Excellent footage and interviews not always put to good use
by David Benedict
The last time BBC TV headed over to West Side Story, it landed itself with a contradiction. Christopher Swann’s 1985 fly-on-the-wall documentary The Making of West Side Story – about Leonard Bernstein recording his celebrated score with a cast of opera singers – bagged the prestigious Prix Italia, but the actual material was a wildly unidiomatic misfire. The reverse was true of BBC2’s Boxing Day special West Side Stories – The Making Of A Classic. The material – archive and newly filmed – that producer/director Ursula Macfarlane had acquired was often first-rate: what she did with it was somewhat frustrating.
If you wanted to hear the original creators talking about their groundbreaking show, this was most definitely the place. We heard the voices of both the late director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, who had the idea of transplanting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into youth gangs of New York, and screenwriter Arthur Laurents, who wrote the “book” (ie the dramatic spine formed of the story and dialogue). And co-presenter Suzy Klein talked in person to both the original producer, Hal Prince, and the show’s lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, who looked back drily on joining the team in 1955 as the 25-year-old “kid” making his professional debut.
The latter’s memories in particular were pungent, including Bernstein vanishing from rehearsals to head to a bar rather than face a confrontation with the famously testy Robbins.
And Carol Lawrence was illuminating about the dramatic process as she described her final audition for the show – her thirteenth – in which she and Larry Kert landed the lead roles of Maria and Tony. Best of all were the observations of Leonard Bernstein’s elder daughter Jamie. Avoiding the generalisations elsewhere in the script, she homed in on the nuts and bolts of the piece’s creation and was the closest the programme got to responding fully to Klein’s initial voice-over position: “I want to find out how this jewel of a show … came together.”
Part of the problem was Macfarlane’s attempt to be all things to all audiences. She intercut archive material with everything from kids in tight close-up intoning Shakespeare’s prologue to the play, to a screening of the movie version to now elderly former real-life gang members, to conductor Gareth Valentine working on performances of some of the score with a cast of highly able young singers, thereby underlining the fact that the show opened in 1957 with a cast of unknowns. As a sop to TV dance audiences in both the UK and the US, she hired Strictly and Dancing with the Stars judge Bruno Tonioli as Klein’s co-presenter. But although he did point to the way dance is woven into the storyline like dialogue, one of the show’s defining characteristics, elsewhere he mostly gushed to little effect. It was depressing to have him meet the original Anita, Chita Rivera – “Oh my God, it’s Broadway royalty!” – only for him to get so little out of her.
Few of these elements were explored in sufficient depth. Important though the gang-warfare is to West Side Story, too much time was devoted to it. The musical has endured not because of its subject matter, but because of the rare collaboration of a creative team who found a way of taking dark material and driving it forward via characters in properly active situations whose drama is presented through compelling song and dance.
At the end of the programme, Jamie Bernstein wondered: “Was my father a realist or an optimist?” To answer her question, she proceeded to analyse the drawn-out tension of the score’s pain-filled final bars. It was as intriguing as it was revealing of the show’s superb synthesis of music and drama. More of that and the programme could have been as winning as the work it celebrated.
•David Benedict's authorised biography of Stephen Sondheim will be published by Random House and Pan Macmillan in 2019