AFI Countdown Challenge #41: West Side Story

As much as I haven’t seen many musicals, I’m actually rather familiar with West Side Story despite only seeing the film once before I decided to work my way through the AFI list.  Why?  Well, I worked on a production in college.  Now, I can’t sing, dance, or act, so I was backstage, but I did have a small part (sort of) as Maria’s father.  He doesn’t appear on stage so much as try to get her off that damn balcony when she and Tony as trying to make future plans.  That consisted of calling her by a pet name in  what I am certain was an atrocious Puerto Rican accent.

I actually have a bit of affection for this show as a result.

But let’s get some things out of the way first:  given much of the film deals with, among other things, English-speaking Americans attacking Puerto Ricans as foreigners, this film hasn’t aged as well as it could have given relatively recent events on that island.  I also know, unlike seemingly every character in the film, that Puerto Ricans are in fact American citizens, but that’s a fairly complicated relationship culturally, so I can let that slide.    Besides, as much as the Jets and the Sharks don’t like each other, they do all unite against the cops.

Worth noting is that the plainclothes cop, Lt. Schrank, is harder on the Sharks than he in the Jets, but then when the Jets prove uncooperative themselves, he berates them all as immigrants.  Lines like that may mean more in 2018 than they did in 1961.

Set in a New York City where the world’s least threatening street gangs high kick and snap their fingers in unison unchallenged by anyone but themselves and the occasional police interruption, the story, derived from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, details a young man who founded the Jets but has since left the gang falling in love with the sister of the leader of the Sharks.  That would be Maria, as played by Natalie Wood.

Then again, all of Wood’s songs were sung by another woman, so I have no idea how much acting Wood actually did on the set.  Contrast that with her co-star Rita Moreno, who actually is Puerto Rican, and who won an Oscar for this, did sing most of her songs.  Does that make a difference?  I know that this was common back then, but Natalie Wood received top billing for this film, and many of the rest of the cast are not actors I am overly aware of.

She was a pretty young woman, but she doesn’t sing here.  She opens her mouth and lip syncs.  So does her love interest, and while Moreno and Russ Tamblyn sing some songs, they don’t sing others.  The other Oscar winner, George Chakiris, did sing all of his songs, but then again, he may not have had too many compared to the others.  The idea for the production I was on was that the better singers and dancers would were the male Jets and female Sharks, so draw your own conclusions.

Pictured: not a threatening street gang.

As the film progresses, we see the violence escalate, and as much as I do love this show, I gotta say something:  every death in this story is Tony’s fault.  Maria can claim otherwise, saying it’s the hate on both sides, but no, it’s Tony’s fault.

Tony tries to restrain Riff during the knife fight, leading to Riff’s accidental stabbing that somehow killed him far faster than it probably should have.

Then Tony deliberately kills Bernardo, Maria’s sister.

And then, knowing full well Chino is out looking for him, Tony runs around the streets yelling loudly for Chino to kill him too.

Chino doesn’t notice the “too”?  Did he just assume Tony meant the other two guys?

Besides, Tony isn’t much of a gang member since he quit before the story started and tries to prevent violence more than anything else.

But this is a musical.  Things don’t have to make sense.  Instant love happens.  A pair of teenagers serenade each other and plan to run off and get married, something that seems like a dumb idea to adults in much the same way the inspiring couple of Romeo and Juliet seem a lot dumber when you encounter their play as an adult.  Fights are more symbolic than anything else, but is there anything worse than what the Jets do to Anita when she comes to deliver a message to Tony?  It was going in the direction of a rape since I am not sure what dropping a member of the Jets on top of her as she’s held down could be seen as anything else.

For a musical, it has some really dark moments, and that’s before Tony is killed and Maria blames everyone except the one person who was responsible, namely Tony himself.

Now, I know I am making a lot of cracks about this one, and trust me, I can make many more, but I do really like this one.  I particularly like the song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” where the Jets imagine a scenario where perennial thorn in their side Officer Krupke arrests gang leader Riff and the way he goes through a system that mostly wants to pass him along as someone else’s problem.  It’s played for laughs, and the film moved it.  The stage version does it after the knife fight, possibly as a means to bring the tension down after a double homicide.  Here, they use another song, “Cool,” as a means of telling the Jets to stay cool and prevent problems while they try to keep a low profile.  It’s a move that makes sense, and I’m not sure why such a high-spirited, goofy song plays where it does in the stage version.

Then again, the one I worked had the director, a guy with his head jammed clear up his ass who didn’t understand how singing worked on the human face (don’t ask), decided the song everybody liked needed to be…sinister.  Seriously.  He got a bunch of flashlights for the Jets to shine under their faces to make themselves look threatening.  You know.  1990s era flashlights in a 1950s setting.  Where did they come from?  Did they make anyone look scary?  I can answer that last one with a big “no”.

You know, I don’t know where to go from there, so I’m gonna stop.  I still love this show, but damn if it isn’t a bit much at times.

NEXT UP:  It’s back to Hitchcock for 1959’s North by Northwest.

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