Thursday, June 30, 2011

Apropos of nothing much, I'm musing about WEST SIDE STORY, the movie.

I was practising 'embedding' a video in my post and I sort of got carried away. But then the whole copy and paste thing didn't work for me, so I'll just include links like I've always done. My daughter says there are tutorials. Okay. When I'm in a tutorial mood, I'll watch a tutorial.

I first saw WEST SIDE STORY in a fancy movie  theater in Times Square a million years ago - well, okay in 1961. At that time you could reserve tickets (same as now I suppose) though I can't remember how that worked. I think we picked them up at the box office. Anyway, we all felt very grown up going to what was publicized as a Big Deal Opening of a Big Deal Motion Picture. Those were the days when going to a movie in Times Square and NOT seeing a Double Feature, was a really, REALLY BIG DEAL (To quote Ed Sullivan.) Plus the whole idea that movies were now costing way more than 25 cents to see, was kind of mind-boggling.

But, time passes: One of my biggest disappointments was watching WEST SIDE STORY years later and seeing how badly it had aged. Oh, not the music, Leonard Bernstein was too much of a genuis for that. But his genius didn't extend to saving a saggy, old fashioned, painfully dated screenplay. The dancing is still glorious of course so when I watch it I just fast forward to the dancing and ignore the rest of this schmaltzy re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. (Though I hear the B'way revivals still work. Maybe it's just a viewing it 'live' kind of thing.) I wish I could have seen the recent revival in which the Puerto Rican gang members and their girlfriends spoke the dialogue in Spanish.

Anyway, the things that still work for me are:

1) The film's multi-colored overture.

Listen to it here:

2) The closing credits by Saul Bass - those chalk graffitti scribbles were genius - pure genius.

3) Rita Moreno. She is timeless.

4) George Chakiris. Not exactly Puerto Rican, but because he was SO incredibly good looking and such a magnificent dancer, he is forgiven anything.

Both got Oscars that year, both deserved them.

5) The superb music by Bernstein and dance numbers by Jerome Robbins.

I mean, you watch this 'America' routine and you absolutely have to smile. Still.

I chose this number because we're coming up on Fourth of July and while not exactly appropriate, I thought - why not?

American Dance Number.

Okay, now for the ugly part: The two main things that don't work, didn't work and never WILL WORK for me:

Richard Beymer as Tony. Never, never, NEVER in a million years will I understand this casting decision. It isn't even as if he were a great dancer or great singer or whatnot. AND HE HAD NO SCREEN PRESENCE!!! He was a klutz!

I'm hyperventilating.

Take deep breaths, Yvette.

Natalie Wood as Maria. Oh well, at least she was beautiful. But.What? They couldn't find a beautiful enough singer? (Marni Nixon did the voice dubbing.) A beautiful enough Latin singer would have been asking for the moon, I know.

Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence originated the parts on Broadway - would it have been too much of a leap to have them play the parts onscreen?

Obviously I still have some unresolved issues with this movie. HA!

Now watch the great Saul Bass end credits. Was this man a visual genius or what?


  1. Faults, yes. But it is still so glorious! Although I must say that my kids think the dancing is absolutely ridiculous--and these are kids who have grown up watching me watching movie musicals. They roll on the ground laughing, Yvette! Isn't there some kind of prison sentence for such blasphemy?!

  2. My sister and I listened to the record hundreds of times. The music is still in my head.

    Years later I saw the movie. I liked the singing and dancing. That's what I remember, not the actors or acting.

    Rita Moreno is amazing. I saw her on tv a few weeks ago. She's now on a new tv show. She is 79 and looks like she's in her 50s and I'm sure could stand up and dance and kick and do whatever anyone much younger could do.

    I would hope that if the movie or play were done today that Latina and Latino actors, singers and dancers would be performing.

  3. Had to be my favorite movie as a kid and also my favorite soundtrack. Have yet to see performed live. It may have been the first record I bought myself.

  4. This is a new view for me--I teach Romeo & Juliet, so sometimes this is the version we watch. Everything you write is true, but all I ever remember is how gracefully Shakespeare's imagery and metaphors work into the music and dialogue. I am getting chills thinking about "Maria" and the stars and moons all over the place. The story and the poetry transcends the acting (and lack thereof) or rooftop dancing and Greek puerto rican gang members for me. The story works again in Baz Luhrmann's version too with Leo diCaprio. Sigh. I guess I had better rent some more cheesy musicals!

