Monday, June 17, 2013

800 Words: Reuniting with West Side Story

I have just seen West Side Story twice this weekend at the Baltimore Symphony. As James Earl Jones would say, the memories were so thick I had to brush them away from my face. During 'America' I was five years old, watching Buddy Rich on PBS with John Williams and the Boston Pops, playing Buddy’s jazz version of the piece, the first I’d ever heard. During 'Maria' I was eight years old, watching the Three Tenors with my parents and Bubbie. During the 'Mambo' I was twelve at music camp, away from home for the first time and watching the New England Music Camp Symphonic Band play the Symphonic Dances of West Side Story. During the 'Dance at the Gym', I was fourteen years old, playing Doc and Glad Hand in a production of West Side Story in which the director instructed me to create a dance during it in a manner so uninhibited and crazy that it would cover up the fact that nobody on stage could dance any better than me. (It still makes me laugh to think about it. The experience of being in West Side Story is no doubt a post in itself... but that's a post to be written on another day/year/decade)

I'm sure I was far from the only person in the audience who feels that way. West Side Story is so much a part of the American DNA that it's impossible to go through life in America without encountering it at all sorts of felicitous moments. If you've never heard a song from it, you might as well have never heard Bob Dylan or James Brown. And yet, since my childhood, West Side Story had very little to do with my life, yet it was such a prominent part of my life's fabric until I was 14 that it never felt as though it left me. All through the time I familiarized myself with Company and Sunday in the Park with George, with Candide and the Jeremiah Symphony, playing in the pit for Wonderful Town and screwing up the violin solo in the Chichester Psalms, watching Bernstein's Mass in Baltimore with stinking revulsion and Sweeney Todd in London with unalloyed joy, the score of West Side Story which I could practically sing and orchestrate from memory was there. Yet this weekend was the first truly sustained acquaintance I've had with the show in nearly twenty years, and what a weekend it was...

Many people have gone to many more concerts than I, but I’ve been to so many memorable ones. I’ve wiped away tears as I watched Charles Mackerras lead the Philharmonia in Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, and I’ve watched dozens of people wipe away tears as Leon Fleischer played Brahms’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaccone for left-hand piano, I watched Mavis Staples give a Golden Age Soul performance in 2011 and I’ve watched Bob Dylan fall to his knees, I’ve heard the Vienna Philharmonic play the Schubert and Dvorak of a lifetime and the Boston Symphony play Ives and Gershwin better than I’ll ever hear it again, I’ve watched Ozzy Osbourne sing a beat-and-a-half behind his band and I’ve watched Earl Scruggs play banjo at top speed when he was three limbs in the grave, I was there for the New York premiere of Le Grand Macabre and the Met premiere of Nixon in China, I’ve seen Aretha Franklin’s hat from across the National Mall and I’ve watched James Brown try to seem contemporary by leading a 2004 audience in a chant of ‘Whoop! Der’t Is!’. I’ve watched Daniel Barenboim conduct Beethoven in honor of the Olympics and James Levine conduct Verdi’s Requiem in honor of Pavarotti’s passing, I’ve been to Alfred Brendel’s last concert in America and Carlo Bergonzi’s last staged opera performance, I've watched Ravi Coltrane play jazz in Grant Park to an audience of 50,000 and Mark O'Connor play fiddle tunes in a black box theater to an audience of twenty, I’ve seen Don Giovanni and Peter Grimes in the theaters where they were premiered, I watched Yuri Temirkanov conduct Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony in the presence of the poet whose music Shostakovich set and I watched Music for 18 Musicians two seats away from Steve Reich, I watched Gustavo Dudamel perform The Rite of Spring to an audience of students and I watched David Zinman lay the groundwork for what a modern American conductor was supposed to do in Baltimore when nearly every other orchestra in America was stuck in the 1800’s. But in all these years, I’ve never been so sure that I was watching something resembling a cosmic event, a performance so powerful, so revelatory, that in some miniscule way it altered the curve of history, and the world, in its small way, was a different place than it was before we heard this concert.

Now, to be sure, I've been to better performances than this (not much), and I've certainly been to better performances of better music than this. But for the first time, I felt like I was part of a unique experience of a that nobody ever experienced before those of us fortunate enough to be in the hall. The premise was simple - a live orchestra to accompany the movie version of West Side Story. The technology to create a concert like this was simply absent until the last few years, and the result was that we could experience West Side Story in real time with a full 110-piece orchestra playing every note of the score... and then some. Passages that sound tinny when played by a dozen musicians come through with an apocalyptic, Wagnerian, power and passion. I don't know if West Side Story will ever be understood, but we came a little closer to understanding it this weekend.

