Saturday, January 19, 2019


Well now, it wasn't a rumor after all.

Steven Spielberg's decade-old promise - threat? - to remake "West Side Story" is actually coming to fruition. Which has me somewhat conflicted.

On the one hand, the 1961 adaptation of the musical is almost unanimously considered iconic. On the other hand, for me, it's an imperfect film, largely because of Ernest Lehman's script, which hews way too closely to Arthur Laurents' clunky book for the original stage version.

Critic Sam Adams put it best a few years back in his critique of WSS (in one of its DVD incarnations) for Philadelphia's long-gone City Paper: "Being stuck with Laurents' dialogue probably cost Lehman the screenplay Oscar, the only one for which (the film) was nominated and didn't win."

The score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is magnificent - that's inarguable - and the choreography by Jerome Robbins remains revolutionary, but everything in-between, yes particularly the dialogue, is painful. So matters looked hopeful when Spielberg tagged Broadway's Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") in 2014 to do a new adaptation.

Good move. I'm hoping Kushner does a major script overhaul.
And last October, Spielberg signed Ansel Elgort to play Tony, the male lead. Another good move. Tony has always been a problem character in "West Side Story," largely because of the way it's been written (i.e., a teenage gang member who suddenly behaves like an alter boy), but also because an adult male is usually cast in the role. Elgort looks the right age and he has the perfect bearing for the role, rough-hewn yet sensitive.

Plus Elgort is musically accomplished. He can sing and dance. So far, so good. But I wish that I could be just a tad more excited about the idea because, suddenly, the production is moving at a brisk pace, with filming slated to begin this summer. In recent weeks, the supporting characters have been cast - and Spielberg has found his female lead. Rachel Zegler, an unknown 17-year-old Colombian-American, will play his Maria.

I'm not alone in my ambivalent feelings about WSS. In a piece published in The Hollywood Reporter on January 15, writer Seth Abramovitch describes what sounds like a contentious visit to the University of Puerto Rico that Spielberg and Kushner made on December 14, meeting with about 60 students and faculty, including Isel Rodriguez, a professor of theater history and acting, as well as with movie critic Mario Alegre.

While Spielberg and Kushner discussed the goal of "authenticity," Alegre and Rodriguez were more concerned with the material's unflattering stereotypes of the Puerto Rican characters and particularly the negative jokes about Puerto Rico in "America," the musical's show-stopper which compares Puerto Rico ("you ugly island") unfavorably to America:

"Puerto Rico ... My heart's devotion ... Let it sink back in the ocean."

"Always the hurricanes blowing ... always the population growing ... And the money owing ... And the babies crying ... And the bullets flying." 

Not good.

And the 1961 film exacerbated matters by fiddling with the lyric. On stage, the chorus sang, "Puerto Rico, island of tropical breezes." For some bizarre reason, the movie changed it to "Puerto Rico, island of tropic diseases."

Abramovitch writes that when told that the song is problematic, Kushner "put part of the blame on the Jewish roots of the show's creators," explaining that they used "the Jewish immigrant experience, the notion that you look back where you came from and go 'yech.' I'm sure it sounded better in Yiddish."

So what will Spielberg do? It's unlikely that the song will be cut. Audiences love it. Perhaps Sondheim will rewrite it. Perhaps Sondheim should have joined Spielberg and Kushner at the campus discussion and given his take on the matter. Yes, perhaps. Personally, if I had the opportunity, I'd ask Sondheim why the Puerto Ricans don't have their own number, given that the Caucasian gang has "Jet Song." It always seemed asymmetrical. But beyond that, it strikes me as odd that a show that wears its social conscience on its sleeve doesn't include a companion song for The Sharks.

Anyway, borrowing an observation voiced by a friend, I'm surprised that anyone would attempt to remake "West Side Story," especially for a contemporary audience which has been conditioned to be offended by the smallest perceived slight. What people fail to see is that, despite its grit and aforementioned social conscience, WSS is not realistic in any sense.

The authenticity that Spielberg envisions for the remake - and which he probably will successfully achieve - will be in conflict with the essential artificiality of the piece. (Gang members doing pirouettes!) The hallmark of 1961 version is its artiness, epitomized by Saul Bass's pop-art graphics for the overture and the graffiti and street signs that he used for the film's closing credits. In many ways, the film was avant guard for 1961 and intensely cinematic. I can't see how Spielberg can improve upon it.

And, frankly, I don't know why he wants to. Why do filmmakers, who should know better, elect to remake only successful films and mostly classics?  Why not tackle a movie that had a good idea but just didn't work? And if Spielberg simply wants to make a musical, there are many terrific stage productions that have never been adapted for the screen.

