issue of Mad Magazine that satirized what was wrong with 'today's kids' with an identical rationale, or a Mad writer got up early on a Sunday and caught the show. Either way, the disaffected Anglo punks of West Side Story pay lip service to the contemporary anxieties, while behaving as if they belonged in a 1930s melodrama. 6
Laurents, Bernstein and Robbins ran smack into a good idea when they conceived the warring 'enemy' gang as Puerto Rican immigrants. Hollywood and Broadway had been shoehorning Civil Rights themes into their repertoire since the late 40s, but this was a rich vein to be mined. The Latin theme allowed Bernstein to soak the show in the most modern, danceable rhythyms. And instead of dragging in platitudes about ethnic injustice, Laurents was able to contrast the myth that the Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants, with the reality of their plight. Since each new ethnic wave endures decades of oppression, fighting for acceptance and equal status, the Sharks are seen as split by gratitude for their new country, and resentment for its humiliations and injustices.
Laurents' social sympathies are definitely on the side of the Sharks, even though they take second place in both casting and story prominence. The Jets' slick jazz and ballet dancing is exciting but show-bizzy, like Russ Tamblyn's ostentatious tumbling. The Sharks, however, have innate tradition and a natural grace. Their dancing is twice as fluid and dynamic as their Anglo opposites. It has an unforced identity that the Anglos lack - the Sharks know who they are, while the Jets are in an aggressive search for themselves. Bernardo's paternalistic Old-Country rules and scorn for America may be mocked by his girlfriend Anita, but they are the only thing holding his underdog community together, against the hostile Jets. 2
Laurents also takes care to get specific about ethnic and racial hatred, which, of course, was considered daring / foolish / courageous for a musical show in 1957. The mostly Anglo cops are 100% on the side of the Jets. Bernardo has to buck the economic system, the hostile white gangs, his mocking girlfriend, and the racist police as well - no wonder he sees himself as a warrior.
West Side Story presents the attempted rape of Anita as a racial hate crime, and not a sexual thrill. She's targeted because her status is so low - a person of color, and a woman, to boot. Televison and movies in urban settings would soon rely on 'the rape scene' to provide some torn clothing for the heroine and titilation for the poster art, but Laurents' rape in the candy store is central to his thesis. It is interesting that the very limited role of Anita creates the strongest character in the film. Her energy and 'life-spirit' animates the America number, and she's the one who is brought the lowest - her mate murdered, her honor destroyed. Anita loves America, and gets misery in return. 4
The high point of the movie is the America song and dance number. It expresses everything there is to be said about the immigrant experience, the basic social injustice that comes with economic freedom. It celebrates the American Dream while simultaneously condemning it. As lousy as conditions may be for its underclasses, the U.S. is far and away the best place to be. West Side Story is the souring of the American Dream wedded to Romeo and Juliet, and it expresses both themes with equal success.
The nice surprise of the film West Side Story is that its love story isn't a disaster. Natalie Wood's imitation of a Latina is better than acceptable, and helped by the stylization of everyone else around her. It's a defining role for the talented, misused actress, and one that stands apart from her other screen roles. The much-maligned Richard Beymer is excellent as well. If he seems too much of an emotional simp, it's because viewers who only relate to the sylized aggression in the rest of the cast, aren't mature enough to accept a star-gazing romantic for their hero. Yes, he does play Freddie Bartholomew to the wise-acre Leo Gorceys around him. We get the idea that if it weren't for Riff, the Jets would cut Tony up and toss him into the Hudson.
There's a lot of controversy about the roles of directors Robbins and Wise on the film. Without Robbins, the intensity and excellence of the Prologue, America and Cool might have been compromised - each of these amplifies Bernstein's music so that it's hard to imagine the stage version competing for impact. Robbins had the reputation of the sadistic genius, driving his dancers to physical ruin and the production schedulers into apoplectic fits. Robert Wise is the cool technician, who can soar when given great material, yet sometimes has little to contribute when a movie needs sensitive direction for its actors. His popularity with the Mirisches owed more than a little to his ability to bring location pictures in under budget, something few directors in Hollyood were capable of doing.
From what Savant has seen, the domineering Robbins used his clout to expand his role beyond his original deal as musical sequence director. The un-egotistical Wise, always attuned to what might make the picture better, gave Robbins leeway to poach on the non-musical scenes. Depending on what one hears, Robbins' passions either contributed a stronger feel to the portions of the film he influenced - or he wasted time and money on endless reshoots and on-the-set rethinks. The professional stage sensibility is that the more one gets to rehearse and re-think a show, the better it gets, so undoubtedly Robbins' twentieth filmed version of a scene (in 70mm, no less) would be an improvement. Wise's Hollywood instincts preach that pre-prep is the time for all that rehearsing and 'discovery', and the director's job is to simply let things happen with what he's prepared, and adjust as best he can within the limitation of a few takes. If it doesn't work as one initially puts it in front of the camera, then one isn't a director, but a wasteful artist sculpting away while 300 expensive collaborators and rented equipment stand idle. 3 Wise probably saw the general excellence of Robbins' material, and helped run interference for him, until the producers couldn't take any more.
