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[December 27th, 2008] - It's always hard to predict these things, but the current engagement of West Side Story at the Music Box may be your last chance to see it in 70mm, the format in which it was created. If you love film, you should try not to miss it. It runs only through Thursday, January 1st.
It's impossible to fully recreate the original impression created by a sensational work of art. We read the stories of the riot that broke out at the premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, but the separation of time divorces us from re-experiencing the full visceral impact of that event.
Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story was just such a sensation, one that demarcated the turning point of the 20th Century. Written at the crest of the Eisenhower fifties, with its overlay of "normalcy" in the clean suburban homes and the deceptive whitebread wholesomeness of the post-war boom, West Side Story, violent, raw and tragic, presaged the coming of the darker, splintering, disintegrating time to come.
Although it was all but ignored by the Tony awards in favor of the exquisitely crafted - and far safer - The Music Man, West Side Story was a vanguard smash, staking a new cutting edge for American culture. I remember, as a little kid tagging along with my parents for a visit to the home of a friend of my mom's, the excitement with which the husband brought out the original cast album my folks just had to hear. I listened from the daughter's room, to which we had been banished after her dad knowingly cautioned my parent's about the sometimes racy lyrics.
West Side Story cribs on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but it's a long way from Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. The Capulets and the Montagu's become rival white and Puerto Rican street gangs. Friar Laurence runs a grungy drug store. The Prince struggling to impose order is a racist cop. "Fair Verona" becomes the slums of Manhattan, and the balcony scene is played out on an alley fire escape.
West Side Story was exhibited in a "road show" release, itself a lost art. Instead of being dumped into thousands of theaters for a quick weekend draining of the box office, a film would open in less than a hundred venues, each an exclusive run at a luxurious downtown theatre, complete with a huge screen and stereophonic sound. Almost surreally, the schedule was similar to that for a live play. All seats were reserved. You bought a ticket for a specific seat. There were usually ten performances a week, nightly at 8:00, and afternoons at 2:00 Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, going to twice day during holiday weeks. Tickets were priced at a premium over other first-run theatres.
The result was to elevate viewing a film from an interchangeable commodity to a special occasion. When the picture was a turkey - as was increasingly the case as the road show was deployed to market productions whose most distinctive characteristic was their leaden bloat - acute disappointment was the result, but when the picture actually lived up to the hype, the effect was magical, creating an audience whose attention and investment in the work they were viewing was heightened and enhanced.
Watching the opening of West Side Story on a big screen, you get a palpable sense of the excitement audiences must have felt in 1961. All roadshows - even non-musicals - began with an overture, played to a closed curtain. Since the main speakers were behind the screen, this had the effect of muffling the music, so co-director Robert Wise mandated - (imagine any director having the power to do this today!) that the curtain be opened for the overture, and the lighting be kept to 75% to indicate that the film had not yet begun.
He called on the great designer Saul Bass to come up with the image projected during the overture, a pixellated pattern of broken black vertical lines fanning out in decreasing density from the center of the screen, set against a solid background that changes color as Bernstein's melodies change, until, at the end, the lines shift slightly upward to make way for the fade in of the only text in the sequence, in large block letters . . .
And to the eerie sound of whistled gang signals, the camera begins to zoom in on the drama's locale, the tenements of Manhattan's west side, already being demolished for what would eventually become Lincoln Center. The developers had agreed to maintain some of the facades for the production, but as the shoot dragged on, the filmmakers struggled to maintain a visual sense of solidity for a neighborhood that was disappearing even as they were filming in it.
But they succeeded. Co-director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who also directed and choreographed the Broadway original, created, in the prologue, one of the most stunning sequences in film, as the members of the two gangs move through the streets, alleys and playgrounds of the neighborhood they fight to control. There's a dizzying array of angles, a huge number of shots, but it all plays out as seamless. Regular movement takes on the grace of dance and dancing itself coils like a spring within the gang members, an energy suppressed by the gritty surroundings. It comes through initially only in small bursts, withdrawn in an instant, until it can be held in no longer and open ups with cathartic force. The tension between the palpably real city street setting and young gang toughs breaking into full balletic splendor, and the mastery with which Robbins modulates and plays it out, is the key to this sequence's power.
After this, the film moves to sound stage recreations. They're beautifully realized, but unlike the originals, they're soft at the edges to mask the artifice, and although later scenes still pack a wallop, something is lost. Nothing else in the picture attains the full raw heft of the prologue.
The prologue was Robbins' baby. The deal was that he would direct all the musical sequences, with veteran film-maker Wise on hand to advise. The situation would be reversed for the dialogue sequences. However, Robbins was a obsessive perfectionist. Although there had been months of rehearsals before filming began, he continued to revise his choreography even as the cameras rolled. Reshoots galore. The actors playing the gang members developed shin-splits from dancing on the hard concrete. Robbins struggled to keep the film from falling into the kind of Hollywood overproduction that could suck the life out of a movie.
