West Side Stories, including Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s latest film – People’s World

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria in “West Side Story” (2021)

Recorded just a few days later West Side Story Opened on Broadway in September 1957, the brilliant original recording of the Broadway cast by Columbia Records producer Goddard Lieberson was my first acquaintance with Leonard Bernstein’s sheet music for the updated version of Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet. The action takes place on the streets of New York as rival gangs battle for control of their neighborhood, and an unfortunate love affair unfolds between Tony (a New Yorker of European descent) and Maria (a recent arrival from Puerto Rico).

Recorded in Columbia’s 30th Street studio (famous for its recordings of Glenn Gould, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk and others), the cast’s album reflected the contradictions and biases embedded in the music, the book, the lyrics and the cast of the series. Two of its most popular musical numbers, for example, underwent revisions early in the series’ history. According to lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the very last line of “Gee, Officer Krupke” was replaced with “Gee, Officer Krupke, krup you” after Lieberson warned that the original lyrics, containing a four-letter curse, could cause harm. legal issues during the transfer of “obscene” material across state lines and would not be eligible for radio broadcast.

In the original stage production, the song “America” ​​was introduced with the line “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropical diseases”, framing the desire of some stereotypical Puerto Ricans to leave their homes for a land where life is alive. is supposed to be bright. , free and rich. When the show was adapted for the screen in 1961, the line, seen as humiliating, was changed to the less offensive “Puerto Rico, devotion of my heart, let it fall back into the ocean!” “

Rita Moreno stars as Valentina in the West Side Story remake. Niko Tavernise 20th Century Studios via AP.

Another controversy arose with the casting of Natalie Wood’s film in the lead female role of Maria. She and her co-star George Chakiris had to wear brownface makeup to represent what was thought to be Puerto Rican skin tone. West Side Story was not, however, the first Hollywood film to darken the faces of white actors. Brought from Puerto Rico to the United States in 1936 by her mother, Rita Moreno – Anita from the 1961 film – pointed out in interviews that in the early years of her film career her skin was always dark for the “native” roles that ‘she was playing opposite. his prominent men, mostly white.

Despite these flaws, the film won 10 Oscars including Best Picture, making it the most honored musical film in history. Produced for $ 6.5 million, the film grossed $ 44.1 million worldwide, the equivalent of $ 382 million today. In comparison, the blockbuster Black Panther cost $ 200 million to produce and grossed over $ 1.3 billion worldwide, with the revenue still being generated through record and streaming sales.

Over the years, West Side Story has evolved in its cast, setting and presentation, with the goal of keeping the piece relevant to contemporary audiences. A 2009 revival, conducted by choreographer Jerome Robbins (who also directed the original 1957 show), strictly followed the original in its directing. Lin-Manuel Miranda (who later created Hamilton), hired to translate some of Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish, criticized the rather outdated and superficial portrayal of Puerto Ricans in the series, complaining that “…”

Recognizing the lyrical potential of the score and never having conducted the entire work himself, the composer Bernstein recorded the complete West Side Story in 1984, with Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, José Carreras as Tony, Tatiana Troyanos as Anita and Kurt Ollmann as Riff. The entire recording session was captured in a BBC documentary, The making of West Side Story, which highlighted the tensions between the composer / conductor and his troupe of opera luminaries. The resulting album received mixed reviews, with some criticism of Bernstein’s choice of classically trained singers over musical theater voices, and their palpable lack of empathy with the work’s social and cultural references, as well as its linguistic idiosyncrasies. It remains an interesting listening experience, however, if only for the novelty of the cast, the inclusion of extensive dance sequences, and the historical significance of being Bernstein’s only personal interpretation of his own score.

The 2020 Broadway revival, unfortunately blocked by the pandemic, places the action in contemporary New York. The production includes several innovations: the use of sound amplification, a technology not yet perfected in 1957 which allows more flexible movement of the actors; video backgrounds that display the action of the scene on a large scale; and the large cast of minority actors and dancers. This new stage version is directed by Ivo van Hove and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, both from Belgium.

While garnering generally favorable reviews, this revival sparked a critical opinion piece in the New York Times by Puerto Rican writer Carina del Valle Schorske who questioned many premises of the original concept. In her caustic last paragraph, she writes: “Maybe what we want is independence, to shine within a tradition that we ourselves have created. I don’t hesitate to quote Anita in my advice to the American entertainment industry and its many captive audiences: “Forget that boy and find another. “

The new film adaptation, directed by Steven Spielberg and filmed in New York and New Jersey in 2019, opened in December 2021 to a mix of enthusiastic reviews and critics. Putting aside my reluctance to sit, masked, in a movie theater for three hours, and my doubts about Spielberg’s ability to achieve a new revival, I decided to see the film in what was almost a theater. empty of 400 places. Most shocking was having to spend half an hour of loud and often violent trailers for some of what seemed like the worst movies ever to be made. Once that was over, the movie started off really slow, and it was obvious that this was going to be different from the 1961 version. Without going into details, the play still takes place visually and thematically in 1957 in New York City, but the script for Tony Kushner transforms a period piece – often criticized as outdated and irrelevant – into a subtly scathing critique of the troubled world of 2020. Acting, singing, dancing, and orchestral accompaniment (under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel) are all top notch. As Sondheim himself noted, “There is sparkle, real energy. And it smells fresh. Spielberg and Kushner have really succeeded.

If you go to the movies and stay in your seat until the credits roll, you’ll probably be on your own at the movies, unless you’re in Los Angeles where almost everyone is related in some way. other to the film industry. Hundreds of names appear in the parchment, many of which are recognizable by the public, and some have even received applause. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the US film and television industry supports 2.6 million jobs, includes more than 93,000 companies, and pays $ 177 billion in total wages. This panoply of workers represents some 40 unions, guilds, associations, alliances and companies protecting the wages, working conditions and benefits of those whose talent and skills make for an often brutal and competitive industry.

The ten-minute end credits of the new film, created by Spielberg and production designer Adam Stockhausen, are set to an abridged version of Bernstein’s film West Side Story Symphonic Dances. If one has the patience to wait for the end, the final screen contains a surprise affirmation of the social value of the project: “This film supported 15,000 jobs. The beauty of the work, the social commentary and the creation of jobs in a faltering economy begin to justify the film’s $ 100 million cost, an amount that could easily have been spent on weapons production or drilling. oil company with a much lower return on societal investment. The trailer can be viewed here.

Out of curiosity, nostalgia and respect for Sondheim, who died in November at the age of 91, I replayed my copy of the 1957 casting album. West Side Story has changed over the years, as any theatrical work should, but nothing that I have heard or seen, including Spielberg’s film, has the sparkle and emotional intensity of the astonishing performance recorded by the original Broadway actors of one of the greatest musical creations of the twentieth century.


Michael kaplan

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