The problem is, Leonard Bernstein hated the movie music, and accused the orchestrator of destroying his score. It's not a completely unfair accusation. The movie 'overture' completely destroys the shock of a Broadway Musical beginning with a ballet of gang warfare. The 'Somewhere' ballet sequence is completely cut out, and songs as wonderful as 'One Hand, One Heart' and 'A Boy Like That' are hacked to pieces. Every potentially controversial line which Sondheim wrote is replaced by something thoroughly bland so that it doesn't offend the delicate sensibilities of Middle America. But it's also true that some scenes are better than in the original score - America is better when sung and danced by the entirety of the Sharks and not just their women, Officer Krupke and Cool switch places for the movie, and the switch makes far more sense than the original order. 

But there are other problems - most importantly, the movie itself isn't that great. As the central pairing, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood kind of stink. They suck out all the energy of their scenes together. Marlon Brando was eager to play Tony, and even if he was nearly 40, he'd have been a much better choice to play a street tough gone soft than this no-name would be matinee idol who resembles no one so much as Zeppo Marx. But at least Beymer had an adequate voice. Natalie Wood couldn't even sing her part and Marni Nixon had to be brought in every day to anonymously cover for her bad singing. As for her acting, she's at least better than Beymer. Though if she were acting next to Brando, god knows if she could have kept up. Perhaps the pair that was meant to be was Wood and James Dean reuniting for the first time since Rebel Without A Cause (a movie whose influence on the musical cannot be overestimated), but by the time this movie was made, Dean had been dead for almost six years. If the movie has a great performance, it's George Chakiris as Bernardo, and the movie never recovers after he dies. Rita Moreno is good as Anita, but not as great as people say - using her energetic body language to convey a "stock Latina" rather than a fully individual character.

But some of the problems can't even be blamed on the movie. The score is amazing, but it's schizophrenic - two musicals in one. Leonard Bernstein was fully able to create the jazzy Gershwin-like atmosphere of the streets, and when the play demanded Verdi-like operatic love, Bernstein provided the required over-the-top passion in spades. The problem is that this over-the-top passion has no place in a show like West Side Story. It is a pre-modern sentiment within an entirely modern story. In an era of arranged and shotgun marriages, when marriages of convenience were the norm, love as it’s experienced on the pre-20th century stage was the norm. Most people experienced (or expected to experience) a few days of true love in their lifetimes. So the immediate declarations and the extravagant sentiments of those scenes were probably much truer to their experience than it is to ours. But West Side Story demanded something much less mawkish than it was provided.

Much has been made of the fact that Arthur Laurents's book (script) is not up to the standard of the rest of the show. The truth is, Laurents's book is great - except when it isn't. He has the full measure of these violence-crazed, oversexed street thugs who secretly harbor true intelligence, but when fancies turn to thoughts of love, he has no idea what to do. Tony has got to be one of the stupidest characters ever written by a playwright, and the script gives no indication that he was ever anything but a love-crazed wimp who fell for Maria because of some kind of supernatural sign. Maria is a much, much more well-developed character - always the more pragmatic-minded of the lovebirds. Laurents was the only member of the creative team who wasn't a certifiable genius. But what American playwright of the era could possibly have equalled the other three. Arthur Miller? Tenessee Williams? Neither would have been right for it - Miller would never have understood how to write about love, Tenessee Williams would never have understood how to write about street smarts. Maybe some of the golden-age Hollywood screenwriters could have done it. What about the Epstein Brothers who wrote Casablanca? There's a team who understood both love and the streets!

The truth is that the great glory of West Side Story was always the dancing. The whole show was Jerome Robbins's idea, and there had never been a 'serious' musical in which dancing was so crucial to a show's success. Robbins's choreography was always like an encyclopedia of dance styles - the Dance at the Gym has the rival gangs trying to control the whole stage with the Sharks rhumba-ing while the Jets do the Chicken, or think of Fiddler on the Roof when the Russian peasants weave a Kazatzky through the raised arms of Hassidic Jews dancing the Hora..Jerome Robbins, like Leonard Bernstein, was a genius who killed his own talent. Both of them thought that Broadway was beneath them, and strove mightily to create masterpieces in their respective classical corpuses which eluded them for the entirety of their careers. They never understood that rhe classical worlds of music and ballet as they envisioned them never existed, nor would it ever. Broadway was, in fact, the American classical world. Because regardless of genre, greatest masterpieces are as populist in nature as they are elite, representing the perfect fusion of intellect and emotion. The 20th century classical world was simply to stuffy to accommodate anything which smacked of emotion, just as many more popular groups are too stupid to accommodate anything which smacks of intellect. It is generally agreed that Bernstein or Robbins never created anything so memorable for the concert hall and ballet stage as they did on Broadway, and when they left Broadway, Broadway never had a chance for a plethora of achievements to equal the best in film and popular music. But their absence did pave the way for one towering figure to accomplish alone what no creative team ever did.

