Did you know that West Side Story was originally going to be called East Side Story? It would have been about the Catholic and Jewish street gangs in 1950s New York, and it would have been set during Easter and Passover. Somebody thought better of the idea, thank God, and the rest, as they say, is history. West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957 and was released as a movie five years later, has taken its rightful place as one of the greatest musicals of all time, a landmark in the evolution of this all-American art form. Leonard Bernstein's score and Jerome Robbins' choreography set a standard that's never been surpassed. And the subject matter - gang warfare - gave the Broadway/Hollywood musical some much-needed street cred. This was no Paint Your Wagon, no My Fair Lady.
But it wasn't exactly folk art either, from its Shakespearean pedigree to its operatic/balletic overtones. Bernstein, for all his efforts to educate the American public about classical music, was still considered something of a longhair. And Robbins, although he'd staged Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Pan and The King and I, had a jones for ballet that he'd spend the rest of his career tending to. Compared to the old song-and-dance musicals, West Side Story had the stink of high art, and audiences resisted it at first. They didn't leave humming the melodies, because they couldn't remember the melodies. And they couldn't quite go with juvenile delinquents busting moves out of Swan Lake. Only with time would West Side Story win over America with its fusion of high and low art, realism and stylization, Verona and Hell's Kitchen.
Fifty years later, it's in danger of becoming a relic. High school drama clubs still dust it off every once in a while, but you don't see many full-scale revivals, partly because the dancing's so hard to pull off. Luckily, we still have the movie, thanks to University of Wisconsin alum Walter Mirisch, whose Mirisch Pictures produced it for United Artists back in 1962. With such films as Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and In the Heat of the Night to his credit, Mirisch is that rare thing among Hollywood honchos, a class act, which is one of the reasons the UW Press has just published his memoir, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History. The UW Cinematheque is honoring him on May 2 (see sidebar), and it seemed like an appropriate time to look back at one of his greatest achievements.
Music, maestro, if you please....
Actually, West Side Story doesn't open with music per se. It opens with a whistle - a signal from one of the Jets to all the other Jets to come running. The signal is three notes long, though, the first two notes forming a perfect fourth, the second and third notes forming an augmented fourth. And it's amazing how faithfully Bernstein adheres to those intervals, the one smooth and harmonious, the other jangly and discordant, unresolved. The song "Tonight" begins with a perfect fourth. "Maria" begins with an augmented fourth. (In fact, budding musicians are taught to sing the first two notes of "Maria" to identify an augmented fourth.) Bernstein's score is so tightly integrated - organized, as it is, around that most unstable chord, the tritone - that you'd have to take it apart, like a radio, to see how it works.
After the whistle, the overture kicks in - a brassy, percussive instrumental version of the main themes. And on the screen appears a graphic drawing by the great Saul Bass, who did such memorable work with Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock. Bass knew exactly how to pare an image down to its bare essentials, and so it takes you a while to realize that those arrays of hash marks, behind which the screen morphs from yellow to red to violet to blue to green, are in fact an aerial view of Manhattan. And once the overture reaches its dramatic peak, the drawing itself morphs into an actual helicopter ride over the island in all its mid-century gleam. There's the United Nations Building. There's Yankee Stadium. And there, where Lincoln Center will soon be, is row after row of tenement buildings, the asphalt jungle.
As the camera zooms in on a school playground, we hear finger-snapping. The Jets are hanging out, killing time, waiting for something to happen. I mentioned the score's harmonic richness, but it's Bernstein's sense of rhythm that sets the music for West Side Story apart, from "Daddy-o" bebop to hot-cha-cha Latin and beyond. "As smooth and savage as a cobra" is how critic Kenneth Tynan described the score at the time. "It sounds as if Puccini and Stravinsky had gone on a roller-coaster ride into the precincts of modern jazz." And what remains so impressive, after all these years, is Bernstein's ability to adapt his modernist techniques - the jagged rhythms, the clashing harmonies - to the sights and sounds of West 68th Street. Has anyone ever gotten more meaning out of the mere snapping of fingers?