If he wants a challenge, here are five remarkable shows that I've trumpeted repeatedly. Film one of these (hint-hint):

~"Take Me Along," produced in 1959 by David Merrick and directed by Peter Glenville, comes immediately to mind. A musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" (with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill), it starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pigeon, Eileen Herlie, Una Merkle, Robert Morse, Zeme North, Susan Lockey and Arlene Golonka. It was a monster hit in its time, along the lines of the recent Bette Midler/"Hello, Dolly!" revival. 

It should be noted here that, years before, MGM filmed its own musical version of "Ah, Wilderness" - the 1948 "Summer Holiday," directed by Rouben Mamoulian and with original songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. Mickey Rooney starred in the role played in "Take Me Along" by Robert Morse, Walter Huston (in the Walter Pidgeon role) as his father and Frank Morgan as the affable drunk, Uncle Sid (the Gleason role).

~"The Most Happy Fella," a major hit in 1956, was also composer Frank Loesser's most ambitious undertaking - a three-act musical adaptation of the Sidney Howard play, "They Knew What They Wanted," about the "love affair" between a middle-aged Italian immigrant, who operates a vineyard in Napa, and a younger woman who has agreed to be his mail-order bride (even though she is eventually sexually attracted to the vineyard's young foreman).

The material is highly cinematic and screamed to be filmed.

 Loesser came up with a commanding hybrid here - a musical comedy with the contours of an opera. There are about 40 songs in the show, not including the overture, the two entre'acts and a few reprises.  It took four years for Loesser to complete.  He not only composed all the songs but he also wrote the script, a huge undertaking which involved omitting the political, labor, and religious material originally in Howard's play. Joseph Anthony directed the production, which was so intimidating that Columbia released two original cast albums of the show's score - one a three-record set that included the entire libretto and one a single recording of selected songs.

~"Fiorello," a marvelous show, was staged in 1959 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its authors - Jerome Weidman and George Abbott (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics).  It won the Pulitzer Prize and opened the same year as "Gypsy" - and was just as popular. And yet it has never been filmed. There was such excitement about this show that Capitol recorded the cast album six days after "Fiorello" opened.
 And yet is was never filmed.

Directed by Abbott (with choreography by Peter Gennaro), "Fiorello" introduced Tom Bosley as the legendary New York City major Fiorello H. LaGuardia, a reform Republican who challenged the Tammany Hall political machine.

 ~"She Loves Me," a genuine charmer, is another Harnick-Bock musical that opened on Broadway in 1963 as an era was coming to a close.  This irrisistible musical confection was one of many adaptations of a Hungarian play titled "Parfumerie," by Miklós László. It was predated by the films "The Shop Around the Corner" (a straight comedy by Ernst Lubitsch) and "In the Good Old Summer Time" (also a musical, by Robert Z. Leonard) and succeeded by "You've Got Mail" (another straight comedy by Nora Ephron).

"She Loves Me" was directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Carol Haney and its cast was led by Barbara Cook (a few years after she played Marian the Librarian in "The Music Man") and Daniel Massey, son of Raymond and anticipated at the time as the next big thing (given his role as Noël Coward opposite  Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in "Star!").

And in support ... Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy.

Enter Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews who wanted to film "She Loves Me" in the early 1980s, after having scored a big success with "Victor/Victoria." Andrews was perfect for the Cook role and the plan was for it to be an MGM film, which makes sense as Metro always fancied itself the movie-musical factory and that's where both "The Shop Around the Corner" and "In the Good Old Summer Time" were made. Obviously, nothing happened.

~"Follies." Yes, if Spielberg or anyone wants to tackle a Stephen Sondheim show, this is the one. I had seen the original - in another lifetime - at the Winter Garden Theater in New York and remember it as an unusually singular, once-in-a-lifetime musical experience. James Goldman's book for the show ostensibly deals with the reunion of former showgirls from decades earlier who performed for Dimitri Weissmann at his eponymous theater which, in 1971, is in the throes of being razed. There are dozens of characters but "Follies" is interested largely in only two of the women, the unpretentious Sally and the imperious Phyllis, their respective husbands, Buddy and Ben, and - here's where the show gets tricky - their former selves as young people.
There is no "plot," per se, as Sondheim himself has been quick to point out, just two pseudo-storylines of bits and pieces running parallel to each other. As the older Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben circle each other, making bitter accusations, their younger selves shadow them, like ghosts, and often, the young and the old characters intermingle. It's quite intricate in its dealings with  mismatched, unfulfilled partners.

In the late 1970s, rumors circulated that Twentieth Century-Fox wanted to film "Follies" with Doris Day as Phyllis and Debbie Reynolds as Sally, terrific, spot-on casting of those two roles. One can only imagine what the film would have been like, but it was never made. The idea was referenced in a gossip column - where else? - but nothing came of it.  Too good to be true. Another missed opportunity, an unfortunate one.

