Forward to the Past

Everything has an upside, even the decline that comes with aging. For example, thanks to slipping testosterone levels, I have developed an appreciation for musical theater.

Well in fairness, it’s always been there to some degree, but I no longer bother to hide it.

Anyway the girlfriend and I watched the recent remake of West Side Story over the long weekend. It’s a pay-for-play feature on Amazon Prime Video.

I am an unabashed fan of the original 1960 version, so was skeptical of the remake, an attitude sharpened by a wave of critical reviews ridiculing its alleged “woke” affectations.

Let me just jump ahead and say that it was much, much better than I had expected. Yeah there is some wokeness, as there had to be in the current political climate, but it’s the bare minimum. Speilberg doesn’t kneel before the woke god. Rather he just nods briefly in its general direction and then gets on with it.

The remake follows the original storyline pretty faithfully. One or two minor scenes from the original were removed, and a few new scenes added to provide perspective and flesh out the backstory of key characters. And score a few low-yield social justice points. Tony, a bland cipher in the original, is now an ex-con, recently released from Sing Sing after serving a sentence for a near-fatal assault on a rival gang member. Riff is revealed to have a tragic, dysfunctional background. The other Jets are sullen, surly dead-enders marking time, weighted down by generations of serial failure. Bernardo is an up and coming boxer with anger-management issues. The Sharks are preening hotheads.

The original was set in an unnamed lower-class area of Manhattan. But the new version takes place in the run-down neighborhood that is slated for destruction to make way for Lincoln Center, an actual place. The “urban renewal” project, which will displace thousands of low-income folks, is just getting underway as the film begins, and much of the action takes place amid the ruins. The tension of the impending forced removal forms an emotional backdrop throughout the production.

Without Bernstein to ride herd on the orchestra, the music bobbles just a bit. Early numbers, in particular, feel rushed, and miss the original’s nuance, with it’s skillful use of accents and rubato. No matter; it’s still the best movie score, ever, truly virtuosic and all over the place, stylistically, but in the best way possible. Propulsive, intensely chromatic, intricately polyrhythmic, passages alternate with soaring melodies and rich, intertwining vocal harmonies. “One Hand, One Heart” is achingly beautiful in both versions, as is “There’s a Place for Us.” If these don’t bring tears to your eyes, you aren’t human. The staging on the latter was novel, and risky, as it is performed by none other than 94 year-old Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original but is now cast as Doc’s widow. With the orchestra dialed back almost to a whisper, Moreno sings softly, her voice almost breaking with emotion, as the piece winds to its hopeful yet bittersweet conclusion.

The updated choreography, credited to Jerome Robbins, is fantastic. The original showed its stage-production roots, with tight, highly synchronized numbers taking place in confined spaces, on rooftops and vacant lots, that sort of thing, all captured by static camera shots. There is a balletic, formal feel to it. The new dance numbers take full advantage of the enormous set. “America,” the production’s centerpiece, sprawls energetically across entire city blocks, with the dancers dodging cars and pedestrians as they go. The camera swoops and glides expertly around, across, and right through the action. By contrast, “Be Cool Boy,” which explores the power struggle between Riff and Tony, takes place on a small space in the wreckage of a tenement, open to the sky. The dancers adroitly dodge gaping holes in the floor as they circle and feint, collide and separate, at times violently, with an audible slap I’m pretty sure was not dubbed. Danger hangs heavy in the air.

The characters’ flaws are on full display. Tony is kind of a doofus, but with a violent streak. Bernardo is a macho jerk who sponges off his girlfriend and sister. He brims with ethnic chauvinism, and hates the “gringos” on GP. Anita takes malevolent pleasure in telling a hideous lie she knows will destroy Tony. The Jets are nihilistic losers while the Sharks seethe with empty machismo and latent hostility. If this is “woke,” it’s my kind of woke.

Even at the time, the original production took heat for employing very few actual Puerto Ricans in the role of Puerto Ricans. The reason, of course, is that the producers simply couldn’t find enough of them who were qualified to fill out the rather large cast. They did try, but it just wasn’t gonna happen. But in the current hypersensitive era this is an unforgivable sin, even retroactively. So producers of the remake bent over backwards to feature a more ethnically “correct” cast, which everybody made a big deal out of. And which is either irritating or laudable, depending on your political inclination. Well in this case it didn’t hurt the production a bit. And in fairness it also added to the sense of realism. So overall a win.

On the other hand, it’s musical theater, an art form that necessarily suspends the laws of reality. So who cares?


© 2023 by Scott P. Snell

Right of reuse is freely granted with proper attribution.

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