West Side Story at 51

Pop Theology is back and getting better than ever. I still have a few aesthetic and technical wrinkles to iron out (specifically finally getting some images up), but other than that, I hope you enjoy the new layout. The first post since the reconstruction is a great review of a recent screening of West Side Story by new, hopefully frequent, Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay. Check out his bio in the contributors page.

Taking advantage of one of the best arts venues in San Francisco, I recently went to the Castro Theatre to see West Side Story. The Castro is a movie palace that has never closed. It retains the same opulence it possessed at its 1922 opening, with muse mosaics on either side of the stage, and a stunning art deco chandelier hanging from the ceiling. (It is the only American venue for which I would accede to an English spelling of “Theatre.”) As it probably did 88 years ago, an organist plays the Mighty Wurlitzer before shows, always closing with “San Francisco, Open your Golden Gate!” and a curtain rises before every screening. Its programming remains a barometer of its surrounding urban culture, not only in its presentation of the post-digital explosion of independent filmmaking from around the world, but in its ongoing screenings of musicals, film noir, and camp classics beloved by gay San Francisco. Gay people, particularly men, have been visiting this theater for decades finding solace in the nurturing Hollywood fantasy world of its vast cinematic opulence.

West Side Story as film is holding up as well, although perhaps in need of some refurbishment and modern amenities. The theatre promoted the weekend showing as a “new print” of the film, although it lacked some of the shockingly rich Technicolor of screenings of The Wizard of Oz and Vertigo witnessed at the theatre in the last year, and there were sound problems throughout. The presentation of musicals on film, both in their creators’ artistic choices and the quality of prints and projection are essential to contemporary devotees of classic Broadway theater. For viewers not lucky enough to have lived in 1940’s and 50’s New York City, the filmed versions of Broadway classics are the musicals. The original productions shined for a bright moment on stage, then went dark, living only in the memories of the lucky few that saw them live. Therefore this essay may swing between the seemingly separate, but historically connected, events of the 1957 original Broadway production of West Side Story and the 1961 film.

The musical continues its brash claim as the most modern version of the Romeo and Juliet story. But of course “modern” no longer means “up-to-date.” One can sense in the musical and the film the nuclear anxiety of the Cold War and the mid-20th Century shock of existential angst. Walter Kerr’s day-after debut 1957 review of the Broadway production famously began with the line, “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” Writer of the original script for the play, Arthur Laurents, claims in 2009 he will be directing a long-overdue revival in which he has “…come up with a way of doing it that will make it absolutely contemporary without changing a word or a note.” My guess is this will be difficult for a gifted writer and theater yeoman in his eighties.

The problem with making a musical or a film topical is how quickly the seemingly intractable problems of the age evolve into new, more complicated problems. It’s amazing how out-of-date even the early-90’s Rent seems today, with its bohemian Gen-Xers and equation of AIDS with Fin de Siecle 19th Century consumption. Likewise, it’s hard to see West Side Story squeezed into the gentrifying West 50’s of Manhattan, a neighborhood cleared of its slums and taken over by the likes of Lincoln Center and Julliard.

The same goes for the gangs of the Story. Layers upon layers of immigrants have followed the Polish, Italians, Jews, and Puerto Ricans of the mid-20th Century, such that we find ourselves watching a conflict between what are now well-established ethnic groups that have long since ceded their ghetto turf and moved into the American middle class. To some extent, these divisive ethnic differences have been blurred through interracial romances like the one that was so shocking to the characters in the film. Fortunately, the Tonys and Marias of the world did not heed Anita’s advice to “Stick to your own kind.” Otherwise, a lot of little Nueva Yorqueños of mixed heritage would not be filling the parks and schools of Manhattan.

There are still conflicts over immigration today, but it’s more likely to take place on the borders of Texas and California than such gentrified grounds as Hell’s Kitchen and Clinton in Manhattan. It’s hard to see gangs of vicious Broadway dancers mixing it up to the nativist rantings of Representative Tom Tancredo. (But just for the record, I think the dancers could kick his ass.) Gang violence still exits, but much of it takes place within ethnic groups rather than between them, and the fear around youth gangs has evolved from the 1950’s obsession over “juvenile delinquency,” to juvenile homicide and even juvenile terrorism. Indeed, it seems a little quaint when Tony tries to broker a “fair fight” between the Sharks and the Jets, one that uses fists rather than pipes, chains, and knives. (You mean they hadn’t figured out how to make a bomb?) The gangs seem truly shocked when one of them gets shot.

Distance also allows perspective on the artistic achievements of the film and the musical. The film offers an expansion of the theater production, such that many sequences are shot on-location, with Manhattan as the background set. In an age where computer animation has opened broader vistas on screen, the more exciting revelation would be how the spare set design of a theater production could produce the same feeling of city life. What holds up from the film is the visionary editing, in which rapid-fire takes of actors and gestures cross-cut each other and produce a seamless ensemble.

