25th 07 - 2016 | 9 comments »

West Side Story (1961)

Directors: Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The United States is a young country with an old history. Rising to the highest heights of power in the blink of an eye through rapid expansion across a broad land rich in natural resources, achieving unity more than 100 year before the much more ancient Europe even made a start at it, and now prematurely gray as it struggles to adapt to a global economy and a shattered self-image, the American story has been a tough one to tell. The mirrors held up to Americans have often been fractured and one-dimensional, and perhaps with the exception of the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn, no work of art has broken through as a wide-ranging reflection not only of who we want to be, but also of who we really are. So it may be a bold declaration to make, but if I had to pick the one work that has been and will continue to be the greatest telling of the Great American Story, it would be West Side Story.

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The enduring legacy of West Side Story could not have been predicted based on its reception when it premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1957. It garnered generally good reviews and had a respectable initial run of 732 performances, but that was nowhere near the 2,717 performances of My Fair Lady during the same Broadway season. Its hold on the imaginations of an international audience would not be secured until it was in a form that could be disseminated widely. When the film, codirected by its theatrical director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, came out in 1961, it was a smash hit, earning the equivalent of $300 million in today’s dollars in the United States alone and winning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. The huge audience for the film has made WSS a perennial favorite of school, amateur, and professional theatrical companies the world over. What is it that has attracted so many admirers across time and continents to this musical?

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The extremely high standard of the classical/popular score spanning styles from mambo to opera, the tight choreography that comes from life itself, and the sarcastic/tragic lyrics that offer not platitudes, but truth, place West Side Story in a class by itself. However, WSS’s power does not come from its technical virtuosity alone. Riding on the timeless popularity of tragic love as rendered by William Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet while delivering that play’s crucial message about the costs of hate, West Side Story also poses a direct challenge to the complacent belief in the American Dream and the elusive principle for which it stands, “liberty and justice for all,” through the most American narrative of all—immigration. Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—all members of despised and persecuted groups in American society—crafted a coming-of-age tale for America itself and those who would lose themselves in its myth through its focus on adolescents struggling to mature and find a place for themselves in the world.

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Some people may be familiar with WSS’s original working title, “East Side Story,” as the musical was first conceived by Robbins in 1948 as a tale of rival Jewish and Irish-Catholic gangs on New York’s Lower East Side. However, it would take eight years for the embryonic idea to come to fruition, during which time the team would jettison their outdated conflict for an updated approach that would reflect the sharp rise in Latino gang violence in America’s big cities. The creative team centered the rivalry among the children of poor European immigrants precariously established in New York City and those from the American territory of Puerto Rico arriving during “The Great Migration” of the 1950s. As Sondheim’s lyrics to “America” ironically suggest (“Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America”), the members of the Sharks might have an earlier claim to being American than do the teens who make up the Jets. This conflict already distinguishes WSS from Shakespeare’s blood feud of two aristocratic families as a pointedly American concern.

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Laurents, who was brought in to write the book based on the strength of his treatment of anti-Semitism in the play Home of the Brave, quickly took to the new focus. Robbins made exploratory trips to Spanish Harlem to study the dance styles of Puerto Rican youths, and Bernstein’s love of Latin rhythms fed his creativity as the men continued to work on an array of projects before they were free to turn all of their attention to their theatrical masterpiece. When Bernstein realized that he would be unable to write lyrics for WSS while under pressure to compose Candide (interestingly, another musical that tracks, albeit satirically, with WSS’s themes of true love and striving for success in an Enlightenment version of the American Dream), up-and-comer Stephen Sondheim was contacted and persuaded to join the team despite his misgivings about this “step down” from composer to lyricist.

