It won everything 50 years ago. Does it still weave a spell?
by Matt Wolf
When West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards, that was back in a Hollywood era during which movie musicals regularly garnered such acclaim. Gigi, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver! all bookended the 1961 film adaptation of the landmark Broadway show when it came to copping the Best Picture Oscar; indeed, songs from the musicals that became films were part of the Hit Parade of that particular time to a degree that is unthinkable nowadays - though the popularity of TV phenomena such as Glee has done much to push the (comparative) marginalia of Broadway back toward the mainstream.
West Side Story is remembered for the fizz and crackle and sheer electricity of an extraordinary collaboration that was preserved on screen: the synergy between Leonard Bernstein (composer), a then comparative fledgling by the name of Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and a director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins, who received an honorary Oscar for his celluloid achievement despite not staying the course of the shoot; in the best let’s-get-rid-of-Broadway-as-fast-as-pos
The gathering popularity of the film’s score allowed Sondheim access to a global public that he wouldn’t command in quite that way again, at least not until “Send in the Clowns” became the standard it remains to this day – even if the film of the show that contains it, A Little Night Music, is nowadays barely remembered, except by Elizabeth Taylor completists.
What fascinates especially about West Side Story is the regard in which it continues to be held by the public despite brickbats thrown in its direction by its very creators. “I cleaned up and I didn’t even like the movie,” wrote the show’s ever-candid book writer Arthur Laurents on the occasion of a film that generated a hit machine for its celebrated score that had not been the case when the material was confined to the stage. Sondheim, for his part, has on numerous occasions dissed his contributions, arguing, for instance, in the song “I Feel Pretty” that the lyrics (“it’s alarming/ How charming I feel” and so on) don’t necessarily mesh with the streetwise lingo of Maria, a young Puerto Rican making her tragically amorous way on the mean streets of Manhattan’s West Side in the 1950s.
Not that such cavils matter to audiences swept up by the synchronised allure of those Robbins dances that seem to slice their way through the treacherous terrain of the title, and by a cast that included Natalie Wood as Maria and Oscar-winners George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, the latter re-emerging 30-plus years later as one of the parade of Norma Desmonds to grace Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard during its London run at the Adelphi Theatre. Moreno never quite lived down the sound-alike quality of her name that was shared with the theatrical spitfire Chita Rivera, who originated the role of Anita on Broadway and in the West End, the subsequent satiric entertainment, Forbidden Broadway, making much-vaunted hay out of potential Chita/Rita confusion on both sides of the Atlantic.
There remain commentators who think the film looks and sounds too clean – too manicured and sanitised given its substance, an issue that prompted Laurents for the stage show’s most recent Broadway revival in 2009 to rough up the material by authenticating it in linguistic terms, making sure that Spanish was part of the landscape of what is in effect a tale of street warfare stylised into the stuff of musical theatre ecstasy. (In the Heights Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda was brought in to do specific translations of some of the lyrics, as approved, of course, by Sondheim.)
But no amount of fiddling can greatly affect the primal, questing power of a tale sourced, of course, in Shakespeare but given furious shape by one of those alchemical comminglings of talent in which Broadway specialised during the 1950s, in particular. That the film translated that talent to a public the world over in a way few movie musicals have managed of late is just one reason why we mark its 50th birthday this year: nowadays, it seems, Hollywood all too often has to apologise for its interest in the genre from which West Side Story emerged as a bellwether of sorts. But in the heyday of people singing on screen and dancing, too, the film musical was – as the Sondheim song title so neatly puts it – “cool”.