Non-fans of Robert Wise point to the raised level of mawkishness in the film's second half, where a lot of uncontrolled emotions are barely contained by Wise's well-composed, perfectly-timed, but less expressive camera. This is a hard call, as the last third of the show, the part mostly directed by Wise alone, is slower and less musical, with the funeral ending particularly so. To restructure the play for the screen, adapting screenwriter Ernest Lehman shifted all the light numbers that followed the rumble, to earlier positions. Lehman applauds these changes as screen wisdom (and whines that his was the film's only Oscar nomination not rewarded) but his alterations served to flatten the experimental nature of the play into a linear 'Hollywood' dramatic line. In the play, the fact that the Jets could do Officer Krupke after the rumble, expressed their lack of moral development in the face of violence and disaster. In the film, they're all shaken to their souls. At the end, they suddenly transform into choir boys, hauling away Tony's body.
West Side Story is a major visual break from both the MGM and Rodgers and Hammerstein sensibilities. The graphic sense is acute, with a destroyed urban landscape (half real, half constructed) framing the action in terms that are almost post-apocalyptic. There are few plants of any kind visible in the whole show. Raw colors and striking angles are used to give the film life - they compliment the limitless dynamism of Leonard Bernstein's music. I've never seen West Side in 70mm, but the 35mm Tech print we showed at college was phenomenal. The film's combination of music, movement and color has a transporting effect - for once, when the producer claims that his picture was 'the most exciting experience on film', it isn't hype.
MGM's Special Edition DVD Collector's Set of West Side Story is such a weighty package, an MGM Marketing executive told me it's more of a publishing product than a video show. The list of extras is a long one (see below), so by quantity it will certainly justify its price to the many owners of the previous DVD. The picture and especially the track have a slight edge on the earlier disc, and both the intermission and a sound effect detail missing from earlier video incarnations have been restored (the film had an intermission only in 70mm roadshow engagements). I'm told that the stylized Overture was meant to be played with the curtains opened (so as not to muffle the speakers), but the with the house lights up, so people wouldn't necessarily stare at the screen waiting for something to happen. The colored abstraction of Manhattan is visually active, changing even during the various hues; the house lights went down 25% for Maria, and to 50% for Mambo, finally fading when the title came up. It's a rather brilliant adaptation of Roadshow presentation logic - an animated curtain - which doesn't work particularly well on home video. Just imagine you're in a plush seat, sitting next to some movie stars at a premiere.
The hourlong docu 5 tells the story of the making of the film with the participation of Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, the surviving Broadway originators who until now have been very hard to nab for interviews. Their sharp opinions elevate the discussion of the film's story and themes, and it is a refreshing (not to mention classy) thing to hear the assembled wisdoms of the initial creators. Laurents is very proud of his handling of the role of Anita, and both he and Sondheim characterize the genius of Leonard Bernstein in praise that never rings hollow.
Besides MGM's and USC's trove of West Side Story art, actor/dancer Robert Banas provided his own 8mm home movies taken on the set, which add greatly to the docu's 'gotta see this' factor. The most talked-about feature are the resynched original recordings of Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn singing for themselves, instead of their vocal replacements; Wood's voice definitely isn't up to the task. It was a delicate decision process deciding whether hearing her warbly voice was detrimental to her memory. In the long run, it should illuminate Hollywood's questionable practice of redubbing practically everyone, whether they needed it or not. DVD docus can range from earnestly serious to downright dishonest fluff, and it's a good thing that the studios will allow something as substantial as this one to be made, when the subject warrants it.
Adding to the package's superduper deluxe aspect is a hefty minibook containing some nice reproductions of scripts, programs, memoes, etc. The simple red slipcase with its black-embossed logo is handsome as well, and rounds out a well-judged package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
West Side Story rates:
1. ... the Dead End Kids, East Side Kids, and
Bowery Boys movies hold up extremely well - TCM zeroed in on them a couple of years back,
and the two or three I caught were surprisingly funny. I think the street-smarts of these New York
punks carried over to wartime films, which populated trenches and bomber planes with wise-cracking
ethnic jokers, as if they represented the core of the American spirit. West Side Story
capitalizes on the same unconscious associations.
2. Compare the Jets and the Sharks as they battle in the Dance in the
Gym: the Jets twist and bob their heads in showoff, showboat moves designed to say how cool they are.
The Sharks' dance moves are all subtle, classy gyrations gleaned from flamenco and other Latin
dance styles. The Jets make a gaudy spectacle of themselves on the dance floor. The Sharks transcend
their underdog status to become mythic representatives of a proud culture, mutating once more in
a foreign setting. No wonder Latins love West Side Story - they haven't been treated with
this much respect since before the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Arthur Laurents presents them favorably,
even when individual lines sound like they belong in a Jewish context: "What am I - cut glass?"
3. A cameraman once told me the Producer's nightmare vision of shooting
in 70mm: Every time the giant cameras roll, the producer imagines a fast conveyor belt pouring one's
own $20 bills into a roaring furnace. After West Side Story, you didn't see the Mirisches
encouraging anyone to shoot in 70mm, not even the film stock-economical Billy Wilder.
4. Sam Fuller is critically noted for several films that proclaim that
the Americans most eager to defend their country, are those least likely to benefit from
the sacrifices they make. He's got a philosophical relation to this issue, but one I haven't
thought out ...
5. The docu was Savant's major pride-and-joy cutting assignment for 2002,
so beware my perspective in these comments. Savant also cut the musical storyboard-scene comparison,
and helped configure the new Intermission insert.
6. The Mad comic article was one of their heights of quality satire,
as it compared the supposed lack of values of teenagers with the complimentary vices of 1950s adults. I
remember it helping form a healthy desire for the truths underlying the cultural messages I received.
For a few years, Mad was a wonderfully political magazine.