Note in Passings: It's great that, with Zegler,  Spielberg has cast an age-appropriate actress in the role of Maria, but there are so many young Latina actresses working these days, that I'm surprised he did go with someone with experience. Two who come to mind immediately are Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada who were so awesome as sisters on Tanya Saracho's Starz series, "Vida." Barrera would have made a terrific Maria and Prada is just the right age as the older Anita. Also, there's Sasha Calle, the vibrant young actress who plays Lola Rosales on CBS's "The Young and the Restless."

All are most promising actresses.

Finally, while "West Side Story" swept the Oscars in 1961, the original stage production of it didn't snag the Tony for best musical of the 1957 Broadway season, as most people assume. The Tony that year went to Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." 

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

 ~Steven Spielberg

~Ansel Elgort, Spielberg's Tony

~Rachel Zegler, Spielberg's Maria

~Assorted scenes from the 1961 film of "West Side Story"
~Photography: United Artists 1961©
~Poster art for "Take Me Along," "The Most Happy Fella" and "Fiorello"

~Dustjacket for the Original Broadway cast recording of "She Loves Me"

~Poster Art for "Follies"

~Mishel Prada (left) and Melissa Barrera, stars of "Vida"
~Photography: Vanity Fair 2018© 

~Sasha Calle of "The Young and the Restless"
~Photography: CBS 2018©


tom bennett said...

Yes, the dancing in "West Side Story" is great, albeit kind of ridiculous when staged in realistic settings.

Lawrence said...

For some reason, my sixth grade teacher - an otherwise wonderful educator - assigned our class the chore of watching "West Side Story" when it aired on TV. (As I write this, it occurs to me that 1970, when I was a sixth grader, was probably the first time it was shown on the air. Given its prestige as multiple Oscar winner, I suppose I can see why she had us watch it.) In any case, my best friend and I hated it so much, it took me about a decade and many Astaire/Rogers movies to realize I actually like musicals. I just didn't like THIS musical. Every time the gang members start dancing and singing, I can't help but laugh. I mean, I'm all for the suspension of disbelief, but this would require the guy who designed the Golden Gate Bridge and many miles of steel cable to suspend my disbelief.

Charles W. Callahan said...

Perception Plus. Talk about missed opportunties. TAKE ME ALONG would have great for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
Great post. Then, they all are.

joe baltake said...

Charles! Many thanks. -J

Stephen D. said...

Regarding West Side Story: Okay, Rita Moreno's too old, and George Chakiris can't act, but they're otherwise fabulous. For me, WSS's flaws are more than made up for by its strengths, i.e. its wonderful, energetic songs and the intoxicating (and well directed ) dancing. But yes, the stuff in between is weak/herky jerky, and I really do think that Beymer is weak, though you're probably right that much of this has to with the book/screenplay.

Anyway, Joe, glad to see you insist on thinking critically. I do as well, but with this movie I nevertheless come out on the other side.

mike schlesinger said...

Boy, you struck a nerve with me. There are tons of great Broadway musicals that have NEVER been filmed, while many others were so radically changed they were barely recognizable (I'm looking at you, ON THE TOWN). I don't know why Spielberg couldn't choose from one of these instead; e.g., I saw the recent revival of SHE LOVES ME with Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi and Jane Krakowski and it was aces--why not film it with those same actors? (BTW, this is also true of straight plays.)

joe baltake said...

Mike! Don't get me started on "On the Town." For some reason it's considered a classic but I see it as a desecration. I believe only two or three of the stage songs were retained. But this is typical of MGM when it filmed stage musicals ("Bells Are Ringing," ""The Unsinkable Molly Brown"). There were always gratuitous changes. The studio did much better with original screen musicals, although I must admit that Metro got it right with "Kiss Me, Kate."

And "She Loves Me"... Yes, great show. I saw the original and I saw the recent revival - twice. Once on stage and once on the tube. Laura Benanti is a national treasure. She's incredible. Just saw her in the fabulous revival of "My Fair Lady" and she somehow managed to capture Audrey Hepburn while remaining pure Benanti. -J

mike schlesinger said...

Yes, even the original Paramount version of ANYTHING GOES trashed the story and replaced most of Cole Porter's songs with "better" ones from lesser songsmiths. It's amazing it turned out as well as it did, anyway.

Correction: Benanti is a galactic treasure!

joe baltake said...

Mike- I don't get it. Why would any studio person make the decision to replace songs written by Cole Porter or Leonard Bernstein and replace them with others by lesser (or less well-known) composers - most likely house composers? I guess that's the point. These people are under contract, so let's put them to work. Economically it makes sense I suppose, but I still find it absurd - and offensive. -J

Walt said...

hiss, hiss, hiss...... for Spielberg remaking ; ' West Side Story '

Jesse said...

