Saturday, January 1, 2022

SETTLE FOR THE DREAM: SONDHEIM IN THE MOVIES

Legendary composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim appears in remarkably good spirits considering what Elizabeth Taylor is doing to one of his songs in this Graham Morris photo of an August 1976 London recording session for the Harold Prince movie adaptation of Sondheim's A Little Night Music.


Stephen Sondheim
March 22, 1930 - November 26, 2021
Countless obituaries, tributes, eulogies, and “In Memoriam” articles reiterated the indisputable fact that the death of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim signaled the end of an era in American Musical Theater. And indeed, the breadth of his impact is difficult to overstate. Stephen Sondheim almost single-handedly changed the look, sound, and content of the American musical. Transforming the popular medium that once strove for nothing deeper than “pleasing the tired business man” (i.e., to amuse and entertain, not instruct or strain the brain) into a sophisticated and challenging art form illuminating complex societal themes and exploring the darker corners of the human condition. It’s impossible to imagine the likes of his particular genius will never be seen again. 

But to me…a gay man who discovered the brilliant composer-lyricist during my floundering adolescence in the Sexual Revolution/Gay Liberation ‘70s, it’s hard not to see the obvious tragedy of Stephen Sondheim’s death at age 91 as largely representing a form of triumph. A triumph of survival, a triumph of the indomitability of the creative voice, and certainly a triumph of a queer artist's personal journey (from the closet to "Marry Me a Little") over the course of his nearly 70-year career. 

For what’s not triumphant in being a gay man surviving the devastation of the AIDS plague of the ‘80s and living to such a ripe old age? It’s certainly a triumph that the trajectory of Sondheim’s long career dramatizes the struggle of the American LGBTQ experience: Sondheim’s first Broadway show (1957s West Side Story) was the creation of no less than FOUR societally-mandated closeted gay and bisexual men. By the time of his death, Sondheim was an out-and-proud, world-renowned public figure legally wed to his husband of four years.
Sondheim with the cast of the movie version of Into the Woods
As one of Broadway’s most lauded composer-lyricists (8 Tony Award wins - including an Honorary Lifetime Achievement in Theater Award, 8 Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and more) Hollywood beckoned Sondheim from the start. And of his 18 theatrical productions, six have made it to the screen to date. The work he created specifically for the movies includes composing a score for French director Alain Resnais, writing original songs for several feature films (one even garnering him an Oscar win), and collaborating on the screenplay of a murder mystery with his friend and rumored lover Anthony Perkins. 
A 1970s Polaroid featuring Anthony Perkins, Pat Ast, and Marisa Berenson surrounding Sondheim at the piano. In 1966 Sondheim wrote the words & music for Evening Primrose, an original made-for-TV musical starring Anthony Perkins.

The relative or comparative success/failure of Hollywood’s adaptations of Sondheim’s work has sparked much unnecessary debate, with Sondheim himself coming off as the ultimate winner by understanding the differences between film and theater and therefore being considerably less bent out of shape by the compromises of adaptation than his acolytes. 

I think the reason for this can be found in the work itself.
One of the more consistent themes running through Sondheim's work is that while idealism is both an elemental and essential part of being an artist, lover, fairy tale character, dreamer, suburban married couple, and even a sociopathic killer; perfection itself is something unattainable. There is no such thing as ‘happily ever after’ where those immensely complicated and inherently flawed things called human beings are involved.
 
So many of his musicals end with characters thinking they are “settling” for the less-than-perfect, when the overarching theme stresses that once one abandons illusion and fantasy (which makes us question whether we're happy "enough" or if our happiness is the "right kind") it opens us up to recognizing the often very real happiness that already exists in our lives in the only place it can ever truly be: in the here and now, wherever that is and whatever that may look like. Accepting who we are, what we have, and finding contentment in it, imperfections and all.   

“Feed the plot to the fish. Life is not what the movies make it seem. Still, we got Dorothy Gish. We can lean back and settle for the dream.”   