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The film version of West Side Story features a magnetic cast of dancers and actors, with George Chakiris and Rita Moreno as standouts. Natalie Wood was put in the unfortunate position of being an Anglo playing a Latina and disliking costar Richard Beymer, the man she was supposed to be passionately in love with, but her professionalism (if not her dismal Puerto Rican accent) carried the day. All of the singing was dubbed, with veteran singing double Marni Nixon taking on Maria’s songs and Jimmy Bryant taking on Beymer’s. This is understandable considering the difficulties of the Bernstein score and does not, in my opinion, detract from the overall effect. The film takes few liberties with the stage version, with the notable and welcome exception of moving the panicked “Cool” from before the fateful rumble between the Jets and the Sharks to just after it, thus bumping the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” to an earlier, more appropriate location after the first encounter the Jets have with the cops. In addition, Wise opens up the otherwise soundstage-bound film by shooting the opening “Prologue” on location in New York, thus creating a mise en scène of the contested turf that lingers in the audience’s mind as the rest of the film progresses.

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Robbins, comfortable with stage choreography, manages to combine the best of both worlds throughout the film. He opens up his choreography in the “Prologue” to illustrate the Jets’ exuberant dominance of their turf. The ultimate gesture of cool—finger snapping—begins the “Prologue,” as the Jets survey their domain. Robbins moves them wordlessly from playground, to street, to basketball court in a combination of random, everyday movements by individual Jets that build to a coordinated dance. Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) whoops happily as some children run past on the street and leaps joyfully with his gang, only to run immediately into Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris). Bernardo handles their taunts, only to strike an obviously symbolic red stripe on a wall with his fist. Robbins dances Bernardo and two Sharks down a narrow gangway, snapping their fingers in a show of their own cool as they run over the word “JETS” painted on the street. Small gestures again build, only this time aggressively, and the “Prologue” ends in an all-out brawl. Camera cuts, overhead shots, close-ups of smug and resentful looks form a dance of their own, one the dancers assault by running directly at the camera lens, forcing it to cut away. Robbins may have been a novice filmmaker, but his dancer’s understanding of space and how a frame can open and choke it is second only to Gene Kelly’s.

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Against the sense of belonging gang life provides to kids whose untethered home lives are mentioned in passing (“Gee, Officer Krupke”: “Dear kindly Judge, your Honor/My parents treat me rough/With all their marijuana/They won’t give me a puff./They didn’t wanna have me/But somehow I was had.”), the possibility of a real connection between Bernardo’s sister Maria (Wood) and former Jets leader Tony (Beymer) is hopelessly fragile. Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight during “The Dance at the Gym”; in an otherwise statically shot dance sequence (Wise, left on his own when Robbins was fired during the shoot, conservatively follows Fred Astaire’s philosophy of full-frontal framing), the lyric “I saw you and the world fell away” from the enthralling love song “Tonight” is produced visually, as all but the lovers fade into a white haze.

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Another superb sequence is “Cool,” in which the Jets struggle to regain their composure after the murders of Riff and Bernardo. The song and dance take place in a dark, low-ceilinged parking garage to mirror the very dark turn of the plot and how trapped the gang is. First, Ice (Tucker Smith), a new character added to fill in for Riff as the Jets’ leader once the song had been moved, sings in barely covered shock at the harm they have just witnessed about how the Jets need to keep cool “‘Cause, man, you got/Some high times ahead/Take it slow and Daddy-o/You can live it up and die in bed!” The gang struggles to contain their emotions, doing a parody of the polite dancing they engaged in earlier at the community dance where Maria and Tony met. Finally, the gang moves in crouched unison like a soft crab hiding in its hard shell, their solidarity reinforced, their desire for vengeance deferred but not defused. Belonging is more important than living, and so the cycle of violence is doomed to repeat itself.

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One of the great challenges for Robbins and his terrific crew of dancers was to hit their beats to the multiple time signatures contained in Leonard Bernstein’s majestic symphonic score. Moreno, who played Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, said that dance coordinator Betty Walberg had to count the beats out loud for the dancers as the music played. Since I’m no music expert, I will quote from Misha Berson’s valuable book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination about some of the hallmarks of the score:

1) The frequent use of minor chords

2) Melodies that don’t neatly resolve but hang suspended

3) Fingers snaps and claps, as prominent percussion elements

4) Driving rhythms from a trove of percussion instruments (including trap drums, xylophone and vibraphone, timbales, and bongos)

5) Cross-rhythms that overlap two signatures to create a sense of agitation and unease

6) Swiftly cascading and ascending string lines

7) Jazzy bursts of brass and winds

8) Latin accents

In addition, many music scholars have commented on Bernstein’s use of tritones—playing a key note followed by a note three whole tones away from the key note—which is an important method of introducing dissonance in Western harmony. Berson comments that during the Middle Ages, tritones were considered diabolus in musica (“devil in music”) for being hard to sing in tune. While many people consider “Maria” one of the most beautiful songs in the score, it is sobering to realize that its first two notes form a tritone; considering that Maria’s admonishment to Tony to stop the rumble ends in the deaths of her brother, Tony’s best friend, and Tony himself, she certainly does seem to have done the devil’s work, however unwittingly.