I beg to differ about George Chakiris not being able to act. He's a marvelous, and very underused performer. His portrayal of Chopin in Masterpiece Theater production of Notorious Woman is marvelous. He's been in some clunker films but not because of any fault on his part. As far as his work in WSS in my opinion, he not only won the Oscar for his dancing, but precisely because he was able to pull off a character like Bernardo, with dialogue that was stilted and not that great. It's easy to be a "great actor" with great material, but he didn't have a lot to work with apart from the fabulous dancing. His inner spirit made it happen and he deserved the Oscar. Overall, I think all the performers in WSS were very very good considering what they had to work with from a dialogue standpoint. They brought it to the screen, they made it happen, and that's why it's a classic.

Marie T. said...

I wonder if Spielberg will recreate Jerome Robbins' choreography, since the dancing was the essence of the show, its trademark.

joe baltake said...

I wouldn't bet on it. It would have to be overseen by one of Robbins' assistants who may be long gone at this point, unless the choreographer left a blueprint, so to speak, of the dance moves. I've a hunch that it will have new dancing and, most likely, less of it. Just a guess.

Reyna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jay said...

The music, lyrics and dancing are so good in West Side Story that I guess its flaws just recede for me. Never had a problem with it.

k.o. said...

I totally agree with you on the "remake" of the movie WSS. But I think the ORIGINAL movie should never have been made. And yes, it is an educated, talented Jewish look at Puerto Rican life in the 50s when it was originally written. Speilberg has made a lot of bad decisions in his career but this will be the one he will be most remembered for. And THAT,said, I often sing "You-re so pretty and witty and bright" to my cat, Sophie. And THAT,said, I often sing "You-re so pretty and witty and bright" to my cat, Sophie. k.o.

joe baltake said...

BTW, k.o., in the play, the song went…

“I feel pretty & witty & gay – and I envy any girl who isn’t me today

In the movie, it became…

“I feel pretty & witty & bright – and I envy any girl who isn’t me tonight

Gee, I wonder why the change. But wait! Or is it the other way around?

Paul Margulies said...

If someone wants to do a film of Follies, I'd recommend seeing the National Theatre version which is about to be done again in London after being totally sold-out last year. The video version, done as part of the NTLive series was marvellous. Imelda Staunton was amazing as Sally.

joe baltake said...

Yes, Paul, great staging of a great show. I saw the original and this production was actually better. Staunton is indeed incredible. -J

mike schlesinger said...

If someone would give me the money, I'd love to film SOMETHING ROTTEN! Easily the funniest musical of the last 20 years, with two bona fide show-stoppers and more one-liners than you can wave a baton at. And how can anyone not love a show with dancing eggs?

joe baltake said...

Yes, Mike. "Something Rotten" was made for the movies. -J

William Wolfe said...

Lawrence: I was about to write, virtually word-for-word, your entire post. (Believe it or not, it was MY sixth grade teacher who assigned us the task of watching it on TV in 1970!) I, too hated musicals for years, until I was in London over Christmas in 1978, when the BBC showed a different Fred and Ginger musical each night and I realized I loved musicals - as long as they didn't involve singing and dancing gang members.

Re: musicals in which the studios replaced great songs by great songwriters with lesser works from lesser talents. I suspect it's because the studios own the copyrights to those lesser works, so they make more money from royalties than they would from the original, better songs.

joe baltake said...

Bill- Re: musicals in which the studios replaced great songs by great songwriters with lesser works from lesser talents... I could never get it either. I mean, why would any studio person make the decision to replace songs written by Cole Porter or Leonard Bernstein and replace them with others by lesser (or less well-known) composers - most likely house composers? But that's the point: These people are under contract, so let's put them to work. Economically, it makes sense I suppose, but I still find it absurd - and offensive. I checked this theory out with someone who worked at the studios and his response was, "That's it!"-J

tina g said...

remake of WSS may be terrible, may be great, may be mediocre, but looking forward to it nonetheless!

Vienna said...

Would love to see a big screen version of one of my top favourite musical comedies, ON YOUR TOES. THE Rodgers & Hart show is just full,of terrific songs and music, from ‘There’s a Small Hotel’ to ‘Slaughter On Tenth Avenue.” It’s a brilliant song and dance show and the film version was a travesty, putting non-dancer Eddie Albert in place of the original star Ray Bolger.
But I’m old fashioned, I want it as written and staged. Too many of the classic Broadway shows from the 20s and 30s and 40s are gone forever. I’m sure someone like Rob Marshall could still make it filmic.
It’s a dream which will never happen, but one can hope!

joe baltake said...

Vienna- Yes, "On Your Toes," another forgotten show that was ill-served on screen. I have the same fantasies. I'd love to see "Pal Joey" done right, but it will never happens. Those days are gone, but as you say, one can hope. -J

Vanessa said...

On stage, WSS works because one is aware of the artiface. On screen, realism makes it look, well, silly.