"In The Movies" - from Sondheim's first musical Saturday Night - 1955 (unproduced until 1997)

“In the Movies” is a comic number calling attention to the discrepancy between life as we know it and life as depicted on the big screen. In the end, the song makes the case that wishing for reality to be more like the movies is an exercise in futility when it’s precisely life’s deficiencies that make movies so pleasurable (and necessary!). Better to relax, sit back, and enjoy these idealized fantasies for what they are. Why dwell on the unhappy thought that life is so seldom as magical as the movies when the greatest gift that movies offer is the magic itself. Why not “settle for the dream”?
That repeated lyric, with its echoing of the Sondheimian ethos of accepting things as they are…accepting the things you cannot change, felt right for my brief look at the uneven cinema legacy of the man who became the face of American Musical Theater.   
In 1971 I fell in love with the OBC album of Sondheim's Company (1970).
In 1993 got to see the original cast perform it in concert.
 
I suspect theater fans will always prefer their Sondheim onstage and lament that his film adaptations inevitably fall short. And I can see their point. Live theater presents the uncompromised vision and is different each time you see it. But live theater is not as available to some as it is to others. Certainly not as available as film. 
I'm a movie guy and a Sondheim fan to boot, so my attitude is that while I would love it if every screen adaptation of a Sondheim show was "perfection," there is no such thing. And certainly, when it comes to film, what's done is done. There's no matinee tomorrow where one can fix any problems. 

In a discussion on the topic of whether the movies have ever done justice to the work of Stephen Sondheim, my answer would be a qualified no. But instead of blacking my blessings by playing "It Would Have Been Wonderful," how much better it is for me to sit back and simply appreciate the rare gift it is to have any of Stephen Sondheim's genius preserved on the screen at all. I'm more than happy to settle for the dream. 

WEST SIDE STORY - 1961
Directed by Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, and adapted from the Tony Award-winning musical that marked Sondheim’s Broadway debut. As I fairly exhausted the topic of West Side Story in my previous essay (hint: I'm crazy about this movie) the only thing to add here is that the triumph of this now-classic, Academy Award-winning screen adaptation (a whopping 10 wins including Best Picture and Best Director) still finds Sondheim critical of his own efforts, not the film. Serving as lyricist to Leonard Bernstein’s compositions, Sondheim has said he is embarrassed by the “poetry” of the language he put into the mouths of street kids. He has also stated that many of the changes screenwriter Ernest Lehman brought to the film (specifically as to where certain songs were re-situated) are improvements on the stage version. 

GYPSY - 1962
Directed by Mervyn Leroy and adapted from the 1959 Ethel Merman Broadway musical. Hitting two for two, Sondheim’s second Broadway hit (this time supplying the lyrics to Jules Stein’s music) became his second movie adaptation and second collaboration with Natalie Wood. Controversially cast in place of the bombastic Merman, the vocally-manipulated Rosalind Russell. A delightful, relatively faithful adaptation, Gypsy is another film I’ve exhaustively covered in an earlier post (hint: I’m crazy about it), my only gripe being that it cuts one of my favorite songs “Together Wherever We Go.” 

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM - 1966
Directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) and adapted from the hit 1962 Broadway musical that won 5 Tony Awards including Best Musical. I confess I’ve never been particularly fond of this "Roman farce meets vaudeville schtick" musical comedy. The frenetic mugging and hamminess of Zero Mostel always cracks me up, as do the old-fashioned jokes. But the plot and Lester’s shambolic direction and handling of the musical sequences (almost dutifully, as if he’s trying to get them over with as quickly as possible) make this an adaptation I welcome, but don’t necessarily appreciate. “Forum” marks Stephen Sondheim’s first show as both composer and lyricist. 