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Bernstein’s operatic elements are my favorite parts of the score. Anita and Maria’s duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is a cry of anguish, one for a lost love, the other for a love she is helpless to deny. Anita’s minor-key “A boy like that wants one thing only/And when he’s done he’ll leave you lonely/He’ll murder your love/he murdered mine” counterpoints with Maria’s “I hear your words/And in my head/I know they’re smart/But my heart, Anita/But my heart/Knows they’re wrong.” Reminiscent of Mozart’s operatic quartets, the “Tonight Quintet” offers musical variations on “Tonight” with lyrics that cleverly interweave the word “tonight” with the expectations of each party—the Sharks and Jets getting ready to rumble, Anita dolling herself up for a post-rumble tumble with Bernardo, and Maria and Tony planning for an endless future.

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Again and again, the songs and characters of West Side Story communicate the need to belong. “The Jets Song” affirms “You’re never alone/You’re never disconnected” when you’re a Jet. The Shark boys and girls are torn between their longing for their first-class status in Puerto Rico and their newfound opportunities in “America.” The girls assert “Here you are free and you have pride,” to which the boys respond “Long as you stay on your own side.” “Life is alright in America/If you’re all white in America.” Maria and Tony, caught in the ethnic divide, find their sense of place in each other, which they affirm in the moving “Somewhere,” a place that is destroyed when Tony is gunned down by Maria’s formerly gentle suitor Chino (Jose De Vega). And a very interesting character nicknamed Anybodys (Susan Oakes) exemplifies a different kind of exclusion; dressing and acting like a boy, she rejects her sexual identity and is, in turn, rejected by the Jets. But she refuses to go away or give up on being a part of the action.

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In the end, when violence has claimed three lives and ruined Maria’s, Anita’s, and Chino’s hopes and prospects, the creators of West Side Story decided that shame would bring the Sharks and Jets together to carry Tony’s lifeless body away. This note of hope may seem unrealistic. But it does recall another American Dream, one elucidated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that, in fits and starts, has started to come true. Perhaps West Side Story helped Americans find a new and more worthwhile image for a more mature and realizable Great American Story.


21st 10 - 2013 | 4 comments »

CIFF 2013: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013)

Director: Chiemi Karasawa

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

To paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, if you know who Elaine Stritch is, no explanation is necessary; if you don’t know who she is, no explanation is possible. Even if we had a documentary that went through her life in meticulous detail—which this film doesn’t come anywhere near to doing—a woman who belongs to the glorious age of the Broadway musical is a figure whose celebrity took place long ago, out of view of most of the world. That she made numerous films and television shows, most recently as Alec Baldwin’s mother in “30 Rock,” does not dim the glow that adheres to Elaine Stritch because of when her life in the theatre took place, and only those of us who follow musical theatre really understand why this documentary needed to be made.

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Or so I thought. Whether or not she intended to, Chiemi Karasawa filmed a much different, much more valuable film than the one I thought I was going to see. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an appropriate title for this documentary about the 88-year-old Broadway legend because while we are aware that Stritch needs the attention of a film crew like a fish needs water, we are brought uncomfortably close to the tail end of a life, one now filled with infirmity. If Stritch were a horse, we might find it kinder to put her down. That she bravely reveals all of her pain and struggle, both physical and psychological, makes this an unforgettable and necessary document, as well as a roadmap for taking our leave from this world.

