Can you stand yet another longish essay about my memories of seeing West Side Story on a great big, wide movie screen, in a real movie theatre, with the lights down low and sharing the experience with tons of other people, whether one knows them or not, especially since I still have memories of this special screening that I'm getting ready to write about? Well...whatever! Here goes:
It was mid-summer of 2001, roughly a month before the fateful 9/11 attacks on the WTC Towers and the Pentagon--early August, to be exact. I'd just arrived home from an eye-dilation exam, had received something about the upcoming 40th-year Anniversary West Side Story (film) event, and, since the pupils of my eyes were still dilated from the exam, I couldn't read the ad very well. Some old friends of mine, who'd formerly lived in Boston, but moved down to NYC a number of years before and knew that West Side Story was/is my all time favorite movie, called me up to tell me about the upcoming special 40th-year Anniversary screening of the film West Side Story, at NYC's renowned Radio City Music Hall, on Saturday night, October 6th, and to ask me if I wanted them to get some tickets. I immediately jumped at the chance, and instinctively said yes to their getting the tickets. I was all excited about not only seeing my all time favorite movie on a great big, wide movie screen at Radio City Music Hall, but seeing old friends and relatives, to boot. After a little bit of a snafu, the tickets were obtained, and everything worked out, beautifully.
The year 2001 had been a particularly strange and sad year for me and my family, generally. My dad had passed away from a long illness (He'd been sick for a year and a half, to be exact.), and the special event, a temporary change of scenery, and seeing old friends and relatives in addition to a great classic film gave me a badly-needed lift.
Saturday, October 6th, was the big day! I'd left my pet Noble Macaw, McGee (who's no longer on this earth, but in Bird Heaven as of 3 years ago last February!), under the care of some very nice neighbors, and drove down to the Big Apple for the special event and to see friends and relatives. Leaving Boston shortly before seven that morning, I headed down for NYC, and saw my cousin and her husband (who'd graciously let me stay in their Upper West Side condominium for that evening after the movie while they went upstate that weekend.). We hung around for afew hours after I arrived, walking around in Ft. Tryon Park, which is a cool park, near the funky melting-pot neighborhood where my cousin and her husband reside. Then they went upstate that afternoon. Later, I took a taxi down to where my friends were, met them at their Riverside Drive apartment building, and we took a bus to Radio City Music Hall. We were all given minimal searches, but it was no big sweat.
After some rather long-winded introductory speeches by members of the West Side Story cast, as well as Robert Wise, the director of West Side Story and some other important people, the movie started. Shown on a great big, wide movie screen in a real movie theatre with the lights down low, West Side Story seems to take on a magical, almost 3-dimensional quality to it. The brilliant Bernstein musical score seems more intense, the scenery seems more expansive, and one can see all of everything. The richly-colored costumes and photography and cinematography seem even more brilliant. From the warring Jets and Sharks to the romancing Tony and Maria, the various characters in West Side Story seem to move much more freely and fluidly, and in a much wider, more open space. Even Richard Beymer's Tony (who I've always thought of as somewhat weak and lacklustre as Tony) comes off as being much more vital and alive when West Side Story is shown on a great big wide movie screen. The various scenes/songs of WSS also take on a new intensity and brilliance when West Side Story is shown on a great big wide screen. The beautifully-choreographed dancing by (the late) Jerome Robbins also seems much more alive, intense, beautiful and brilliant.
Due to my intense love for West Side Story, I admit that I have a tough time selecting favorite scenes/songs/characters, but I will add that certain songs such as "America", "Dance at the Gym", "Cool", the "Prologue/Jet Song", the pre-Rumble Quintet and even the Rumble itself, as well as the "Officer Krupke" scene, are all pillar songs that contribute great to what West Side Story really is.
Despite Richard Beymer's weakness as Tony (which was partly due to directorial constraints put on Beymer from Robert Wise, much to Richard Beymer's disappointment. He would've liked to have played a Tony with a little more of an "edge" to him, but Robert Wise was into making Tony into a reformed gang leader (He was the founder/leader of the Jets), so he wanted Tony to be softer and more tender, if one gets the drift.) Beymer was offset by a really great and strong cast. Tucker Smith was fantastic as the handsome, calm, cool and collected Ice, while Elliot Feld played the youngest and most immature of the Jets (Baby-John) was equally fantastic. So was David Winters as Baby-John's buddy, A-Rab, who was kind of weasly, in his own way. Russ Tamblyn was also excellent as the exuberant (if somewhat arrogant and cocky), acrobatic, and intelligent Riff, as was George Chakaris as Bernardo, the leader of the newly-arrived Puerto Rican Shark gang leader. Rita Moreno was equally fantastic as Bernardo's firebrand of a girlfriend, Anita. Natalie Wood did okay as Maria, and Simon Oakland was also great as the bigoted, bitter Lt. Schrank, who clearly didn't like the Jets, much less the Sharks. Tony Mordente was fantastic as Action, the most fiery-tempered, aggressive member of the Jets, and Susan Oakes, who played the tomboy and Jets wannabe, Anybodys, was also quite impressive. All of the above having been said, all of the characters were good, including the bubbly-spirited Shark and Jets girls.
John Astin was fantastic as "Glad Hand", the Social worker, who'd organized the Dance at the Gym, and Ned Glass was also great as the philosophical, kindly "Doc", who owned the Candy Store, and tried, basically to no avail, to help turn both gangs away from war and to peace. Jose De Vegas was also fabulous as Chino, who was also a Shark gang member, and Bernardo's right-hand man. All of the cast from both sides in West Side Story were excellent.
New York City's renowned Radio City Music Hall was packed with an exuberant, friendly crowd, and there was much finger-snapping and applause from the audience. It was wonderful that less than a month after the fateful 9/11 attacks on United States soil, that five or six thousand people could get together for such a wonderfully spectacular and fabulous evening.
Although my friends who'd arranged for us to see West Side Story down at NYC's Radio City Music Hall passed away afew years ago, I still have fond memories, not only of a special event, but of these remarkable friends who I'd had close connections with for a number of years prior to this special event. Again, it had been a sweet weekend, and I drove home, relishing the greatness of it all, as well as the much-needed lift that it had given me, after a hard, strange and sad year.
Another thing that I will add is that whenever I see the film West Side Story, it always feels as if I'm seeing it for the very first time. Moreover, I always notice certain things about this movie that I failed to notice during the last viewing of it. Nobody, including me knows why that is, but the feelings are there. The fact that I drove down to the Big Apple again, five years later, at the same time, only to take in the film West Side Story with my cousin, a first-grade teacher who lives in Manhattan and teaches in the Bronx, is also indicative of how West Side Story has a powerful hold on people's imaginations, including mine. We took in the screening this time at NYC's Clearview Ziegfeld Movie theatre, which had a long, narrow screen, as opposed to the somewhat shorter, taller screen at Radio City Music Hall. My cousin and I both enjoyed West Side Story immensely, and, although it wasn't sold out that night, it was well-attended.
I've seen a number of WSS screenings since, I never get tired of seeing this great, golden oldie but keeper of a classic film, and I look forward to seeing West Side Story again, this time, at Boston's Symphony Hall, in mid-February.