THE LAST OF SHEILA -  1973
Directed by Herbert Ross from an original screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins.  Sondheim combined his passion for puzzles and games with his early experience writing for television in the ‘50s (he wrote several episodes of the comedy program Topper) and came up with a doozy of an all-star whodunit set on the French Riviera. The Agatha Christie-style plot is as complex and twisty as any Sondheim melody, and it’s easy to imagine Perkins contributing a great deal to the gossipy, insider feel of the film's movie-industry setting and its cast of unsympathetic opportunists. The Last of Sheila is another film I’ve written about in a previous post…and by now you know the drill. I’m crazy about it.

STAVISKY - 1974
Directed by Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad). Sondheim was approached by Resnais (a fan of his work) to write the period score for this stylish crime noir set in the early ‘30s and based on the life of real-life political swindler, Serge Alexandre Stavisky. Resnais’ film is an Art Deco visual feast to which Sondheim contributes a breathtakingly lush, sweepingly romantic score. Even if you never see the movie, I’d recommend getting your hands on the soundtrack. The music is so gorgeous, it's beyond exquisite. 

THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION - 1976
Directed by Herbert Ross and based on the 1974 Nicholas Meyer novel that posits Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud joining forces to solve a crime. Sondheim contributes a song sung by a high-class madam (French nightclub legend Régine Zylberberg) at a whorehouse soirée. The liltingly raunchy tune “I Never Do Anything Twice (The Madam’s Song)” recalls the comic double-entendre vulgarity of "Can That Boy Foxtrot!" (a song excised from his show Follies). For all its risqué wit "The Madam's Song" is featured for mere seconds in the film. Happily, the song can be heard in its entirety on any number of Sondheim CD collections out there. 
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC - 1977
Based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer NightA Little Night Music won Harold Prince a Tony Award for his direction of the 1973 Broadway production (it won 6 awards total, including Best Musical). But his somewhat lumbering direction of the film adaptation won him nothing but critical brickbats. One of Sondheim’s most popular and accessible shows (a happy ending!) features a score of waltz-time melodies so sublime, the flaws of the movie adaptation never bothered me. I'm in the majority-of-one camp that finds the film version to be absolutely enchanting, the rewritten "The Glamorous Life" and new lyrics for "Night Waltz" proving worth the effort alone.   
REDS  - 1981
Directed by Warren Beatty. Sondheim was originally enlisted to write the entire score for this love story set during the early days of the Russian Revolution. Sondheim declined – score chores then taken over by David Grusin – but wrote a delicate instrumental theme song “Goodbye for Now.” Again, versions of the song with its lyrics appear on several Sondheim collections. The song's boon and bane is that it does what all movie music should do-- enhance the drama of the story without calling attention to itself. But when it comes to Sondheim, I'm not sure being unaware of him is what I'm after. 
DICK TRACY - 1990
Directed by Warren Beatty. In Sondheim’s second collaboration with Beatty, the director/star again wanted the composer to write the entire score, and again Sondheim declined. Danny Elfman handled that chore in this primary-color action-comedy that brings Chester Gould’s comic strip detective to life. Sondheim contributed five ‘30s-inspired songs: “Back in Business”, “What Can You Lose”, “More”, “Live Alone and Like It”, and the torchy “Sooner or Later” which won Sondheim his first and only Oscar.
THE BIRDCAGE - 1996
Directed by Mike Nichols and adapted from the 1973 French play La Cage of Folles which had already been turned into a film in 1978 and a Broadway musical (by outspoken Sondheim critic Jerry Herman) in 1983. My dislike for this fiercely unfunny film knows no bounds, so I’m going to be as terse as possible here. It would take Hercule Poirot to find the three songs Sondheim contributed to this movie. An original song “It Takes All Kinds” went unused, “Little Dream,” another song written for the film, appears for, what, about 6 seconds? And the delectable “Love is in the Air” (a song originally written for “Forum”) gets maybe 10 seconds more of screen time than that. I get it that The Birdcage is a broad farce and not a musical, but it’s set in a nightclub and really could have benefitted from Sondheim's wit. Because Sondheim's presence here is virtually non-existent, there's no "settle for the dream" philosophy I need to apply. I saw it once, penance served.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET - 2007
Directed by Tim Burton and adapted from the 1979 Broadway production that won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score. This blood-soaked Grand Guignol opera is my #1 favorite of all Sondheim’s works, and I’ve listened to it countless times. That I consider it his masterpiece might suggest I would find fault with the faithful but severely truncated Tim Burton adaptation. But – weakish vocals and humorlessness aside – I think this is a splendid adaptation. Granted, I might be cutting this film some slack because a full version of the national touring company with Angela Lansbury & George Hearn had already been committed to video in 1982. Also, the movie earns points for not having a superfluous new song composed in hopes of getting an Oscar nomination.

