by Pat Cerasaro
The potential prospect of the entertainment behemoth known as GLEE taking on perhaps the finest American musical ever written - WEST SIDE STORY - is enough to make any Broadway baby near-exultant, yet when the songs of the classic Bernstein/Sondheim score then are allowed to act as all-too-apt musical commentary on risqué dramatic content in the highly controversial episode itself - all-too-appropriately named “The First Time” - a cataclysmic consequence can almost be counted on to inevitably arise. ...And, it did. Again. And again. And again - all night long. While it may have very well been Kurt, Rachel and Blaine’s first roll in the hay, it would be akin to searching for a needle in a haystack to find much - if any - fault whatsoever with GLEE’s button-pushing and excellently played tribute to Tony and Maria. Given what resulted from the doomed coupling of those Shakespeareans - Tony and Maria being more modern-day answers to Romeo and Juliet, of course - the ire of all the up-in-arms conservative helicopter parents in the country - and Capulets and Montagues, too, for that matter - could not even dare to try and contain the joy, excitement and sheer pleasure of what is undoubtedly one of GLEE’s finest hours to date. There was a message or two to be learned, too. Yes, indeed, GLEE taking on WEST SIDE STORY went all the way - and then some. So, whether you are a Jet or Shark, you must be compelled to give it up for GLEE and its ode to WEST SIDE STORY.
When Love Comes Your Way
When Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and director Jerome Robbins set out to musicalize and modernize very possibly the most classic tragic romance of all time - Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET - they knew they were playing with fire. That fire nearly led to a bomb while the show was trying out out of town and many audiences hated it - or, worse; they did not know what to make of it. Yet, thanks to the producing genius of Hal Prince and Robert Griffith, it made it out of Washington, D.C., and onto the Great White Way after all - and, many think, the rest is history. It’s not quite that simple - WEST SIDE STORY did not enter into the ether of Americana until the 1960 film version. While the 1957 premiere production lost out most of the Tony Awards to that year’s more traditional musical fare - THE MUSIC MAN being the big winner - a new firmament had undoubtedly been born on Broadway. Without question, WEST SIDE STORY defies most - if not all - of what came before, and, also, at the same time, revels in it - much the same way GLEE does for us in the 21st century. WEST SIDE STORY takes a tried and true trope and maximizes certain aspects and moments for greater dramatic effect as a means to bring a new insight into the tale being told and, perhaps, make the message - and a new one or two - matter once more. No other entertainment entity today can claim to do that more than GLEE does, especially in evidence in its many, many genre-bending, mold-breaking and history-making musical moments. More than fifty years after its inception, WEST SIDE STORY still packs an emotional punch and its violence and gritty depiction of street life is still as bristling and biting as it was when the show premiered. While perhaps paying a bit too much attention to the sounds of today at times - Season 2 was positively overflowing with covers of current hits with much less focus on standards and theatre songs than in Season 1 - GLEE will undoubtedly go down as a classic in its own time that also ignited a passion in musical theatre for a new entire generation that had mostly become blasé about the form - just as many would say the same of the smash hit soundtrack of WEST SIDE STORY did for a generation of baby boomers. The merging and harmonious marriage of the score, story and physical show itself made that possible and the superlative film allowed its unlimited exposure to a worldwide audience. There is no better example of the best Broadway can be than WEST SIDE STORY and there is no finer example of the form of television than GLEE.
Furthermore, the soundtrack album of WEST SIDE STORY stood atop the Billboard charts for over a year - yes, a year at the top of the charts. Success of that sort does not come along often - nor does the national even international embrace of a musical theatre-related entertainment entity. Yet, in 1961, WEST SIDE STORY took home 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and the GLEE roars into its third - and, so far, strongest - season. Sense any similarities? I thought so - but, hold on, they don’t stop there. No, it goes further. Much, much further - actually, to be exact: all the way.
