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Mar. 15th, 2016

The secret life of the American musical : how Broadway shows are built by Jack Viertel.

p. 164- 166

For many shows, the question of where to drop the curtain must have been difficult to answer. Is the anticipation harder to bear than the act itself? "What will happen?" better than "Look what just happened!"?

West Side Story used a variation of a classical technique to answer the question, the finaletto. Finaletto is a fancy opera term that refers to a piece of music that ends a scene. Often, it suggests a small cluster of reprises or intertwining songs. It doesn't end the whole show (that's the finale ultimo ). A proper finaletto may take many forms, but it often manages to convey a group of differing points of view from different characters, letting us know that there are clearly defined conflicts and differences of opinion at this point in the story. But it also, by reprising familiar melodic strains in a small bouquet, reminds us of how these people feel and what they've been through emotionally. Finaletti were de rigueur in the operettas and musicals of the '20s and '30s but were still often in use in the '60s, though you find them less often today. And the shows that used them don't have to be high minded just because the word is Italian; the first act of How to Succeed concludes with a finaletto -it's even labeled that way in the playbill. But the Tonight Quintet from West Side Story is probably the finest of them-except it doesn't end the act, and it's only partly a reprise.
...



Tony, as you may remember, has agreed to try to stop the planned rumble between the two rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. He's also fallen in love with Maria, who has begged him to try to make peace between the gangs. Meanwhile, Anita, in love with the leader of the Sharks, is looking forward to a night of post-rumble sex with her presumably victorious lover, assuming the rumble actually takes place. A lot depends upon the rumble-if Tony can't stop it from happening. And the enormity of his task is made manifest by the energy of the two gangs as they sing the Tonight Quintet using a word ("tonight") that has so far been used only in the first version of the song, where it is plaintive and filled with ardor. Now, suddenly, it is combative and dangerous. And set to music that we've not heard before. It is interrupted by Maria and Tony, singing the original Tonight melody and words, restoring the sense of romantic passion that drives the love part of this love/hate equation. And then we hear from Anita, who is singing about sex, using the angular edgy music of the Jets and the Sharks, with lyrics that far more carnal and less celestial than those Maria and Tony are singing. If Maria's love for Tony is celestial, Anita's passion for Bernardo is definitely of the earth. These five points of view combine in five voices that lay out the territory of what might happen-the sexual and romantic passions are just as potent as the hatred of the two gangs for each other. Passion raises the stakes for hatred, and vice versa. The cost of not stopping the rumble goes up exponentially as the Quintet builds to its climax. And because it feels like a classic finaletto, it's reasonable to expect that the curtain will fall on its final, percussive note, as we anticipate what this dangerous night will bring. But it doesn't.

Instead, all this propulsive energy is transferred to the site of the rumble itself, and dance takes over. In a short book scene, Tony actually brokers a compromise-a fair fight between the leaders of the two gangs-but it quickly deteriorates and, in one of Robbins's most famous theater ballets, all hell breaks loose. In ends when Bernardo, Anita's lover, stabs Riff, the leader of the Jets, and then, in what can only be described as a meta-gap, Tony kills Bernardo. Tony, who has vowed to find his way out of the world of gangs, blood sport, and racial animus, finds himself a murderer with a knife in his hand.

The geometry of this outcome is set up by the Tonight Quintet, and now we know the outcome, at least for the moment. Anita will not have a her night with Bernardo but will instead have her hatred of Tony and the Jets restoked. The gangs will remain at war. And Tony and Maria's love will be more sorely tested than either could imagine-because Bernardo is Maria's brother. The curtain falls not on anticipation but on all-but-certain tragedy.

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