INTO THE WOODS - 200
Directed by Rob Marshall and adapted from the three-time 1987 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Remarkably, this film version of Sondheim’s grim adult take on Grimm’s fairy tales marks my first time actually seeing Into The Woods (1984’s Sunday in the Park with George had put me off Sondheim for a bit), so I’m willing to accept the tiresomely patronizing reassurances from my theater-geek friends that until I watch the complete production performed by the original Broadway cast for cable TV in 1991, I STILL haven’t seen Into the Woods. Be that as it may, in the spirit of discovery I must say I had the best time watching Marshall's film. Wonderful performances throughout, and that positively magnificent and complex score. Subsequent revisits…with fast-forward remote at the ready… have been less ecstatic. The film was nominated for 3 Oscars.

CAMP - 2003
Todd Graff wrote and directed this musical comedy-drama set in a performing arts camp for teenagers. Sondheim donated three of his songs to this low-budget labor of love: “I’m Still Here” and “Losing My Mind” from Follies, “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. (I'm honestly not sure if teens singing these decidedly mature songs was part of the joke ["I'm Still Here"...from what, detention?] I sincerely hope so.) Sondheim also donated his time and gravitas by appearing as himself in a brief cameo. In a sort of Waiting for Guffman moment, the patron saint of musical theater teens arrives at the camp in a limousine with the license plate 4UM, his entrance given an appropriately rockstar welcome.
I haven't seen it yet, but I hear Sondheim makes his "cameo" swan song in Tick, Tick...Boom! (2021) as himself, a voice on an answering machine.


My Favorite Stephen Sondheim Musical Scores

My Top Five Favorite Sondheim Songs
"Every Day a Little Death"
"Not While I'm Around" 
"Losing My Mind"
"There's Always a Woman"
"Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?"

Readers: No one should have to pick a "favorite" from Sondheim's sizeable catalog of impossibly beautiful (and riotously funny) songs, but if you care to share a particular Sondheim composition you enjoy or that means something to you, I'd be interested to know.  

BONUS MATERIAL:
Liza Minnelli sings Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" - from her Results album -1989
I know a music video doesn’t officially fit the “Sondheim in the Movies” theme of this tribute, but this is included here because Oscar-winning, Miss Show-Biz herself, Liza Minnelli, delivers more deliriously extravagant drama, anguish, camp, and pathos in 4 ½ minutes than you’d find in a Douglas Sirk/David Lynch film festival.  If you're looking for a movie connection, imagine this video as a 20-years-later sequel to Minnelli's The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) with an adult Pookie Adams still getting herself into obsessive relationships.
Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe) produced this infectious synthpop dance version of Sondheim’s torch ballad from Follies. On the strength of Minnelli’s committed, full-throttle performance, I also find this majestically melodramatic music video…which even features a nod to the Emcee in Cabaret…to be strangely moving. Directed by Briant Grant.
In the comic whodunit Knives Out (2019) Daniel Craig
plays a master detective with a fondness for Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim made his acting debut in the Oscar Levant-esque role of songwriter Maxie Schwartz in the 1974 TV adaptation of George F. Kaufman's 1929 comedy June Moon. The entire telecast is available for viewing on YouTube or as part of the Great Performances DVD collection.

