Wednesday, September 19, 2007
critical quackery: David Denby on "West Side Story"
Film critic David Denby has the following to say about "West Side Story" in the September 17th edition of The New Yorker magazine:
"It is ironic that 'West Side Story,' a plea for ethnic tolerance by four Jewish liberals - Leonard Bernstein (composer), Stephen Sondheim (lyricist), Arthur Laurents (book) and Jerome Robbins (choreographer) - has now become difficult to revive in New York. Latinos have complained that its view of Puerto Ricans is stereotyped; producers have worried that its 'Cool, Daddy-O' slang new seems quaint. Yet the show, which opened fifty years ago, is a masterpiece of American musical theatre - perhaps the masterpiece. If the material is unfamiliar to you, skip the dreadful Oscar-winning movie version of 1961, with its embarrassing cast and hashed score and choreography. The original cast album, starring Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert, is ardent and heartbreaking, and Bernstein's own later recording makes a good case for the piece as an American opera. 'West Side Story' is now performed in prisons and gang-ridden neighborhoods, where it is used as therapy, and in summer-stock productions, where it leaps off the stage. It's time for a full-scale New York revival."
First, a question to Denby about this wildly gratuitous piece: Who asked you, anyway? (Can't the editors at The New Yorker simply say "no" when one of its writers comes up with a bad, pointless idea?)
Secondly, the stereotypes that litter this show/movie are the least of it.
Finally, I agree with him that the 1961 film version is pretty bad. It's been bad for years, hasn't aged well at all. But the problem is not the cast or the choreography (which, I hasten to remind Denby, is by Robbins himself).
No, the problem is that Ernest Lehman, who wrote the adaptation, was way to faithful to Laurents' arch stage script. The music and dancing are fine; everything in-between is an offense. The dialogue in WSS, whether on stage or on film, is really rough on the ears. Those producers who worry about all those dated "Daddy-Os" are correct. The only way to revive the show is to completely rewrite it.
An alternative, of course, would be to declare a moritorium on it. Put it in mothballs and let it rest in peace. Forget about it and move on.
P.S. That original cast album that Denby finds so "ardent and heartbreaking," actually sounds rather tinny compared to the film's soundtrack. Also, the original cast album doesn't "star" Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert. It features them (among others).
Feel free to disagree. And fee free to bark at me, Who asked you, anyway?
(Artwork: The poster from the original 1957 stage production of "West Side Story")
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