West Side Story, the movies

First things first: this is officially Rita Moreno’s show.

It was her show when it was written in 1957 about her community.
It was hers when she became the only Puerto Rican in the 1961 movie cast.
Her ownership of it became supremely vivid in her performance as Anita.

She continued to assert her ownership by refusing lesser, more stereotyped roles that Hollywood offered her, and when she publicly dissed the studio for overdubbing her vocals with a fake, generic-Hispanic accent.
I’m not sure how she became the Executive Producer of the Spielberg remake, but that sure sounds like “Official Owner” to me.
And to top all that off, she again was the most riveting on-screen presence, even with a small supporting role.
Congratulations, Rita! Your world is a star tonight.

Now, about the rest of the show:
I will never forget seeing the first West Side Story movie in 1962. I was 15. I had never been in love. I had seen other movie musicals, and expected some light entertainment. Instead, I was shaken, transformed, awakened to emotions I didn’t know I could have. I came out of the theater with stars in my eyes and music rushing through my head. Which might explain why I have something of an emotional investment in this show.

The idea didn’t congeal until a few years later that I wanted to become a composer, and devote my life to great musical drama. The connection between my experience seeing the film and my later sense of mission suddenly clicked last night when, seeing Spielberg’s movie, all those emotions came rushing back. And once again, the great Sondheim/Bernstein songs have claimed their rightful place atop my hierarchy of earworms:
Little boy, you’re a man, little man, you’re a king.
— Will it be? Yes it will. Maybe just by standing still

I can’t stop the greatness of it.

Comparing the two movies? Inevitable. Jerome Robbins’ revolutionary choreography remains an inspiring template; he was a mentor to the current choreographer, Justin Peck. Outside of that, the Wise/Robbins production now looks like a Disney adaptation of a Tarantino concept. The old Jets were all-American boys who didn’t have enough adult supervision, and got a little too carried away with their natural exuberance and male-bonding. The new Jets are damaged goods, their families broken (I was imagining the PTSD of their war-weary fathers, undiagnosed at the time). They are guys I would definitely cross the street to avoid, even in groups of two or three. The cinematography is exciting, with excellent framing of both intimate moments and big crowd scenes. The acting is sold. Choice is settings is quite inspired—“Officer Krupke” in the police station! Well done, Mr. Spielberg!

There is more emphasis, it seemed to me, on the storytelling process, and some of the songs seem to shrink in contrast. What’s more, the increased vividness and realism of the sets make some of the songs seem relatively too conventional. Does that matter? No. Especially when the dancing kicks in.

Adding to the sense of realism (I learned after starting this review), all the singing and dancing was done by the actors themselves. No dubbing, no body doubles. I don’t know if it’s unprecedented, but it’s powerful.

Some important historic ironies are given excellent cameo treatment. The 1961 movie was famously shot on location, in the West Side slums that were cleared only months later to build Lincoln Center. The 2021 movie opens on a wrecking ball, looming over the neighborhood. The characters are fully aware of the impending destruction of their turf. Ironically, that makes fighting over it even more compelling. Such is human folly. (Is there a climate crisis analogy here?)

As the Jets go tearing through the neighborhood, one of them grabs a sign off an Italian restaurant. The outraged owner runs out and grabs it back—but not before we glimpse what was underneath it: an older sign, for an Irish Pub. Students of history know (as I hope most New Yorkers do) that this is actually what happened there, as new ethnic groups moved in and the established ones moved out to more affluent areas. I suppose it is still happening, in New York, as it has with this timeless theatrical masterpiece.

(Images from of ClassicFM.com)

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