Thursday, December 23, 2021

West Side Story: Rumble in the Rubble

David Alvarez Ariana DeBose in West Side Story (2021).

The enthusiasm over Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, the street-gang retelling of Romeo and Juliet that opened on Broadway in 1957 and was first filmed by Robert Wise in 1961, reminds me of the outpouring of praise that greets Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 Carousel every time it generates another Broadway revival. Just imagine, runs the usual buzz, someone wrote this serious, important musical back in the dark ages when musicals were frivolous! How modern, how prescient! How daring to kill off the protagonist, to incorporate domestic abuse, to put disaffected youth on the stage! How fresh it still seems, how up-to-the-minute! Well, I see no reason to condescend to lighthearted musicals, especially when they come equipped with scores by Kern, the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin and Rodgers and Hart. But the truth is that the American musical took its first resounding step past frivolity when Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote Show Boat, with its tragic racial subplot, exactly three decades before West Side Story. And that’s a good musical. 

Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, open this new West Side Story with an ingenious period marker: Lincoln Center is under construction, so the slum it’s replacing has been leveled to rubble, and the territory over which the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks are battling is even more straitened than before. To the famous strains of Leonard Bernstein’s prelude, the Jets gather on the worksite in the early hours, knocking over a “Men at Work” sign and stealing paint cans to deface a wall graffito of a Puerto Rican flag. Spielberg’s longtime collaborator, the masterly cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, has taken his palette from the grays, whites and dusty blues of the chopped rock, though he expands to darker colors (brick reds and browns) for the interiors and brighter ones for the daytime streets, especially where they’re crowded with Spanish storefronts. Instead of the photogenic chorus boys in chinos executing Jerome Robbins’s ballet steps on a Hollywood backlot, the choreographer, Justin Peck, has given Riff (Mike Faist) and his Jets insinuating athletic feints that threaten teasingly to turn into dance several bars before they actually do. When the dancing takes over, it’s muscular and laden with proprietary bravado and, God knows, thrillingly performed. And since Spielberg and his editors, Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar, have absorbed the rhythms of classic movie musicals, they can shift from song and dance into dialogue and back again without the self-consciousness that has paralyzed every musical film I can think of since the millennium except Chicago, Dreamgirls and Mary Poppins Returns. It’s hard to envision how this version of the Bernstein-Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim show could have been much better directed or danced or shot. Unfortunately, it’s the old silk purse-sow’s ear problem: the movie is still fucking West Side Story.

Kushner has made a few changes. Anybodys (Iris Menas), the tomboy who is hungering to join the Jets, is now clearly trans. Tony (Ansel Elgort) has just served a year in jail for nearly killing a Puerto Rican kid in a brawl, so though he’s appalled at his own behavior and no longer hangs out with the Jets – just with Riff, his lifelong best buddy – there’s evidence that he has it in him to erupt into violence. So when he gets embroiled in the rumble with the Sharks, the one he initially tries to stop from going forward because he’s fallen in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), it doesn’t seem to come from some other musical. And for Doc, the Jewish drugstore owner Tony works for – Laurents’s preachy, ulcerated version of Friar Laurence in Shakespeare’s play – Kushner has substituted Valentina, Doc’s widow, who has continued to run his shop. As a nod to the Wise movie, Valentina is played by Rita Moreno, who was Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend, in 1961. Kushner has also made the dialogue a little saltier (not enough to be distracting). Has he improved it? Not very much. The Jets’ exchanges still sound like an attempt by an unhip librettist to create a stylized lingo for street-wise kids stuck in poverty – part Dead End Kids, part beatnik. The Sharks don’t come across as so fantastical, because their lines are Spanish-inflected American English and sound plausible enough. Maybe that’s why they’re easier to like. (They also dress better.) Movies have often remade Shakespeare’s plays in modern settings, sometimes with charming results. But Romeo and Juliet is a transcendent poetic rendering of young lovers kept apart by haters mired in generations of two feuding families, and neither Arthur Laurents’s book (on stage or in Ernest Lehman’s faithful 1961 screenplay) nor Tony Kushner’s adaptation contains a single lyrical moment. And I wouldn’t say that Valentina’s complaint to the Jets when she catches them in the drugstore piling up on Anita (Ariana DeBose), “I’ve known every one of you all your lives and you’ve turned into rapists!” is much of a step up from Doc’s “You kids! You make the world dirty!” At least Doc’s line has camp value.

