The Stratford Festival’s 2009 production of West Story Story is superb — sharp, edgy, dramatic, and infinitely more satisfying than the 1961 film, which we have always disliked.
For our money, West Story Story is all about the music, not the characters (cartoonish) or the story (not bad for a musical, but fundamentally improbable and in any case recycled from Shakespeare). Much of the story flows through the songs and the action, so serious acting chops aren’t really required.
But the cast at Stratford is first-rate. Fine as Chilina Kennedy was at the Shaw Festival last year in Wonderful Town (see this post), she seemed even finer as Maria this year at Stratford. Ms. Kennedy also gets to show off her exceptional vocal range, as Maria’s songs cover more than two octaves.
Jennifer Rias has plenty of sass and spunk in the part of Anita, Bernardo’s over-sexed girlfriend. (Anita smugly anticipates that Bernardo will be even lustier than usual after the rumble, and she prepares accordingly.) Paul Nolan, as Tony, sings nearly as well as Ms. Kennedy, and they blend nicely on the duets; only for one phrase did we notice that his pitch was flat.
And such music! We liked Leonard Bernstein’s score better than ever, the songs, the incidental music, all of it. And the dancers!
What must audiences have thought back in 1957 at curtain time when, instead of the usual frothy medley of pleasing tunes for an overture, the show started with dissonant horn blasts and percussion? Was this a Broadway musical, or Mahler’s Sixth? In fact, it was Bernstein’s genius through and through. (We’re not sure whether a dance sequence is usual during the West Side Story overture, but we were mesmerized.) And has there ever been more sophisticated music composed for a popular musical play? Such glorious songs, including one of the most perfect melodies ever conceived (“Somewhere”).
We only wished that the sound designers for the show hadn’t thought it necessary to crank up the volume quite so much. There were moments with full orchestra and full chorus when the sound was unpleasantly piercing.
If you saw Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival just last year, the plot parallels in West Side Story will be especially striking. This year’s balcony scene was much better than the one last year (which was almost laughably bad, as we reported). Tony and Maria were so endearing and impetuous that their characters very nearly came to life. We were astounded with Mr. Nolan’s strength and agility as he leapt to the balcony and vaulted into Ms. Kennedy’s arms. Acrobatics from a singer! The show is worth seeing for this scene alone.
Still, as much as we appreciated this fine production, West Side Story itself is still far from a favorite of Emsworth’s.
First, no matter how well played, the characters in West Side Story simply aren’t credible. Who can really believe that Tony, Bernardo, Riff, Baby John, and the rest really belong to vicious street gangs? Are we truly to believe that all that gangs like the Sharks and Jets cared about was strutting rights to a few square blocks of Manhattan? Didn’t street gangs in the 1950s run protection schemes and prostitution rackets, fence stolen goods, and sell drugs in their territories (as they do today)? Didn’t these gangs include cold-blooded killers?
No one could imagine that sort of thing from the nice boys and girls in West Side Story. Crime and vice from Riff and Tony? No evidence of delinquency whatsoever. Until the climactic rumble (for which no one in the gangs really seems to have the stomach), these rival gangs don’t seem any more dangerous to society than rival suburban high school cheerleaders at homecoming time.
And these kids are verbally sophisticated beyond belief. ”I feel stunning — and entrancing,” Maria sings. Really? Fresh off the boat from San Juan and barely conversant in English, Maria thinks of herself as “entrancing”? The word-play from the boys is even sharper than from the girls’. Diesel, Action, and A-Rab have such refined senses of irony and theatricality that they can slip comfortably into the role-playing of “Gee, Officer Krupke” to mock the psychiatrists and social workers who try to explain their delinquency in sociological terms.
Can we really believe that a punk like Diesel would have the vocabulary to say “This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!/It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.” Or that someone like Action would be witty enough to utter a line like “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived”?
Ignorant high school dropouts don’t talk this way; the characters in West Side Story are out of character every time they open their mouths. Arthur Laurents, who conceived the play, apparently recognized the problem himself; in connection with the current Broadway revival of West Side Story, he was quoted recently as saying that “[t]he musical theatre and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters to have authenticity.” Laurents also recognized that the lyrics to “America” and “I Feel Pretty” were so witty as to be out of character for the characters who were singing them.
It’s true — and it’s still jarring. The show hasn’t become dated (as some folks we talked to at Stratford thought, even though they loved the Stratford presentation); it was riddled with incongruity from the beginning.
Our second general objection to West Side Story is, of course, its anti-Americanism. The lesson of West Side Story is as crude as the other leftist propaganda of the forties and the fifties: that the land of opportunity that the materialistic Anita sings about in “America” is a myth; that the very essence of America is racism; and that its civic institutions (represented by Officer Krupke and the precinct police) will always be enemies of people of color and the working classes.
The comparison we think Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein were implicitly inviting us to draw, of course, was to the “socialist paradises” in Russia and eastern Europe, where racism was supposedly unknown. That was a lie, and one might think these lies have done enough damage over the last eighty years that they shouldn’t be rubbed in our faces yet again.
In this Stratford production, however, director Gary Griffin has actually chosen to reinforce the anti-American overtones of Laurents’s and Bernstein’s show; he inserted a new character into the play, a young black boy, who appears silently at various points during the play as a sort of moral rebuke to people like Emsworth who might not yet be sufficiently ashamed of having been born white American males.
And a large American flag is unfurled on the stage at just the point when the racism becomes ugliest. We are apparently supposed to take the lesson that the anti-Puerto Rican prejudice in the play is nothing compared to the racism against all people of color that has always been the essence of America. (The young actor is also assigned the singing of “Somewhere.”)
A final note: our antennae went up when we heard Maria sing, “I feel pretty, and witty, and bright!” Wasn’t the lyric “I feel pretty, and witty, and gay”? We thought perhaps the gay rights forces had so co-opted the word “gay” that the politically correct management at the Stratford Festival felt compelled to change the lyrics of the Bernstein/Sondheim song.
Post-play research on Rhapsody disclosed, however, that just this once we were wrong. True, in the 1961 movie version of West Side Story, Maria sang the word “gay.” But in the original Broadway production, Carol Lawrence (as Maria) was indeed “pretty, and witty, and bright!” The phrase rhymes with Maria’s next line: “And I pity/Any girl who isn’t me tonight.”
Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:
Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)
The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)
Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (see this post)
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)
The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)
The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)
The musical West Side Story (see this post)