The so-called Prologue, in which the Jets and Sharks dance circles around each other - a more or less harmless game of cat-and-mouse - is one of the supreme achievements in the history of dance recorded on film. Almost no words are spoken as the gangs attempt to settle their differences through gesture and movement. And it may look like ballet, but if so, it's ballet with an extra shot or two of testosterone. Musicals had had ballets before - the "Dream Ballet" in Oklahoma!, for instance, plus all those wretched numbers that Gene Kelly cooked up for his films. But those had been, you know, ballets. Robbins' choreography was more earthy, more vernacular. He had an eye for the strut-and-pose of JD culture - the way a greaser would comb his hair. And he beautifully blended that with...well, with grand jetés.
The dancing is what drives the show in West Side Story. It furthers the plot, it develops the characters, and it embodies the theme of two cultures that can't see past their differences to their similarities. Each gang has its own characteristic style. The Jets are angular, rambunctious, athletic. The Sharks are slick, cool, elegant. Riff (Russ Tamblyn), the leader of the Jets, does back-flips when he wants to show off his physical prowess. Bernardo (George Chakiris), the leader of the Sharks, would never stoop to such a vulgar display. He's a Latin lover, a matador; and Chakiris, as graceful in his own way as Fred Astaire, all but sets the screen on fire. He's paired with Rita Moreno, who as Anita, the Puerto Rican spitfire, generates plenty of heat on her own. Both of them won Best Supporting Oscars.
Beside them, unfortunately, Tony and Maria, our star-crossed lovers, seem a little lackluster. They're gorgeous, of course, Richard Beymer looking like a young Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood looking like a young Natalie Wood. But neither of them was a trained singer (their singing was dubbed, along with everybody else's) or a trained dancer, so all that was left for them to do was emote. Beymer emotes in a vacuum, never convincing us that Tony was once the leader of the Jets, a punk with spunk. Wood comes off better, taking Maria, like Juliet before her, from impressionable girl to bereft woman, bloom to gloom. Playwright Arthur Laurents otherwise did such a wonderful job of updating Romeo and Juliet that you wish he'd been able to give Tony and Maria some of the wit and charm that Shakespeare blessed his lovebirds with.
In Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets and Montagues use wordplay and swordplay to fight their battles. In West Side Story, the Jets and Sharks use dems and doses, fists and kicks, then switchblades. But their wit is no less cutting. Just listen to "Gee, Officer Krupke," where the Jets do a complete demolition job on the kind of sociological and psychological research that was being conducted on juvenile delinquency in the '50s. ("I'm depraved on account of I'm deprived.") Laurents invented all sorts of slang, like "Cracko, jacko!" and "Chung! Chung!" And this gave the dialogue a gutter poetry all its own. But it was Stephen Sondheim's lyrics that best captured Bernstein's bite and sense of economy. "America," in which the islands of Manhattan and Puerto Rico get compared and contrasted, squeezes the entire immigrant experience into a single song.
There are so many great numbers, so many showstoppers, that it's a wonder the show moves forward at all. But it does - heedlessly, recklessly, with the headlong abandon of youth. Romeo and Juliet does too, but it doesn't have singing and dancing, swooping cameras and lickety-split timing. Co-director Robert Wise, who went solo after Robbins got fired for letting his perfectionist instincts get away from him, had started out as an editor (he edited Citizen Kane, for crissakes), and if you ever want a classroom demonstration in how to render dance on film, be aware that school's in session throughout West Side Story. Luckily, all the dance numbers were worked out by Robbins before he left. But the camera moves were mostly Wise's, and so were the cuts.
With so much going for it, you would have expected West Side Story to bowl over the critics. And most of them did sing its praises. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther said it was "nothing short of a cinema masterpiece." But the more intellectual critics, the ones who should have succumbed, had their reservations. The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann, while calling it "the best musical ever made," felt that the last third of the movie didn't live up to the first two. Esquire's Dwight Macdonald had trouble squaring the realistic elements with the stylized elements. And The New Yorker's Pauline Kael, playing the populist card, called it "a great musical for people who don't like musicals." Kael missed "the light satire, the high spirits, the giddy romance and the low comedy" of, say, Singin' in the Rain.