Crazy business this, this life we live in
Can't complain about the time we're given
With so little to be sure of in this world,
We had a moment
A marvelous moment

-"With So Little To Be Sure Of" - from Anyone Can Whistle - 1964 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2022

Monday, December 13, 2021

WEST SIDE STORY 1961

West Side Story is the first movie I ever OD’d on. 
It was my first pre-teen movie crush, my first filmic fateful attraction, my first case of movie musical mania. I saw West Side Story when I was in early adolescence and fell for it with the kind of overawed intensity and enthusiasm only the very young and impressionable have the time and stamina to sustain. I was so overwhelmed by the film's soaring music, glorious dancing, and striking visual style, I embarked on a decades-long campaign of self-inflicted West Side Story oversaturation so immersive, I ended up overdosing on the movie. Over the course of 35 years, I saw and listened to West Side Story so often and on so many different occasions in my life (it was my go-to "comfort food" movie) that I ultimately reached a stage where I couldn’t stand to watch it even one more time. 
The Sharks
The last time I saw West Side Story in its entirety was way back in 2003 when the Special Collector’s Edition DVD boxed set was released. I think I watched it then about three or four times before finally hitting a wall.
But here I am in 2021, the year marking West Side Story’s 60th Anniversary, the death of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (WSS’s lyricist), and the release of Steven Spielberg’s long-delayed, eagerly-anticipated reimagining of the iconic film. No better time for me to fall off the wagon, acquire West Side Story in yet another home entertainment format (VHS to Blu-ray) and revisit the 1961 classic before my initial thoughts and memories risk becoming entwined, influenced, and shaped by comparisons and reactions to the latest adaptation. 
The Jets
The groundbreaking musical West Side Story—the show that introduced the world to dancing street gangs and balletic inner-city combat—premiered on Broadway on September 6, 1957. Conceived, directed & choreographed by Jerome Robbins, this seminal theatrical production was a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet as a contemporary star-crossed love story set against the violent backdrop of turf wars and racial conflict between rival New York street gangs. With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by 27-year-old Oscar Hammerstein protégé Stephen Sondheim (his Broadway debut), West Side Story was an innovation in the advancement of the realistic musical. A gritty fusion of ballet and operatic romantic tragedy in a production that moved ensemble dance to the forefront.

I was born roughly two weeks after West Side Story opened on Broadway and was only four years old when the much-heralded Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise co-directed feature film was released, so I've no memories to share whatsoever of those two landmark events. My first real memory of West Side Story is from early childhood when I was perhaps maybe when I was six or seven, via the omnipresent original Broadway cast recording album my parents owned, but to the best of my recollection never played. As a child, I, too,  avoided that album, accurately gleaning from its cover art that it contained no songs to which I could do The Twist.
Natalie Wood as Maria

Richard Beymer as Tony
The opportunity to see West Side Story for the first time came in the fall of 1968 when the 10-time Oscar-winning film was given a national re-release before being sold to television (and to coincide-with/cash-in-on the October 1968 release of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet). I was then 11-years-old at the time and remember West Side Story was playing at our neighborhood movie house (the Castro Theater in San Francisco) for a single one-week engagement during the Thanksgiving holiday. In a rare gesture that I suspect was inspired by a combination of the theater’s proximity and the prolonged proximity of a bunch of restless kids at home and underfoot over Thanksgiving break; my parents decided to treat us all (my three sisters and I) to a rare family night out at the movies. 
Rita Moreno as Anita