No, we do not have to imagine an album staying atop the charts and virtually reinventing how an entire generation sees music in a dramatic context and how that music informs, reflects and depicts said society itself - GLEE has done it. I point you to the nearly 100 songs that have placed on the charts since the premiere of the show, as well as the simple fact that GLEE’s soundtrack has sold more singles than any other soundtrack - if any proof whatsoever was even needed for proffering in a column celebrating the many virtues of this impossibly impressive drama/comedy/musical masterwork. Additionally, it probably does not hurt that each week provides the opportunity for a whole new song-stack, too, but, records being what they are, there the record-breaker is. So, to say that GLEE taking on the songs from WEST SIDE STORY is a risky move for all involved - the show itself, as well as the cast and creators - reveals only the very tip of the slippery slope of the steep iceberg “The First Time” climbed and conquered - because it could have sunk faster than the Titanic had it faltered in any way. Yet, once again, GLEE pulled it off - and that’s not all it managed to do.
“The First Time” is actually the umpteenth episode of GLEE to feature songs from WEST SIDE STORY, but being that this was veritably the season’s tribute episode to a classic show - much as last year’s ROCKY HORROR SHOW special Halloween tribute was for Season 2 - the songs took on an even greater meaning and had even more impact than they ever have had before outside of the actual dramatically rife context of the show itself. Previously on the show, in Season 2, Dianna Agron and Lea Michele duetted on a mash-up of TLC’s “Unpretty” and Maria’s “I Feel Pretty”, and, just this season, we have been treated to three more WEST SIDE STORY standards - “Cool”, “Somewhere” and “Something’s Coming”. Harry Shum, Jr. received his very first chance to sing and dance solo on GLEE with his ultra-hip and hip-swinging “Cool” on the uniformly strong “Asian F” - complete with a 2011 take on the cherishEd Jerome Robbins choreography - and, of course, Lea Michele and Tony-winner Idina Menzel duetted once more as mother and daughter on the hopeful-yet-foreboding anthem “Somewhere”; yet, the piece de resistance resides with the biggest breakout gleek of all - Darren Criss and his stunner of a “Something’s Coming”. That track actually had its exclusive world premiere a few short weeks ago in this very column and a gleek or Broadway baby could not have asked for a better entrée into the world of WEST SIDE STORY by way of GLEE than that simply sensational iteration of the show’s tense, tight and thrilling opening vocal number. So, how did the songs in “The First Time” stack up against those previous four WEST SIDE STORY cuts? While none quite topped the titanic vocals of Criss on “Something’s Coming”, all of last night’s numbers shone blazingly bright and were brilliantly placed for ultimate dramatic pay-off - in more ways than merely one or two, too. Criss and Michele essayed Tony and Maria in McKinley High’s production of WEST SIDE STORY and therefore sang the two notable duets nearly everyone knows - “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” - to exhilarating effect; and, so, too, did Michele and Naya Rivera score with their thundering and dramatically rich take on “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love”. Yes, Rivera proved to be an ideal Anita and sunk her teeth into the meaty role, revealing her considerable dramatic and musical chops.
The Tony/Maria duets are some of the most beloved in all of musical theatre and Criss and Michele are the absolute ideal embodiment of what Tony and Maria could and should be today - even on an episode of a TV show where they merely sing some of the songs sometimes out of context and perform some of the scenes. They make it happen - and made it magic. All three - Criss, Michele and Rivera - made and maintained their characters wholeness, realness and vitality over the course of the entire running time of the show - and that is reason enough to applaud their efforts. That they all managed to create full-bodied portrayals of the characters and also contribute seriously strong vocals of the treacherously, deceptively difficult Bernstein/Sondheim score is the proverbial Berry on top. These recordings of the incomparable WEST SIDE STORY songs are something to be treasured long after the episode has aired - and, even, long after GLEE eventually leaves the air (though let us hope that is many, many years - maybe decades - from now).
As for the rest of it - what’s to complain about? There was nothing here that was edgier than many things we have seen before - certainly on this show, and, most certainly on Fox. So, what’s the big deal? Perhaps it was just great publicity. Whatever it is - I hope it got people to tune in, because “The First Time” was undoubtedly one of the best first exposures to the wild, wacky and wonderful - sometimes even wondrous - world of GLEE. Oh, yeah - “Uptown Girl” was good, too. Unquestionably, WEST SIDE STORY won the night and made us look again at what it means to be a theatre-loving American in 2011 - for a fee or for free. Either way - it's worth it.