WEST SIDE STORY starts off with an eagle’s eye view of New York City’s urban sprawl. The opening number is done on actual city streets before we are taken to a sound stage. The controlled environment has a gritty, chipped, and graffiti soaked production design, and yet, the lighting and mood is set by theatrical lighting cues. Our actors are covered in sweat and grime and dirt. And yet, as has been parodied many times, the Jets and Sharks battle through ballet, leaping and vaulting, on pointed toes.
To me this is a perfect film that deserves it’s ten Academy Awards, which includes Best Picture. But it’s definitely a product of it’s time. In 1961, you could adapt a play straight from Broadway and graft music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Steven Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins into a stunning cinematic showcase of incredible, legendary talent. In 1961, you could tell a story in the slang of the time without lacing it with profanity. In 1961, you could cast a white movie star that can’t sing, paint her brown, pass her off as Puerto Rican, and just have her lip-sync. But that was the modern era, and we are in the post-modern era, where we spend all of our time examining, laughing at, and being nostalgic for the modern era.
In the post-modern era, musicals tend to shy away from lingering long shots and hide all of the work put into the dance by obscuring it with ADD-addled jump-cut close-ups. In the post-modern era, musicals almost beg forgiveness for having their characters break-out in song. Post-modern musicals wish to free themselves from the self-aware nature of all that went before, but instead they have become overly self-conscience.
In reality, while movies have changed significantly since the 60’s, the musical hasn’t really evolved much since then. The 80’s were promising. Movies like “The Blues Brothers” and “This is Spinal Tap!” took the spontaneous numbers to more anchored places. Their singing because they’re on stage. Or in a church. Or at a music store. Or . . . in a diner. But never in a car chase! This continued into more recent times with “School of Rock,” “Ray,” and “Walk the Line.” But it never took.
Nope. The gate keepers have decided that the musical is dead. Singing should only be reserved for cartoons, and maybe not even then!
That’s why “High School: The Musical,” “Glee,” “Smash,” “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” and anything with The Muppets or Bollywood have bombed. People can’t stand that whole singing thing! It’s out-dated, unbelievable, and ruins what would otherwise be a perfectly good movie about a guy with a machine gun who can hit every martian without reloading while they can’t get their blasters or phasers to even come close! Movies aren’t supposed to transport us to exotic dreamscapes. They’re supposed to be dark, solemn, and logical. Like Batman!
Despite the fact that mother would parody the music from “My Fair Lady” as she beat me*, I’ve been a fan of musicals since I was a small boy. From Gershwin to Rogers and Hammerstein to Ashman and Menken to Parker and Stone, I’ve fallen in love with so much great stuff. One of my favorite performances by an actor ever was James Cagney as George M. Cohen in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” One of my top ten favorite films of all time is “Little Shop of Horrors,” and the Dentist has been a dream role of mine ever since I first saw Steve Martin pull Bill Murray’s tooth. I even took a Broadway Musical class in high school, and not just because I would be the only guy surrounded by the twenty amazingly hot girls. I genuinely appreciate the material, and I want to see it make it’s comeback.
That brings us back to “West Side Story.”
I recently had a random urge to see this film on the big screen, but I had no idea how that would happen. Almost as though Oprah’s book club sprinkled it’s “Secret” magic dust on my thoughts, the theater where I work announced it was going to show it! I was bummed out that I was scheduled to work today, because I originally thought I was going to miss it. Turns out my shift ended a mere fifteen minutes before the movie was scheduled to start. Call it fate. Call it karma. I believe everything happens for a reason.
Sorry. Slipped into “Ghostbusters” for a second there.
I hadn’t watched the movie since I was a kid, and while “Jet Song,” “Maria,” “Officer Krupke,” “America,” and “Cool” have been stuck in my head periodically since then, I had forgotten so much. I remembered the bold colors, the finger snapping, and the story lifted from “Romeo and Juliet.” But I didn’t recall – or maybe I hadn’t noticed – John Astin’s aw-shucks scene stealing, the undertones of domestic distress in the Jets’ home lives, or the biting racism the Sharks were facing. Even the cops duplicitous in “keeping the spics out.” This film has not lost an ounce of it’s relevance.
And yet, I wonder how many young people are willing to sit down and give it a try. They’d have to go in knowing that it’s essentially a ballet with a ton of romanticized singing and stylized violence. I’d encourage anyone with an open mind to watch this film. It is a masterpiece.
But for the rest, perhaps it is time we brought the movie into the post-modern era, and maybe we could finally officially bring back the musical in the process. I propose a “West Side Story” remix. In my opinion, it would take at least two embedded music producers to bring this vision to life.
Instead of New York City, our setting would be Los Angeles. Perhaps around the times of the riots in the 1990’s, but I’d prefer to just give similar context in present day. The Jets would be made up of a much more familiar urban street gang. They’d be predominantly black, but there should be a few other races mingled in. These are Americans whose ancestors immigrated long ago, either by choice or force. Whether the Mayflower, slave ships, or economic turmoil brought them to our shores, they feel like they own their community. The Sharks should be an intimate community that has not assimilated well to their surroundings. They shouldn’t speak the language well if at all, but despite that, they should be thriving. Members of their community should own the corner store, the laundromat, the gas stations. They could be Korean or Middle Eastern or Chinese. Either way, much like real life, they should have a code that prevents them from cooperating with or trusting in the police. And that feeling should go both ways, which shouldn’t be too hard with the LAPD.
The plot should remain the same. Much of the dialogue can stay the same, although it should be brought up to speed from beatnik. Now, all you have to do is modernize the music and dance, justify the almost quaint notions that the violence is escalating from fists to gun play, and convince a jaded audience that love can bloom in two days, and you’ve got a hit on your hands. We have never had a musical that wasn’t afraid to flow from a full-fledged rhythm and blues song to a hip hop joint to world music to. . . anywhere!
You see, in the modern era, the musical was confined to rather limited musical taste, but in the post-modern era, our iPods have limitless potential. Our times thrive on variety, and all the world is literally at our fingertips.
* “I could have danced all night. I could have danced all night. And still have begged for more.” became “I’m going to beat my kids. I’m going to beat my kids. Until they’re bruised and sore.” or something like that. My memories are a bit fuzzy on the details.