George Chakiris as Bernardo
Going to the movies at night with my parents always felt like a big event and a little magical to me. For one, we all had to get dressed up. Plus, it was nice going by warm car instead of walking or having to catch a bus. But my favorite thing, and what really made going to the movies at night feel magical was the bright neon and colored lights of the theater marquee and lobby. As often as we kids had attended screenings at the Castro on weekend afternoons, the familiarly ornate theater looked totally different at night. More like a palace or castle. With parents along, we didn't have to ration out our allowance money for popcorn and candy, and best of all, we got the major thrill of being able to sit in the balcony. A place our parents forbid us to go when we were on our own because—according to mom—the balcony is where all the troublemaking kids sat. 
Russ Tamblyn as Riff
While I was overjoyed to be going to the movies that night, I don’t recall being particularly enthusiastic about seeing West Side Story. I still didn't know much about it, and what little I did (shots of Natalie Wood & Richard Beymer clinging to each other with their mouths open on a fire escape) didn't suggest a whole lot of laughs. But having gone to see Pete Sellers several times in Casino Royale (1967) earlier that year and later in The World of Henry Orient (1964) on TV,  the movie I was most excited about seeing was the one the Castro paired with West Side Story on a double-bill: Blake Edwards' The Party (1968) - in which Peter Sellers plays an Indian actor who comically destroys a Hollywood party. 
Screened first, I loved The Party and think it's one of Sellers' best. However, looking back I have to say that was one weird double-feature: Welcome to four full hours of ethnic cosplay and brownface!

(On a side note: the movie booked to follow West Side Story’s one-week engagement at the Castro was Rosemary’s Baby. So being traumatized by that film's spooky theatrical trailer was another memory I took away with me that evening.)
The 1968 West Side Story re-release was shown minus the overture and intermission of its 1961 roadshow engagements, but it was presented in breathtaking widescreen (a welcome change from our 20-inch B&W console TV), eye-popping color (growing up seeing 95% of all entertainments in grayscale, a bigger thrill than you might think), and with stereo sound that fairly lifted me out of my seat. But none of these things would have mattered if the film they buttressed hadn’t measured up to the fanfare. And on that score, West Side Story fairly blew the roof off the Castro Theater that night.
A phenomenal film experience, West Side Story was like nothing I’d ever seen (granted, at 11, the list of things I'd never seen was pretty extensive, but you get my point). I couldn't think of any movies I'd seen that looked even remotely like West Side Story. From that astounding 8-minute Prologue that sets the stage and establishes the film's stylized realism and visual vocabulary of saturated colors, to the vivid elegance of its cinematography and evocative use of music, it was obvious from West Side Story's jaw-dropping first frames (those aerial views of New York!) that it was a breed apart from the kind of musicals being turned into films at the time (Bells Are Ringing, Flower Drum Song, The Music Man). Even its innovative score…classical, operatic, jazzy...one unforgettable song after another--didn’t sound much like the other musicals (Bye Bye Birdie, The Sound of Music). 
And the dancing. Had there ever been such engagingly witty, extraordinarily exhilarating dance sequences? Electrifying ensemble dance numbers that were genuine showstoppers, not because of empty spectacle, but because dance, music, cinematography, and editing were in simultaneous, seamless service to character, emotion, and the dramatic flow of the narrative. In the large-scare numbers, every dancer is doing more than dancing...they're giving a performance. There's so much detail to take in and so much "business" going on in every corner of the frame, it feels like this 1961 movie was made for the digital age of the freeze-frame. To watch the way Rita Moreno and George Chakiris look at each other when they dance is to learn everything you need to know about the relationship between Anita and Bernardo.
My first goosebump moment in the movie came when West Side Story, heretofore rooted in a kind of lyrical reality, bursts into magical fantasy when Maria's twirl in the dress shop leads to one of the heavenly scene transitions in musical cinema.

I’ve recounted in earlier essays how averse to age-appropriate movies I was when I was young. That's how I missed out on seeing Funny Girl, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins...I thought they were all "kiddie movies" or worse, movies deemed  “fun for the whole family.” West Side Story won my heart in no small part due to it being a grown-up musical. Grown-up by ‘60s movie musical standards, anyway. The film was pretty dated and tame in some ways. I mean, the Jets—direct descendants of The Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids who pronounced “world” as “woild” and spoke in the colorful bop-slang patois of those low-budget ‘50s juvenile delinquent movies my sisters and I devoured on Saturday afternoon TV (“Daddy-o!”)—were harmless hoodlums. (The Jets' cartoonishness had the perhaps intentional effect of softening the distastefulness of their "Make The West Side Great Again" anti-immigrant racism.)