  5. Lisa: Oh, blasphemy for sure, HA! Kids - what do they know?

    I do love the dance numbers, especially the AMERICA one since it is so relevant, even today, of certain racial attitudes. And yet it's done in such a high-spirited fun manner. :)

  6. Kathy: I'm not really saying that only Latins can play Latins. I would hope that the BEST performers would always play the roles. But everyone pertinent should be considered.

    After all, Carol Lawrence was not, far as I know, Latin and yet for me, she will always be Maria.

    Just as Larry Kert will always be Tony.

    It would have been nice if two actors who could actually sing and dance had been chosen for the leads is all I'm saying at the moment. :)

  7. Patti: I so wish I'd had a chance to see this live originally when it first played on B'way. But, for whatever reason I never did.

    I still have my old little music tape version of the original show and play it often.

  8. A personal favorite of mine for many reasons. One of the first musicals I ever performed in when I was in my 20s. And one I've seen on stage numerous times. The most recent revival on Broadway was done as a bilingual drama. It was Arthur Laurents last directing for the satge. He seemed to live forever! The Puerto Ricans I think sang a few songs in Spanish. Some worked, some didn't.

    I always remember the scene with Ned Glass as Doc ("You kids make this world lousy.") which when I first saw it as a teen made me laugh. A combination of the old fashioned lingo and the resigned old man view of youth. Now that I'm decades older I can't help but think so much of West Side Story is sadly timeless. Who would've thought that gangs would be the menace they are 50 years later?

  9. Healigan: I'm not out to ruin your view, for sure. God forbid. :)

    And, I loved George Chakiris in the role, he really was quite good and deserved the Oscar. Not to mention, Rita Moreno who I adore.

    I was just really voicing some of my long-held thoughts about a movie that I believe should have/could have been better. Even if what we got was okay enough at the time.

    And again, I loved the dancing and the 'arc' of the storyline.
    But I must admit that I never sit trough this film anymore.

    Except for the bits I mentioned.

    Monumental casting mistakes always did intrigue me.

    But I suppose for someone seeing this for the first time in a classroom discussing the ROMEO AND JULIET aspects, it would be seen from a totally different perspective.

  10. John: Were you in the Broadway show? No, you're too young. But what version were you in? Wow. That's some wonderful memory to have.

    Again, I am wishing I had seen Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence in the original which played in NYC when I was at an age that I could have/should have gone to see it.

    Mistakes of my youth. :)

    Yes, who would have ever thought that gangs would be as prevalent today as then? Worse, really.

    Growing up in NYC as a kid, on the lower east side, there were always areas or neighborhoods you stayed away from unless you were walking in a group - and even then you had to be careful. My own neighborhood was very clearly defined. But we took it all in stride. It was just the way things were.

    The setting of ROMEO AND JULIET in this sort of culture was, of course, an inspired idea. No question.

  11. Rita Moreno was upset that her singing was redubbed by a non-Puertoriquena who used an exaggeration of a Mexican accent for the songs.

    Have to agree about Tony.

    One of the best jazz albums of my youth (and still...of course, it was released before I was born, but I first heard it in my youth) has been the Brubeck Quartet/New York Symphony Orchestra BRUBECK PLAYS BERNSTEIN PLAYS BRUBECK, which I have on vinyl under its reissue title WEST SIDE STORY AND OTHER WORKS...the quartet tracks are particularly an excellent showcase for Paul Desmond's lyricism, even without Sondheim's lyrics...

  12. Apparently, Todd, to non-Latins the accents all sound alike.
    (I'm making a frowny face.)

    Yeah, the casting of Tony was a disaster. Look at him in the school dance sequence, he can barely move in any attractive loose-limbed way. He's like a barrel with legs. I exagerate, but Jeez.

    I'm not familiar with this album, Todd. I'll have to see if I can find it online to listen to. It sounds like it would be a wonderful thing.

    Bernstein and Brubeck: perfect together. Why haven't I ever heard of this?

    Paul Desmond's lyricism - unequalled, unexcelled.

