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.