I might miss them too if they weren't still there in, say, Singin' in the Rain, not to mention nine out of every 10 musicals ever made. Kael seems to have objected to the kind of musical West Side Story was, a musical tragedy instead of a musical comedy. But how else was the musical to grow and mature if not by adding a tragic element? Rodgers and Hammerstein had transformed musical comedy into musical theater by integrating all the elements of a production. "The orchestration sounds the way the costumes look," Rodgers once said. And in that sense, West Side Story was the culmination of a process that began with Oklahoma! Bernstein, according to his biographer, Meryl Secrest, didn't want a musical comedy or an opera or an operetta. He wanted "something so new no one had a name for it."
Luckily, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn't share Kael's prejudice. West Side Story won a record-breaking 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, one of four musicals to win Best Picture during the 1960s. It was all downhill from there. Musicals all but disappeared from movie theaters as rock 'n' roll swept across the American landscape, leaving something called rock opera in its wake. And Broadway, that fabulous invalid, continued its decades-long slide into the grave. (It's still sliding and perhaps always will be.) Sure, there were Cats and Les Misérables, but how many times can you see them before the magic wears off? And how can Disney keep turning its blockbusters into Broadway shows if its blockbusters are no longer blockbusters? Treasure Planet: The Musical, anyone? I didn't think so.
Perhaps the closest that Broadway came to the sheer impact of West Side Story, in the subsequent 50 years, was with Rent, which is also based on a revered classic (La Bohème), also takes to the streets (lower Manhattan) and also wrestles with a pressing social issue (AIDS). But Rent has almost no dancing and - in my opinion - very little singing of merit. To find West Side Story's legacy, you have to look elsewhere - to Saturday Night Fever, for instance, which combined of-the-moment music and dance in a way that preserved a sense of outer-borough resentment. Michael Jackson may have thought he was taking the baton from West Side Story when he gathered together his own bands of Jets and Sharks and told them all to "Beat It" in a 1983 music video, but a true gangsta-rap, hip-hop update remains to be made.
Until then, we have the original, which seems as timeless as ever. Riff, Action, Joyboy, Gee-Tar - yeah, they're a little too innocent, like Bowery Boys auditioning for Welcome Back, Kotter. But that just contributes to the movie's period feel. When West Side Story came out, America was just waking up from its postwar slumber. Euphoria had given way to McCarthyism and bomb shelters. We were now living in an Age of Anxiety. The melting pot was boiling over (again). And teenagers, suddenly a market force to be reckoned with, were no longer content to speak only when spoken to. West Side Story's Dream Team took all that stress and strain and fashioned a work of art that may well live as long as Romeo and Juliet has, as long as there are tribes of youth blinded by love and hate.
The man behind the musical
You could wear out your fingers typing in Walter Mirisch's many honors and achievements. The '42 UW grad has three Best Picture Oscars on his mantelpiece for producing In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story and The Apartment. He's also won the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. And he served four terms as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
But perhaps the most fitting tribute to Mirisch comes in the foreword to his new autobiography, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, where Get Shorty's Elmore Leonard says about him, "He's a straight-shooter with an easy sense of humor, a pleasure to have as a friend. He doesn't hold grudges or make unkind remarks about all the egos he's dealt with in the business."
He certainly doesn't in his memoir, which traces Mirisch's decades-long pursuit of the next project. The book features a glittering array of names, from Billy Wilder to Marilyn Monroe, and it does so with a modesty and forthrightness that are right there in the title.
A glittering name himself, Mirisch was supposed to return to his alma mater on Friday, May 2, to mark the publication of his book by the UW Press. Illness has prevented him from coming, but the UW Cinematheque will still screen In the Heat of the Night at 7:30 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.