It’s tough to believe in either of these two communities when we don’t see a single parent. In the Spielberg film, Maria, Bernardo and Anita all live together, though it’s hard to imagine that these devout Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century would have been fine with an unmarried couple cohabiting. The only adults around seem to be Valentina, the hapless Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James, in an unplayable role) and the cynical, racist Lieutenant Schrank. Schrank is overplayed by the usually resourceful Corey Stoll, who’s probably just trying to inject something into his miserable character. I also felt bad for Moreno, whose fondly remembered brown-and-white marriage to Doc is meant to serve as a shining example of the harmony that needs to reign between the disaffected white kids and the struggling Puerto Rican immigrants – the harmony that, naturally, Maria and Tony are meant to be poster girl and boy for. The film gives Valentina one song, “Somewhere” – one of the Tony-Maria duets in the original – but though the husk of a singing voice Moreno has left is rather affecting, you need more vocal heft to make “Somewhere” work.

Most of the songs were written for the lovers, and let’s just say they don’t show Leonard Bernstein at his best. (Listen to On the Town, Wonderful Town or Candide if you want to hear what Bernstein at his best sounds like.) I know most lovers of musicals go wild for this score, but aside from “America” and the dance music it doesn’t do much for me, and those ballads stick to my teeth. They hark back to the early-twentieth-century operettas that the American musical theatre had to move past before it could find a voice of its own. The cardboard cut-out sweethearts Tony and Maria are bland and syrupy, like Curly and Laurey in Oklahoma! How could anyone have gotten from Romeo and Juliet to these two? The 1961 version exacerbated the problem by casting Richard Beymer, who had no screen personality, and Natalie Wood, whose glow compensated here and there for her overly preppy, amateurish acting – but not here, unfortunately, where audiences were also asked to accept her as Latina. Spielberg has gone with tall, gangly Ansel Elgort, who acts more aggressively than Beymer but isn’t much better, and Rachel Zegler, who has a lovely soprano and some humor. She might be quite touching as Maria if – again – the part weren’t such a dud.

As in the older version, Anita and Bernardo walk away with the picture because they’re sexy and vibrant. (Moreno and George Chakiris both won Supporting Oscars for their performances in Wise’s movie.) Every time DeBose and Alvarez appear, the screen lights up. (Well, almost: even DeBose can’t do much with “A Boy Like That,” an incomprehensible song in which Anita seems to think it’s more important to warn Maria away from a heartbreaking future with Tony than to mourn the lover he’s just stabbed to death at the rumble.) Spielberg has given DeBose a knockout moment in the middle of the “Tonight” quintet when, while she and two of her friends are supposed to be praying in church, she anticipates the sex she’s going to have with Bernardo later. And Alvarez, who was pallid as the gay runaway on the Showtime series American Rust, gives a commanding performance as Bernardo. The ensemble is loaded with gifted dancers, but this guy’s sensational. The only time he and DeBose get to sing together is in “America,” and not surprisingly it’s the musical highlight of the picture. Mike Faist (Connor in the Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen) is a standout dancer, too, and he has an appealing crooked-ironic smile. But when he’s not dancing he’s one of the Dead End beats. Alvarez acts like he dances. You can’t take your eyes off him.

The kudos for Spielberg’s West Side Story were all too predictable; still I found them depressing. Are we going to be doomed for eternity to reprises of “Maria” and “I Feel Pretty”?

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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