Bernstein’s score and Sondheim’s lyrics are still beautiful and unforgettable. One wishes the two had continued their artistic collaboration and produced something unthinkable in the musicals of the 1970’s – Sondheim lyrics with a singable melody. Bernstein’s love songs are sweet and rich with rhythm and harmony. And the dance number “America” continues to be the show-stopping corker and brilliant satire it was 50 years ago. I will refrain from the overused Latina adjective for Rita Moreno (fiery) and just say it was the one number the audience applauded for out loud even in the movie theater.

Perhaps the most musically adventurous number is “Cool.” Music students since the 1950’s have learned difficult intervals like the augmented 4th from humming this West Side Story tune. But the scene, at least in the film, doesn’t hold up as well. Perhaps it’s too full of 50’s slang and hipster ethos. “Go man go…but not like a yo-yo schoolboy.” Writers of the day talked about how the scene captured the seething, boiling repressed rage of youth. Perhaps we would like to return to an era where youth repressed its rage just a little.

The dance numbers choreographed and directed for the screen by Jerome Robinson continue to pulse with tribal violence. If you didn’t know they hadn’t yet invented computer animation in 1961, you wouldn’t believe the athleticism of the dancers as they swing from pipes and skitter over fences in time to the music. Although granted, the conceit of gang members settling their scores with choreography has been parodied many times in the last 51 years, history has hailed the choreographer as the true American innovator of West Side Story‘s creative quartet of Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, and Robinson.

As Sondheim once stated about West Side Story, its chief achievements were not social, but theatrical – redefining what dance, music, and theater would be for the next century. Bernstein wrote in 1956 in his journal of the development of the play, that the musical had “to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and ‘just dancing,’ abstract and representational. Avoid being ‘messagy.’ The line is there, but it’s very fine, and sometimes takes a lot of peering around to discern it.” What is awe-inspiring about the production is how often this fine balance between realism and abstraction was achieved. What is frustrating about the movie is how often the representational medium of film crosses the line, spelling out what should only be inferred.

Reviews from the era were characteristically chauvinistic, saying, in the 1957 Time review of the play, “‘America’ shows the triumph of the spirit over the obstacles often faced by immigrants.” Viewing the film from the luxury box of our post-feminist, post-colonial perspective, Anita, the Puerto Rican character with the most spirit, does no so much “triumph” over these obstacles as become weighed down and jaded by them. But then, having a brother stabbed in a street fight and nearly being raped by a gang will do that to a person.

Much speculation has been spent on how much the immigrant experience played a role in this production created by four Jewish men. Bernstein’s journals record that the initial scenario for the musical centered on the conflict between Christians and Jews around the Easter/Passover holiday. Maybe it’s the distance of time, but I can’t help thinking this would have produced a somewhat pyhrric drama. And a vastly different musical…”Oy, oy, crazy boy…”

Yet the social conflicts the musical and film anticipated simmer just below the surface, as they prefigure the public struggles of queerness in New York City that burst out of the urban closet just eight years after the film’s release. Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of the film describes Richard Beymer’s performance of Tony as, “a little thin and pretty-pretty.” What he’s really saying is that Beymer’s Tony is less likely to marry Maria on the West Side than move in with Mark in the West Village. There is also a tomboy character that wants to be a member of the Jets and bears all the marks of a budding butch. She goes by the name “Anybodys.” As in, “She could be ‘anybody’s’ girlfriend, girl or boy.” Or, “Her gender is ‘anybody’s’ guess.” At one point, Anybodys refers to one of the baby-faced boys as “jailbait,” suggesting he would be jail-baiting someone in that big, bohemian city of the 1950’s – possibly the four gay male creators.

Perhaps the common social undercurrent unchanged since the 1950’s is the damage caused by youth undirected. As recent experience demonstrates, the adolescent arms race is hardly a problem to be found exclusively in the teeming cities. In the cases of Columbine and Virginia Tech, suburban middle class kids, left to their own psychoses, have been more than capable of wreaking destruction on their communities. This lends the lie to the modernist idea that what drives youth in the ghettos to violence is primarily geographical malaise, and given enough green grass and fresh air, they would naturally turn out as well-adjusted adults. West Side Story troubles the assumptions of social engineers in “Officer Krupke,” a song that critiques easy conclusions about social decay based on religious, social, psychoanalytical, or penal approaches. What the song and the musical are really saying is there are no easy answers to youth violence. What we have learned since the ’57 play and ’61 film is that there are no easy answers to youth violence. This conclusion is, at least, still germane.

As writer Martha Gelhorn wrote to Bernstein, describing her reaction to the play, “What now baffles me is that all the reviews, and everyone who has seen the show, have not talked of this and this only: the mirror held up to nature, and what nature…The music and the dancing, the plan, the allegory of the story do that; but nature is there, in strength; and surely this musical tragedy is a warning.” Perhaps her observation is right. Perhaps there is something in nature that, left to itself, can lead human beings in the most civilized societies to destruction and violence. What saves us from a truly devastating revelation watching West Side Story is the temporary promise of young love, the vitality of dance executed with soulful perfection, and those beautiful, tragic, haunting songs.