“West Side Story” is the safe musical, the one grasped easily enough by young (but not too young) audiences that it’s become one of the de facto introductions to theater. Of course, it helps when your source material is Shakespeare, your music is Bernstein/Sondheim and your legacy is ten Oscars. Now that the mega-successful 1961 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical has turned 50 and seen fit to unleash a 3-disc Blu-Ray special edition, I wanted to revisit the film itself to see how much of its finger-snapping razzle dazzle still has the power to wow.
My middle school band played a medley of its songs during one of our recitals, and it was one of the go-to movies for music teachers who didn’t feel like wrangling unruly neighborhood toughs into producing semi-melodic sounds. Which is a roundabout way of saying I saw the movie a lot as a teenager, through no fault of my own.
What do I take away from “West Side Story” when I watch it now? Of course, there’s the wordless opening ballet (there’s no other word for it) between the Sharks and the Jets, a technically astounding yet unabashedly silly Broadwayized interpretation of street toughs. I relish the devious social satire of “America” (with lyrics made more incendiary for the film version), thought-provoking for 1961 and still relevant today. And of course the infectious playfulness and wordplay of “Gee, Officer Krupke” is hard to resist.
But even though I’ve outgrown my twitchy middle school phase, I still believe the Tony/Maria scenes are hopelessly stagnant, derailing the film’s energy every time the two of them croon a static ballad while standing in place. And ironically, this is only true because of the pains taken by co-director/choreographer Jerome Robbins (so obsessed with the dance sequences that he was fired for going over budget and behind schedule) to make every other scene in the film pop with unrelenting physical energy.
This is the simple truth of “West Side Story,” made clearer in hindsight: The spectacle isn’t window dressing for the central love story. It’s the other way around. And for a film based on Romeo And Juliet, hinging so much on romance, this is a problem.
Film critic Pauline Kael, who was endearingly snobbish in a revolutionary way during her heyday at The New Yorker, penned a scathing review of “West Side Story” upon its release that’s included in a new collection of hers, The Age Of Movies. Reading her piece now side-by-side with the exuberant praises of The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther as though the film just came out last week as a 2011 Oscar contender is exhilarating, in a way.
Each critic’s stance is absolutely cartoonish; while Crowther breathlessly decrees that the film’s messages of tolerance “should be heard by thoughtful people — sympathetic people — all over the land,” Kael snarls at the movie’s “stale exuberance” and the choreography “trying so hard to be great it isn’t even good.” At one point Kael becomes a futurist: “In a few decades, the dances in ‘West Side Story’ will look as much like hilariously limited, dated period pieces as Busby Berkeley.”
Is she right? Well, yes… the dances here do look silly. That’s the effect of age on a once-hip film (I can’t wait to see what future generations will think of “You Got Served”). But the fact that the numbers are dated shouldn’t make them any less impressive. And to the legion of audiences who learned how to feel pretty or cool, it’s tempting to dismiss Kael’s put-downs with a simple “Krup You.” When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.
The acting is wooden, with the exception of Oscar winner Rita Moreno as Anita, the only character with a truly resonant emotional arc. The depiction of Puerto Ricans is as inauthentic as you’d expect from an early-60s Hollywood production with a whitewashed cast. The message is hokey and fuzzy. And yet, there’s still an irresistable charm about “West Side Story,” something that even a half-century of age can’t erase. The Sharks and the Jets dance for territory, they dance for domination, but mostly they dance because they can.
As Anita might say, smoke on your pipe and put that in.
“West Side Story” 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray
Written by Ernest Lehman, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and William Shakespeare
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Original 1961 movie trailer