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