Stephen Sondheim is the closest thing we've had in nearly half-a-millenium to a theatrical figure whose achievement equals Shakespeare - and the fact that he did it at a moment when the appeal of live theater seems on the wane makes his achievement that much more miraculous. Unlikely as it currently seems, it may transpire that live theater could soon be obliterated completely by movies, television, the internet, and virtual reality. And if that (admittedly) unlikely historical event happens, Sondheim will be remembered as the last true theatrical genius. But in West Side Story, we barely have any idea of what his talent has in store for us. His hands were completely tied in this work. There were so many 'wrong' moments in West Side Story that his genius could barely show through. How could he possibly turn songs like 'Maria' and 'I Feel Pretty' into something cosmic when the sentiment was completely wrong for the show's plot? When the show gets modern in moments like 'America' and 'Officer Krupke', we see him reaching out to his full powers, but when the show turns pre-modern, all he could do is write lyrics which sound as dumb as in any 19th century opera. For years, people wondered why Robbins, Sondheim, and Bernstein didn't team up again. When they began a failed attempt in the late 60's to adapt a Brecht play into a musical, Sondheim was immediately asked why they hadn't tried to collaborate since West Side Story. His answer was one word: "Wait..."

The fact remains, West Side Story is the Great American Show. The Citizen Kane of American theater – the summit to which every piece of theater before was leading, and every piece since was a reaction. The one-off moment when America’s three greatest young theatrical talents put their titanic egos aside to make a musical together. The result was a sublime achievement on a level that in so many ways has never been equaled in the history of America – a seemless fusion of dance and song, a perfect melding of grand opera with popular idiom, and most importantly, a piece that speaks to the entirety of the American experience; both native and immigrant, on a level that no other piece of theater ever equaled, and perhaps never could. It gives the poorest and crassest of America’s residents a high dignity that humanizes them to people who’d cross the street to avoid these characters. And yet, it’s also totally ridiculous… with gang members speaking in a mixture of slang that probably dated already in 1957 and bad love poetry.

(Bernstein revisits West Side Story, an invaluable document of a recording disaster. Also worthwhile because you get to hear Lenny swear!!!)

If West Side Story has coherence, we haven't found it yet. And like most great works, every performance has been stunningly inadequate to the task of capturing its full power. The original cast album is still the best, but it feels like a rough draft. The performers are probably better than any since have been, but the details of Bernstein's writing are completely glossed over with bad cuts, shoddy playing from a too small orchestra, and tempos that are clearly faster than Bernstein and Sondheim intended. The movie version gets lots of things more right than the original, with dancing that's even more involved than the original choreography, and but where it goes wrong it's a travesty. Bernstein's own recording of the complete score is both a miracle and a grotesque disaster. The sheer detail of the orchestral parts come through as never before, and the love music is so utterly beautiful that it's difficult not to be moved to tears by it. But Bernstein made a fatal decision - it would be sung by opera singers. Tony was sung by Jose Carerras with a thick-as-oil Spanish accent (!), and Tatiana Troyanos sang Anita with all the sexiness of a troll. Bernstein made two recordings of the Symphonic Dances - a suite of orchestral music from the score - the first was incredibly sloppy, the second was drained of vitality. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Symphonic Dances much better than Lenny ever did. The 2009 revival at least doesn't rush the tempos ahd contains great dancing, but the orchestra's smaller than ever, and the singing is as bad as on Bernstein's recording. Rather than too operatic, the revival version sounds as though sung by the cast of Glee or Rent - with vibrato-less belting and sliding into notes galore. I have yet to hear much of the 1980 revival, but what I've heard has some enormous strengths. Maybe it succeeded where the others failed, but I doubt it. 

Much, much more successful are the jazz takes on West Side Story. Bill Charlap, Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson, Shirley Bassey, Buddy RichChick Corea. Save the original cast recording, every one of these covers is better than virtually any of the classical/Broadway versions we can hear (ok, not Chick Corea...). Jazz saw this score for what it was, a classical olive branch to jazz, and saw all the possibilities of building on Bernstein's achievement. 

(Finally, WSS from the point of view of the Sharks. Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony of Venezuela.)

