'West Side Story' screen version underrated

ALTHOUGH THE FILM version of “West Side Story” won 10 Academy Awards in 1961, including best picture and director(s), its critical standing today perhaps isn’t quite what it once was, in large measure due to bad-mouthing from the two artists left who played crucial roles in the show’s creation, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. The hit Broadway revival of the show has given both men the opportunity to snipe anew at the movie, but it also provides a chance for anyone so inclined to make a direct comparison between the impact the 52-year-old musical has live and on the screen.

Having waited for years to see a first-rate production, I finally saw the show at the Palace Theater in New York last week. The verdict could not be clearer: Sondheim and Laurents are simply wrong, dead wrong. “West Side Story” the film is superior to the stage show in nearly every possible way — it’s more exciting, more dramatic, better danced and musically far more dynamic. And I say that having enjoyed the show.

I go back a long way with “West Side Story.” I’ve loved the film since I first saw it on the bigscreen at age 12 and learned to play several of the songs on the piano. As a high school freshman, I was cast, very convincingly I’m sure, as a prepubescent Jet in my stage debut. But I did get to sing and dance in “Jet Song,” “The Dance at the Gym” and “Cool” and to mix it up in the rumble. It was a pretty good production with great sets and a large orchestra, much larger than the meager one currently attempting and failing to do justice to Leonard Bernstein’s sensational score at the Palace, where the pace was inexcusably sluggish on the up-tempo numbers. I’m told this was true during the pre-Broadway D.C. engagement as well, and I can’t imagine why Laurents or others haven’t tended to this energy deficiency.

I’VE PROBABLY SEEN the film seven or eight times. Even now, after all the years, the film’s opening minutes — the abstracted representation of Manhattan against changing colors and eventual pullback to reveal the title, backed by a magnificent orchestration of the most thrilling overture in movie musical history, followed by the quiet aerial shots looking directly down on the city — by themselves provide emotional frissons beyond anything emanating from the stage show.

Then there is the first direct comparison test, the opening ballet, which is pure Jerome Robbins, was smartly elongated for the film and which I can’t imagine even Sondheim, who wrote the song’s lyrics, or Laurents, who wrote the book and, at 91, directed the current revival, could convincingly argue is more effective onstage.

But its undeniable virtues — smartly judged stylization, dynamic cutting and bold compositions and camera moves superbly coordinated with the dancing — are not confined solely to this sequence; they are crucial to why virtually all the other large-scaled musical numbers, including “America,” the “Tonight” ensemble and “Cool,” are more powerful onscreen than onstage. Robbins, for as long as he was on the picture, and Robert Wise simply had more tools to work with and knew how to use them.

One of the current Broadway production’s genuine virtues is the key vocalizing; both Josefina Scaglione’s Maria and Matt Cavenaugh’s Tony are very agreeably sung, and Karen Olivo’s Anita is a fiery showstopper. Otherwise, the cast is indifferent at best.

By contrast, one screen performance that suddenly looms large is that of George Chakiris, who cuts an indelible figure as Bernardo; he looks terrific, is credible as the dangerous leader of the Sharks, and his dancing is fantastic. Rita Moreno socks over Anita, Russ Tamblyn does his career-best as Riff and, frankly, I have no problem at all with Natalie Wood, who is lovely and warm and more than adequately conveys the purity of first love. Marni Nixon’s fine dubbing for her signing is icing on the cake.

That, of course, leaves Richard Beymer’s Tony, which leads directly to the crux of what I believe is the show’s central fault. Beymer has never gotten a break, even from the film’s many fans. But however one-dimensional his performance may be, Tony seems to me a virtually unplayable role, a problem for which I can only blame Laurents. In no rendition of the part I’ve ever heard of has Tony been plausible as the former tough-guy leader of the Jets. His dialogue is all sincere, namby-pamby and lovey-dovey stuff, and casting this tenor role isn’t easy because of the very high notes required in “Maria.” What could any actor legitimately be expected to do with this part?

When I asked an old Broadway hand with close proximity to the 1957 Broadway production to evaluate the original Tony, Larry Kert, he jokingly recalled that Robbins continually had to remind the actor to “butch up” to try to be convincing.

SCREENWRITER ERNEST LEHMAN, who, a few years after “West Side Story,” played an undervalued role in vastly improving “The Sound of Music” for the bigscreen, was responsible for swapping the placement of “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a big move for the better, as the latter’s overt comic relief elements seem far out-of-kilter after the rumble. And a big surprise for stage audiences who only know the movie is the “Somewhere” ballet in the second act, an odd and seemingly unnecessary homage to the Agnes de Mille tradition in what is already a dance-heavy show.

Much attention has focused on having the Puerto Rican characters speak and sing Spanish with one another. In the event, the dialogue is merely peppered with Spanish here and there, and one-and-a-half songs — “I Feel Pretty” and the first part of “A Boy Like That” — have been freshly translated. While this effort is creatively justifiable, I nonetheless sense motives of political correctness and, even more, of marketing opportunities behind the decision. Still, I’m very happy for the show’s success.

There are no doubt multiple reasons for the antagonism Sondheim and Laurents feel for the film. Most important, perhaps, is that they conceived the piece specifically for the stage, and all the elements the movie introduced into the artistic equation simply detracted from, or diluted, the way they saw it. They may resent the way Robbins was treated, even if he did win two Oscars for the film. They probably disliked some of the casting, the fact that the singing for the two leads was dubbed and that the movie has dominated public perception of what “West Side Story” is.

Still, I can’t forget a lengthy chat Leonard Maltin and I had with Sondheim a few years ago when he served as guest director at the Telluride Film Festival. Knowing what he thought of the “West Side Story” film, we didn’t press him on that, but he grumpily argued that, essentially, no Broadway musical has ever been made into a good film (this was before “Sweeney Todd,” the film of which he endorsed). The only screen musicals he confessed to actually liking were the Astaire-Rogers vehicles. So, for him, you can’t win: You’re doomed from the start if you have the audacity to put a musical play on the screen.

I respectfully disagree and confidently advance “West Side Story” as exhibit A.

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