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I wish to emphasize that Stritch is still with us, and in fact, attended the sold-out showing of Shoot Me. (UPDATE: Elaine Stritch died July 17, 2014, at the age of 89.) She’s halt of gait, forgetful, and very hard of hearing, but her performer’s instincts and wit are as sharp as ever. Her performance at the AMC Theatre 11 was loaded with zingers, her characteristic profanity, and a teary appreciation for the love we lavished on her, a love whose pursuit propelled her to stardom.

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Karasawa films Stritch as she gets ready for a cabaret show at New York’s Café Carlyle with her long-time accompanist Rob Bowman. She sports the Judy Garland look of black tights and a long men’s shirt during rehearsals, in performance, and in fact, most of the time. One of her intimates says Elaine just won’t wear pants! She is very thin, so the effect is rather worrying, particularly when she goes through her dance routine.

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She has a lot of trouble remembering her lyrics, a problem compounded by diabetes. When Rob suggests she check her blood sugar, she reacts with a violent “NO,” but soon relents. On seeing the number, she dispatches Rob to get her some orange juice immediately, and he jumps. She was always a volatile, self-critical performer, which we see in a vintage clip of her recording the cast album for “Company” with a displeased Stephen Sondheim listening to an unsuccessful take. Now, her volatile blood sugar makes her more unpredictable than ever. Add to that her decision to climb off the wagon after what she says is nearly a quarter-century of sobriety, and the health horrors multiply.

Stritch’s decision to start drinking again is very telling. She feels that at her age, she has earned the right to do what she wants, but the real impetus behind it is her fear of death. Despite the fact that alcohol could conceivably kill her, she feels calm and safe after she has taken a drink, and we don’t really believe her when she says she allows herself only one drink a day. As though to confirm our suspicions, she orders an old fashioned and then shows that she carries a tot of Bombay gin in her purse at all times. Perhaps we’d do the same if the reaper were so near at hand.

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One scene shows her going out of town to appear at an anniversary celebration for an 80-year-old theatre—younger than she—and celebrating when the show is canceled because of an approaching hurricane. She says she wasn’t feeling well anyway. Cut abruptly to news that Stritch is in the hospital, a cruel echo of an earlier scene from “30 Rock” showing her in a hospital bed. We don’t know why she’s there, but she looks frail sleeping under sedation, and when she wakes up, she says she can feel death around her, that it’s her time. A devout Catholic whose uncle was Cardinal Samuel Stritch, archbishop of Chicago, she hopes there isn’t nothing when she dies; “I wouldn’t like that,” she says as though she should be able to have the afterlife she wants, but then with a real uncertainty.

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We see the world start to pay her homage, with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting wanting to name a rehearsal room after her, but having to offer her three rooms before she finds one that is sufficiently small. Her assistant has been helping her choose photos from her collection to hang in the school, and we see her photographed with her beloved husband, actor John Bay, who died when Stritch was in her 50s after they had been married only 10 years. Her abiding love for him extends to her preference for the product of his family business, Bay’s English muffins, a staple in my home and found only in Chicago. When her regular delivery of the product arrives, she wants the cameraman to watch her open the carton and follow her out to the back porch to throw away the packaging. It’s a truly dotty request, but she who must be obeyed gets her way.

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We get very little from her past—a few musical clips, photos of her when she was at the height of her beauty, clips from her Emmy Award-winning program “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty” and her acceptance speech in which she brings down the house by saying she’s glad that she won and the other nominees lost. Stritch’s honesty makes her the ideal person to reveal the ravages of old age as well as the vitality that many of us don’t believe the elderly have. Stritch will not be pushed off stage until she’s ready to go.

That she does, when she moves out of her long-time home in The Carlyle Hotel and into a condo just outside her native Detroit. Many of us go home to roost when our time is near. Gradually, not entirely gracefully, but with gusto, Elaine Stritch is walking her path to an eternity beyond the footlights.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me has no more showings, but the film has been picked up by Sundance Selects for distribution and cable airing. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Shakespeare and More – A Conversation with Harry Lennix: The actor talks about his new film, H4, Othello, his new production company, and more.

The Don Juans: Veteran director Jirí Menzel brings his gleeful sensuality to bear on this story of two Don Juans working together to produce Mozart’s Don Giovanni and finding out about their failings as men. (Czech Republic)

The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)

Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)

H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


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