In her biography of Robbins, Deborah Jowitt quotes a letter he wrote to Leonard Bernstein about moving the setting of the Cool Boy number to the interior of a garage. "My garage idea is a good one but true to Hollywood standards turns out to be a super garage and I seem to be spending most of my energy in pushing walls closer to each other, washing colors out of the sets, and acting like a sheep dog in trying to keep the script in a nice well-directed herd aimed for the success it was in New York. . . . My they're getting tired of me."
Yes they were. Robbins' had pushed the picture behind schedule and above budget, on its way to an eventual $2,5000,000 overage. The film would turn out to be a global box office smash - when it was sold to television, the price, $5 million, was double the cost of the over-run - but at the time, who could know?
After only about 40% of the scenes were shot, Robbins was removed as director, and Wise finished the picture. Although West Side Story would go on to win ten Oscars, a record for a musical, today it has to be seen as a flawed work. While the supporting players gave knock-out performances - Rita Moreno and George Chikaris both won oscars (and Jet's leader Russ Tamblyn, Amber's dad, as menacing and charming as Cagney and an incredibly acrobatic dancer, deserved one), the leads were a different story.
Natalie Wood, of Russian extraction, was cast as Maria, the story's Puerto Rican Juliet, and she's not bad, but she's hampered by what was reported to be a less than sympathetic relationship with her Romeo, Richard Beymer as Tony. He, also, is not bad - he may be even prettier than Wood - but something's missing. It probably didn't help that neither Wood or Beymer did their own singing. Wood was dubbed by Marni Nixon, the ubiquitous vocal talent who also did the singing for Deborah Kerr's Anna in the King and I and Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
The lack of chemistry between the two principals creates something of a black hole at what should be the emotional and dramatic heart of West Side Story. Things like the balcony scene, which should be the romantic climax of the film, are curiously unaffecting, playing out more as a gloss of a scene than the scene itself.
I can't say it doesn't matter, but the best scenes of the film make up for it, especially the spectacular dance at the gym, which Robbins did not direct but had fully planned out and had helped reshape in the editing to more clearly depict the hostile competition between the Sharks and Jets. Like the music behind it, Bernstein's riotous Mambo, it's got a wild explosive energy that in Robbins' brilliant choreography courses through the bodies of the dancers with the force of a hurricane. It bursts through the screen and envelopes the audience in the sheer sensual, animalistic joy of being alive.
And then there's the final scene, played out, except for a new snatches of reprise, completely without song. (Perhaps Bernstein learned his lesson from his scoring of On the Waterfront, where the music, wonderful on its own, is ladled onto the story so liberally that it's often jarringly intrusive.) It may also have helped that, in the end, Wood no longer has to act against Beymer, who becomes (spoiler alert) a corpse.
Bernstein hands the scene over to Arthur Laurents, author of the musical's book, who creates a tight, dramatic and expressive climax. After thinking him dead, Maria sees Tony behind the fence of the playground and runs to him, only to see him shot by Chino, avenging Tony's accidental killing of Maria's brother. As Tony dies in Maria's arms on the cold concrete, the Jets and Sharks, standing across from each, look on in stunned horror.
In Laurent's book, death doesn't neatly end the story. Maria, his Juliet, lives, heartbroken. A souvenir of troubled boys playing out the murderous games of their parents, she's left an enduring, tortured wound. Some of the Jets move to pick up Tony's body. One of his legs flails out. A Shark reaches out to catch it. Others come forward, and together the Jets and Sharks slowly carry out Tony's body, Maria following. Only Lt. Schrank and Chino remain, and then they, too, file out. All is silence, except, softly, the last notes of Somewhere, quietly tolling like a mournful bell.
Part of the power of West Side Story is that it begins right after the overture. The usual opening credits are omitted; we go straight to the story. The credits come only at the end. In another great Saul Bass design, they're superimposed - and in the style of - the graffiti sprayed on the walls of the tenements. You watch the succession of names pass by, and it's a moving curtain call for some of greatest icons of American theatre and film, all gone except for Walter Mirisch and Arthur Laurent, who earlier this year, age 89, directed a smash Broadway revival with Patti LuPone of another of his great triumphs, Gypsy. Production designer Boris Leven, cinematographer Daniel Fapp, special effects artist Linwood Dunn. Irene Sharaff. Saul Chaplin. Johnny Green. Robert Wise. Ernest Lehman. Jerome Robbins. Stephen Sondheim. Leonard Bernstein. West Side Story may be the only film where the closing credits are as moving as anything in the picture.
The Music Box Theater is at 3733 North Southport in Chicago. West Side Story plays at 2:00, 5:00 and 8:00 P.M. daily, through Thursday, January 1st.
Caution!!!! - Reader Mike Doyle reports in a comment to this article that he left a later screening at the Music Box because of repeated projector breakdowns. This still may be your last chance to see West Side Story in 70mm, but if you're going to go, you may want to call the Music Box first to make sure they'e resolved their projector problems for this run.
© 2008 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.