But this was also a movie, a musical, no less, that was critical of what was wrong with American society and referenced mature themes like racism, drugs, poverty, gang violence, prostitution, rape, and police corruption. It even had good-girl Natalie Wood having sex without benefit of marriage (although I admit, at the time, I thought Maria and Tony had just spent the night cuddling). 
The Delicate Delinquent
Speaking of things I'd never seen before, gay Ken, whom I hadn't yet been properly introduced to, never saw ANYTHING like George Chakiris. I don’t quite know what I did with the feelings aroused by the sight of Bernardo in that purple shirt and skinny tie, but I suspect they were tucked away in the same place I put my unconscious identification with/recognition of the queer-coded character of Baby John. 
(Ask Anybodys: For those who don't know, the creators of West Side Story - Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins - were all gay or bisexual men. Too bad at least one of them wasn't also Puerto Rican.)
Somewhere
As the song that best expresses what co-creator Arthur Laurents described as West Side Story's theme: "How can love survive in a violent world of prejudice?" --Somewhere has gone on to become a pop standard and a gay anthem. The latter confirmed when The Pet Shop Boys reworked it into a synth-pop dance tune.

My earlier use of the word "dated" wasn't intended as a pejorative. As it relates to my impression of West Side Story as a product of the past, a film reflecting the perspective, aesthetics, and concerns (and occasional cluelessness) of a very distinct point in time, I see it as one of West Side Story's strengths. The same way I would mean it if I referred to the films of Fred Astaire and many of the classic MGM musicals as dated. They are of the time they were created and reflect a kind of past urgency or vitality that can't be wrested into another era.
West Side Story being behind-the-times in some aspects (while simultaneously raising and setting the bar of innovation in others) lends the film an air of parable or fairy tale. Its themes are rooted in realism, but the world depicted is very different from reality.  
One scene in West Side Story is far from dated and is so firmly rooted in contemporary reality I no longer watch it. Although it's one of the strongest and most pivotal scenes in the film, sometime during the Reagan '80s I lost my taste for the sequence where Anita is assaulted in Doc's drugstore by the Jets. The pain in Rita Moreno's eyes and the vulnerability of performance is a little too raw. The look on the faces of the Jets, a look I've seen too often in my life. The look of tiki-torch bearers. The scene is powerful and Moreno and Ned Glass as Doc are terrific, but it's too ugly and too prevalent a face of America. I fast-forward past it. 

The world had changed a great deal between the time West Side Story first appeared on screens and the time I saw it. It wasn't a seven-year gap, it was a lifetime. Even as a kid I thought the film's depiction of a world where restless youths (just how the hell old  ARE the Jets and Sharks supposed to be?) blew off steam by having turf wars and zip-gun rumbles seemed as remote as Neverland when contrasted with the what young people were dealing with in 1968: Two political assassinations in 1968 alone, race riots, the Vietnam War, police brutality, campus protests.
Yet the film still spoke to me. And I think that's because the things it talks about (even in its clumsy '50s jargon) is still real for young people. And it has been since the days of Romeo and Juliet. 
Cool Never Goes Out Of Style 
For a maddeningly long time after seeing this epic number, my sisters and I got into the annoying habit of preceding every question and answer with - "Boy, boy, crazy boy." 
Mom: Did you take the garbage out? - Me: Boy, boy, crazy boy...I'll do it right now.
 I don't know how our parents stood it.

Looking back, I feel so lucky to have seen West Side Story for the first time with no idea of its significance, no sense of its legacy, and no prior exposure to its music (I HAD heard the lilting "I Feel Pretty" on some variety show, and was so surprised to learn it came from this show). I’ve never forgotten what it was like experiencing this innovative, visually dazzling, and highly entertaining musical as a journey of complete discovery. I was taken on a real emotional roller coaster that night, from the ecstasy heights of those fabulous numbers to that ending that gave me major waterworks (I think you always cry harder in movies if you see your mom is crying, too) everything came together so beautifully. West Side Story was without a doubt a most extraordinary movie experience.