There is, unfortunately, something about West Side Story's importance which makes performers either too timid or too ego-driven to do justice to the piece. West Side Story was considered a classic from the moment that unfortunate movie was released. West Side Story has become the first and probably the most important of the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the American Lyric Theater along with Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum (no doubt a disputable claim) - as important to the American musical theater as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte are to the European (but with Anyone Can Whistle and Candide being potential additions to the center if anybody can ever find convincing ways to stage them). What those three musicals achieved was something that was more than just the achievement of a great individual. It was a triumph, a short-lived triumph, of collaboration.

When talented people go into a room together, it's inevitable that they'll find something about which to disagree strongly. When a collaboration truly ignites, there is no way to keep it on the rails for long, eventually, the ignition explodes. But for those few years when collaborators of genius get together, the results are even better, but it is impossible for a tornado of resentment not to build, and the resentment usually kills the collaboration. Think of Lennon and McCartney, think of Monty Python, think of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But something was in the air at this moment of New York. America was just beginning to stretch its legs to their full cultural reach. The 1950’s was (relatively speaking) the most economically successful, peaceful, hopeful time in America’s history. And this hopeful, peaceful kingdom of happiness required entertainment. But the entertainment got so good that it became art of its own - pushing every conceivable boundary in content and form to which mere entertainment is never supposed to push. The other arts were learning the lesson of movies, and brilliant individuals pooled their talents to make something still more brilliant than any of them could do alone. But these writer’s rooms were so boiling over with talent that all those brilliant individuals could not possibly work together for long. Right at the same time that Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, Jule Styne, and Larry Gelbart were collaborating on musicals; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gil & Bill Evans were teaming up to make Kind of Blue; Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Michael Stewart, and Woody Allen collaborated to make the original TV sketch comedy - Your Show of Shows; Rod Serling, John Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Arthur Hiller joined forces to create Playhouse 90, a television show with the ambition of competing with the very best of Broadway Theater; Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector teamed up at Atlantic Records with a who’s who of Postwar musicians to literally create the music of the age; a group of famous actors and singers began hanging out at Humphrey Bogart’s New York house and would eventually become known as ‘The Rat Pack’; a group of gifted students who met at the City College of New York formed the basis of the ‘New York Intellectuals’ and shaped the intellectual discourse of the world by forming journals like The Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent; the Futurians, a group of science fiction afficianados who corresponded since their youths, practically took the science-fiction world by storm and included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Doc Lowndes, Frederik Pohl, and Donald Wollheim. All of these artists went on to brilliant achievements of their own, but it’s arguable that none of them ever achieved such universal appeal alone as they did together, and it’s arguable that never had cultural fare of such intelligence had such universal appeal. But right around the corner lay the 1960’s, John Kennedy, the Civil Rights Marches, the Great Society, the end of the Production Code, Bob Dylan, Lady Chatterly’s obscenity trial, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Beatlemania, and the triumph of individual expression. The classical age of American culture was drawing to a rather glorious end, and in its place would come the Romantic era with its individual expression and cultural scenes and niches. Emphasis in American life on importance of community was replaced with emphasis on the rights of the individual. What was once mass entertainment became Art with a Capital A. The energy which popular entertainment built up by the 1950’s was released in the 1960’s with an explosion of creativity and individuality - even the Movies became a cult of the director’s personality - but the energy released by that decade has subsided considerably. Eventually all that individuality got subsumed by mass entertainment’ more corporate, more generic, and dumber than ever before. It’s possible that more interesting art is being made than perhaps ever before in human history, but who can find the great stuff when there is so much shit around it? And even among the stuff that’s great, how much of it is truly cosmic? How much of it would court lastingness and universality of appeal if it were ever seen and publicized on a large scale? How much of it would still have meaning in 100 years? The difference in quality between West Side Story and even a show as good as The Book of Mormon is the difference between The Marriage of Figaro and Zampa. What... you’ve never heard of Zampa? There’s a reason for that... (nice overture though...)


  1. 1. I remember an interview with Sondheim where he said Bernstein changed at least one word in almost every line of his.
    2. Thanks for the link to the 1980 production. that was Josie de Guzman long before Guys and Dolls.
    3. *I* have heard of Zampa. Ahem.
    4. I am reminded of the line from Annie hall, " I had heard that "Commentary" and "Dissent" had merged and formed "Dysentery.""
    5. As always, a thought-provoking post.
    6. I didn't ignore your invitation; I am saving its composition until after school is done for the year. (Soon.)

  2. 1. Leonard Bernstein had colossally bad judgement when it came to his limitations.
    2. I'd never heard of Josie de Guzman.
    3. We've all heard the overture, but who knows the rest of the opera?
    4. My friends and I started an online magazine in college, and nearly named Dysentery.
    5. Thank you.
    6. No worries. Everyone else has :).