|by Rafael Ruiz
June 20, 2004
"When you're a Jet,.." You know the rest of the line.
This may be the most influential musical of the last 50 years. The sheer cultural impact of the original 1957 Broadway musical has been diluted over time, but this was the career zenith of multiple Broadway legends Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins. They had triumphs before and after this show, but none would equal that of West Side Story
. The show was not really a success when it first came out. It took the 1961 movie (co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise) and the following financial and critical successes (biggest hit of 1961, winner of 10 Oscars) to cement the musical's status as a classic and a revival favorite.
It's a New York Ghetto and two gangs fight to hold their turf; the Italian "Jets" and the Puerto Rican "Sharks". Coming into this escalating conflict, former Jet bruiser Tony falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of the Shark's leader. The now old idea of turning Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
into a modern day gang warfare story was novel at the time as it gave Bernstein the opportunity to combine Jazz, Latin music and boisterous Gerswhin-esque melodies. With this show Bernstein would give a promising young lyricist and composer named Stephen Sondheim his first job writing the tricky, clever lyrics. The final key was Robbins' dynamically raw and violent choreography that expressed the inner pain these street kids suffered and their desire to break free of their ghetto lives.
All of these elements translated perfectly to the big screen. The movie version of the show required surprisingly few translations to the screen. The showstopper "America" added Bernardo and the Sharks into the number while the positioning of numbers "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "Cool" were switched; a perfect choice that seem so obvious you wonder why it wasn't structured that way in the first place.
In the standard but controversial practice at the time, the lead actors were all dubbed by professional singers. The singers are all uniformly fantastic. Dubbing legend Marni Nixon (of The King and I
and My Fair Lady
) sung for Natalie Wood. Nixon and Jim Bryant (as Tony) are soulful as the star crossed lovers, more so than Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Yes, blasphemy, I know. Like all versions of West Side Story
(or Romeo and Juliet
), the most fun is in the side characters. Betty Wand (voicing Rita Moreno as Anita) steals the show. Wand owns the show's most vibrant number ("America") and the show's most dramatic ("A Boy Like That / I Have a Love"). A fact I never knew all these years, Tucker Smith not only sang Russ Tamblyn's Riff but also performed and sang Ice, the Jets' first officer (a role created for the movie). He swaggers in both roles through the most fun numbers ("Jet Song", "Gee Officer Krupke", "Cool").
This show would be Bernstein's pinnacle after such wonderful shows as On the Town
. As film music by itself, it is dynamic both it its range and power. The Jets are represented with a Bebop jazz beat accompanied by snapping fingers ("Prologue", "Jet Song", "Cool") while the Sharks have a Latin street rhythms ("America"). When they literally clash ("Dance at the Gym") the two genres butt up against each other as equal but opposing forces. In contrast to the "anger" of the gangs, the music of the lovers is gentle and hopeful and comprises three of the best love songs ever ("Maria", "Tonight", "Somewhere"). "Tonight" in particular is filled with the perfect idealism that only a teenager can have. In "Quintet", Bernstein takes "Tonight"
and splits the theme up between the Jets, the Sharks, Tony, Maria and Anita as they declare their goals for "tonight". The ominous power of the piece is the conflict of the cocky staccato rhythms of the gangs, the sexy purr of Anita and the legato dreams of the lovers. The five sections play individually at first then overlap in an Operatic Quintet. This was an almost revolutionary tactic for musical theatre that would become an intermission standard on Broadway.
Sondheim's lyrical genius was to cleverly hide sharp social commentary into the tart dialogue. Sondheim and Laurent created fake slang for the teens that wouldn't be of any particular period. One can easily miss that the Jets are jokingly discussing drug addiction, cross-dressing and child abuse in "Officer Krupke", When that number ends with "Krupke You!" it is obvious they are actually saying a much harsher word that "Krupke." Sondheim himself would move on to such classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
, A Little Night Music
and Into The Woods.
And as a fan of his, I recommend anyone with a love for musical to check out his music, especially the Bernard Herrmann inspired Sweeney Todd
As a nice bonus, this release includes four previously unreleased tracks ("The Overture", "Intermission", "Finale" and "End Credits"). This album has dialogue from the movie overlapping in the interstitial sections of the number. In recreating the film experience, it is accurate, but it may irritate some fans. There have been a lot of concept albums and re-recordings of the show and the best release for me is still the Columbia Broadway Masterworks re-mastering of the original stage show. What that version had over this album was eight symphonic dance tracks of Bernstein's music without vocals (performed by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bernstein himself). If this album contained those tracks, then this would be the ultimate release. I guess listeners will have to settle for is a really damn good one.