I Saw You and The World Went Away
West Side Story remained an ongoing passion and fan favorite for lo these many years. The visual aid purpose of this collage is to show not only how much fun I had being a West Side Story fan, but also illustrate how I came to reach such an oversaturation point. And if you're wondering about that TV Guide ad at the bottom that has nothing to do with West Side Story, let me put it this way... there's a reason I say dreams are what the cinema is for.
The year 1985 (five years after the movie Xanadu inspired me to study dance) found me on a cordoned-off city block in Los Angeles--folks watching from behind barriers, massive speakers blaring musical playback, a camera on a crane---dancing as a member of a terpsichorean street gang in a West Side Story-inspired musical fantasy sequence for a CBS Schoolbreak Special: Ace Hits the Big Time
The hilariously cheesy number was more nightmare than dream sequence, and my dancing in it didn't give George Chakiris any sleepless nights, but for that entire day I felt as though it wasn't really happening...that it was all a fantasy playing out in the head of  11-year-old Ken sitting in the balcony of the Castro movie theater.

Gee, Officer Krupke
Always thought Russ Tamblyn deserved an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination
Nobody does a flip-out like Natalie Wood. I really adore her in this movie, and she's at her strongest in this scene. The way she yells "Don't you touch him!" is heart-wrenching. Cue the waterworks.

Anita's Gonna Get Her Kicks
Perhaps it's been run into the ground, but there's no getting past Rita Moreno really bringing it and earning her Oscar and Golden Globe wins. The only Puerto Rican in the cast, her performance has humor, authenticity, grit, and tragedy.



I didn't expect to be as moved by seeing West Side Story again after so many years. In fact, each musical number left me as something of an emotional wreck. It was nice to see these old friends again. Especially Maria and Tony. 

WEST SIDE STORY INFLUENCE & INSPIRATION
(Top - Tony Mordente as Action). This quotable admonition, in addition to the Jets' stare-down, finger-snapping response to authority figures, found its way into the 1967 teen musical The Cool Ones, choreographed by West Side Story's David Winters (A-rab).  

Critics couldn't make up their minds as to whether Bob Fosse's rooftop staging of "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" in Sweet Charity was a skirt-flipping homage or blatant rip-off. The same with his decision to stage the "Rhythm of Life" number in a parking garage (a la West Side Story's "Cool").

It's not unusual for artists to be unfamiliar with the trailblazers and innovators in their field. Indeed, in many cases, ignorance behooves the young artist, lest they find out their trumpeted originality is often just history repeating (see: Lady Gaga, Bette Midler, and a singing mermaid named Delores DeLago).
But director Bob Giraldi's persistent claim that his music video for Beat It (featuring dancing rival street gangs - complete with singer-snaps and a choreographed rumble) was not influenced by West Side Story is both laughably unconvincing and blatantly disingenuous. And (the most likely option) the kind of cagey deception one engages in to sidestep potential legal hassles.
 In any event, Rita Moreno once relayed in an interview how Michael Jackson approached her at a social function and proclaimed to be such a huge West Side Story fan that the film inspired the song, concept, and choreography of the music video.
Premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater on Wednesday, December 13, 1961. A week earlier, on December 5th, Natalie Wood had her footprints placed in the cement in the theater's forecourt. 

 
BONUS MATERIAL

Actress, singer, dancer, and TV game-show stalwart 
Elaine Joyce making her uncredited film debut

Womb to Tomb
Former Jets Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer appeared in the
David Lynch series Twin Peaks in 1990 and its 2017 return.


I promised myself that I wasn't going to post this somewhat overworked image, but I have to concede there's a very good reason for its popularity. The tenement backdrop, the natural light, the low camera angle (accomplished by digging a pit in the asphalt), and the graceful athleticism of the dancers as they execute a grand battement à la seconde in relevé...is pure visual poetry. With their faces lifted to the sun and their bodies literally rising above their gritty reality, this image perfectly captures the aspirational spirit that is the essence of West Side Story's "Somewhere." 


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021