December 6, 2021 — The recent death of Stephen Sondheim put his amazing work back in the spotlight. For me, a lifelong lover of musical theater, Sondheim was never far from mind. Especially as the genius director Steven Spielburg releases a reboot of the sixty-year-old film classic, “West Side Story.” That movie was based on the successful 1957 Broadway musical, which ran for 732 performances before going on the road.
My parents didn’t have a television until I was four or five. So we listened to cast albums on their RCA video high-fi (high-fidelity set.)
This week, a new film version opens in theatres and takes on the age-old conflict between star-crossed lovers, just as the Bard did originally in “Romeo and Juliet.” Everything about “West Side Story” is magical. How count it not? The book is by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein (yes, that Leonard Bernstein), choreography and direction by Jerome Robbins, and in his debut, Sondheim’s lyrics. This story’s elements mesh to make a timeless classic, one that holds up in 2021 as it did in 1957 and 1961, respectively. It will be interesting to see if the Academy and the Tonys reward this current effort as both did six decades ago.
Set on the near upper west side of New York City (in roughly the area where Lincoln Center now sits), “West Side Story” explores the tension between two rival gangs of Puerto Ricans (whose families came to the mainland) and white youth (who unless they are indigenous, also had ancestors who came to New York.) Yet, the whites are threatened by their Hispanic neighbors and fight for territory in their impoverished area.
Tony, a Polish-American boy, falls in love with Maria, a recent transplant from Puerto Rico. While they know their love will be despised and even forbidden by their families and friends, Maria and Tony continue to see each other.
Robbins’ amazing dances move the story forward, using movement to tell the story. Add the words of Sondheim, who is indeed a poet, and it all combines heartbreaking sensory magic. Sondheim treats every word of every song as if it is a precious gem he is setting. The word must fit; it must be exactly right. And it always is.
One of the great thrills of my theater-going life was seeing a revival of “West Side Story” on Broadway in 2009. This particular reboot won a Tony for Karen Olivo. This version was known for being the first to use Spanish-language songs. So even for the non-Spanish speaker, the familiar music was easy to follow. But, of course, things have changed a little. Maria was played by Caucasian Natalie Wood, in brown make-up, in the 1961 film, and a few Hispanics in the cast.
I won’t spoil the ending for those who have not seen it, but one shakes ahead, wondering if we can ever learn from the past?
Spielberg’s “West Side Story” opens in theaters on December 10, 2021.
This film is probably the most daunting of my career. West Side Story is arguably the greatest score ever written in the theater, and that’s not lost on any of us. It’s very intimidating to take a masterpiece and make it through different eyes and different sensibilities without compromising the integrity of what is generally considered the greatest music ever written for the theater. But I believe that great stories should be told over and over again, in part to reflect different perspectives and moments in time into the work.
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