  13. Yvette, you may already know this, but Richard Beymer hated his performance as Tony - he said when he attended the premiere he wanted to crawl under his seat. I always felt bad for him. He did some good scenes, but just was not believable as a gang member, even one who went straight.

    Nobody would ever accept it today, but it is strange how common it was to take big stars and just dub their voices. Very strange technique! Marnie Nixon made a whole career out of it, singing for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady as well, and there were others I can't remember.

    Despite these things, I absolutely adore WSS. I too saw it at the theatre when it came out. I must have been 9 or 10, and fell in love with all of it. The fantastic dancers, the music, Russ Tamblyn as the best Riff there could ever be, George Chakiris (Wow), just everything. The Rumble still upsets me and amazes me with the incredible acting and choreography.

    Hope you don't mind a long comment -- I just love WSS. Did you ever see or hear The Making Of event when Bernstein hired real singers to do the music? That is something you've got to hear, or see the documentary if you can.

  14. Becky: I love long comments! Especially since I usually tend to run long myelf. Ha! Love it.

    That's kind of sad about Richard Beymer. I suppose he couldn't have turned the role down if he thought he was so wrong for it - I mean, would you? Would I? It was at the very beginning of his career wasn't it? Not that it helped him much. He really didn't have much of one.

    For me it was that he had no spring in his step. No ease of movement. Very telling on the big screen.

    Yeah, Marni Nixon. Somebody had to do it. It might just as well have been her. :)

    But the whole idea stinks.

    Russ Tamblyn was always a bit too stagey for me, but he was wonderful in the fight scene AND of course, he was a world class dancer.

    There are many things I still like about the movie, but I don't love it as much as I did once upon a time.

    I've never seen the docu, you mention, Becky. I'm curious.

  15. Yes, Beymer was pretty new, and probably thrilled to get the chance -- such a shame.

    Oh Yvette, you HAVE to see the Making Of with Bernstein. He wanted to hear his songs done by trained singers, mostly opera, since they had always been sung by actors who had to be able to act, dance and sing -- he felt that although they were wonderful, he just wanted to know what opera-type singers would do. It is on CD, since it is made mostly to hear.

    BUT, lucky for us, film-makers made a documentary of the studio performances, rehearsing and finished product. Fascinating. Particularly between Bernstein and Jose Carreras, singing as Tony. It was like watching the old bull and the young bull. Carreras has the Portugese accent, and really that doesn't fit for Tony, but my God his voice!! Unbelievable.

    He and Bernstein locked horns more than once. When they were rehearsing Maria, they really butted heads. It's pretty funny. I couldn't give you the whole thing, but I'm going to try to give you the link from Youtube of the final version of Maria. Carreras is not only gorgeous, but he hits a note in the middle of the song that you will feel from your head to your toes.

    Let me know what you think!

  16. Just watched it, Becky. Beautiful. I think I must have seen this at some point over the years, the whole thing looks vaguely familiar. But it was wonderful to see this part again. I can't blame Bernstein for wanting to have this singers only version. What a genius.

    I also watched the 'Tonight' sequence with all the singers together. I love Dame Kiri!

    I'm going to link it to my Facebook page.

  17. It is wonderful, isn't it? This morning's exchange about our articles has been a lot of fun! I'm off to a 4th of July cookout (probably an inside one with the weather looking so bad!). Hope you have a great day!

  18. You too, kiddo! Hope the weather cooperates! Have a good one. :)

  19. By the way, Yvette, I've been trying to leave a message about your delightful post about WEST SIDE STORY, but for some reason, the "Comments" button won't cooperate. Speaking of WEST SIDE STORY (Shameless Plug Alert), check out Team Bartilucci's James Garner Double-Feature post tomorrow; my half is about MARLOWE, co-starring the ever-awesome multi-award winner Rita Moreno! (End Shameless Plug Alert. :-))

  20. Dorian: Sorry about that, Miss B. I have the thing set up so after a certain amount of days, I have to approve.

    But here you are at last. :)

    Shameless Plug Alerts are okay with me. Ha! I've indulged in a few of them myself. I'll be sure and check out your new post.

    I have a long ago factoid about Rita Morena to share. (Although you may already know it.)


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