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Shakespeare Detour: West Side Story

I'm tackling these in the order I first saw them, although as it so happens West Side Story also has the earliest release date of the films I'm looking at. This 1961 film adaptation of the 1957 musical swept the Oscars and enchanted audiences for decades. The music alone is searingly romantic even without any context to back it up, and I've heard "One Hand, One Heart" in actual weddings in the real world. This retelling takes place in contemporary New York--well, contemporary for the time period in which it was created, meaning late '50s/early '60s--and makes some fairly signficant changes in the relationships between the characters, and the ending.


Our young lovers are here represented by Tony (Richard Beymer), a former member of street gang The Jets, now trying to earn an honest living and waxing poetical about this extremely vague dream he keeps having; and Maria (Natalie Wood), the younger sister of rival gang The Sharks, who at the start of the movie wants nothing more than to go to the big party and hang out with the cool kids. Also, she's supposed to be with this guy Chino, but she just doesn't love him that way.

Now, while the overall structure of the original play gets changed a little every time it's revisited, even in traditional adaptations, there are a few key scenes that I feel need to happen in order for this to still be the "Romeo and Juliet" story:

-The love-at-first-sight meeting between the two lovers

-The balcony scene/mutual declaration of love

-The death of Mercutio

-The death of Tybalt

-The tragic finale with the deaths of the two lovers

West Side Story covers most of it pretty faithfully, hitting a lot of the same beats and unfolding at roughly the same pace. However, in this version, "Juliet" gets to live.

The love-at-first-sight scene, as in the play, is the catalyst for the whole plot--this is where the two rival gangs collide and the main conflict gets started. The difference is that here the altercation happens immediately, not after several scenes without any of the other parties finding out what's going on. And to its credit, it's a very effective scene. The way it's blocked and edited is soft-focused and dreamlike, giving viewers the impression that we've left reality for a moment. This kind of thing might not work outside of a musical, where the suspension of disbelief is stretched farther than usual already, what with all the players working out their feelings with song and dance. The meeting of Maria and Tony is played in that spirit--beautifully rendered, completely lacking in real-world logic.

Having said that, the background leading up to that scene is just as important, and this is where the differences between versions start. We know going in that the Jets (the Montagues) and the Sharks (the Capulets) hate each other, but in the play we never get a reason why. There's just this unspecified grudge carrying on from Ye Olden Times and it doesn't seem to matter what started it--I'm not even convinced the families remember. In West Side Story, the basis of the blind hatred between the two sides is good ol' fashioned racism. The Sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants trying to carve out a living in Manhattan, and while the Jets get into as many street brawls as the Sharks, there's this good old boy mentality going on with the local authorities, with Officer Krupke turning a blind eye to a lot of it and being profoundly unsubtle about choosing sides. It's an unfair situation that is the real world for a lot of people still around today, and it dredges up a lot of audience sympathy for the Sharks. Solving problems with violence is never a good idea, but you can see where they're coming from.

So that's A.

B--Juliet actually has a relationship with Tybalt. Rather than a "cousin" we're told is close to her but never actually has any scenes with her, Bernardo is Maria's doting, protective older brother. So when he sees Tony at the dance, we can understand his reaction a little better--from his point of view, this guy who is part of this gang at the heart of the racial prejudice he's been dealing with all along is creeping on his innocent baby sister. Of course he flips out and yanks them apart, throwing out the challenge of a fight and taking a dislike to Tony in particular. It also gives Maria a more solid investment in the rumble that unfolds later, no matter who wins, and I like that she doesn't immediately forgive Tony when she finds out he killed Bernardo. (She still gets over it rather quickly, but . . . well, we'll get into the more traditional take on that scene later.)

There's also a surprisingly dark scene when Anita (the "nurse" in this version) tries to get a message to Tony, and instead gets harrassed and abused by the entire Jet gang. This is what prompts her to give up on reaching Tony, and lie about Maria committing suicide just to get back at them. Makes a lot more sense than that letter that goes missing without explanation in the play.

That's not to say the musical is without flaws. The "rumble" itself is problematic. The reason for starting it makes sense, we still get the death of Mercutio (Riff), we still get Tony to kill Bernardo in a fit of revenge, etc. But here's the thing: Tony wasn't even supposed to be there. The challenge, as worked out in a meeting between both gangs prior, was set up between Bernardo and Ice (our Benvolio, although that's not clear until the third act). The only reason Tony showed up to the fight at all is because Maria wanted him to try and break it up. Which is just such a bad idea on so many levels, I don't even know where to begin.

Actually, no, I do know where to begin: with Tony. His part in this melodrama has been rewritten almost beyond recognition. There seems to be this cultural mindset that Romeo is a romantic, heroic figure that all girls ought to swoon over. And, well, Romeo's not a great guy. He really isn't. And DEFINITELY not "heroic." (I'll get into this more next time.) I'm not saying West Side Story is to blame here, but Tony sure subscribes to that same cultural mindset. He used to be mixed up with the whole gang business, but now he's making an honest living and doesn't want to fight anymore. He talks a lot about dreams and the future, has this terrific smile, a true pacifist at heart, kind and polite to everyone--also, there's no Rosaline. There is nothing not to like about Tony, no reason for Maria to want to be more cautious about starting a relationship with him--except for the whole rival gang thing--but that's not really the point here. My point is when Romeo's personality is whiddled down this much, he has no depth, no arc, no dramatic tension to offer the story. He's more stable, so I guess as a romantic interest he's more desirable, but he's also . . . well, kinda boring.

The surrounding cast more than makes up for Tony's shortcomings, and this issue stems from the writing, not the acting--Beymer does a fine job, and that zillion-watt smile still gives the audience plenty to melt over. And by the way, I'm not suggesting that True Romance requires some kind of roller-coaster drama to be interesting, especially not in real life. Stable and a little bit boring is okay in some other context.


Taking the drama out of Romeo's characterisation makes him little more than a plot device. He could be anyone. He's a more passive character than he used to be, and it creates some problems with the rumble. His being at that fight makes no sense after the story sets him up as this reformed guy who doesn't even want to be there in support of his friends.

So where does that leave Maria? Allow me to refer back to my introductory post when I was talking about perspective and how it affects the tone. Whose story is this? Easy--it's Maria's. She's the one who starts out sweetly naive and has her innocence shattered, she's the one who unwittingly instigates the confrontation between Tony and Bernardo, she's the one who tries to hold onto a simplistic, idealistic world view and fails, she's the one who discovers love, then hate, then rage over the course of the story. She's the only character here who has a fully developed arc--it leads her to some horrible places, but since this is a tragedy, that's expected. Also, not only does she get to live in the end, having watched most of her loved ones die, partially because of her own actions; she takes over the Prince's "All are punishéd" speech for the finale. She's learned something about life through the most violent and sorrowful means imagineable, and comes away from it broken, but wiser. Maria is our main protagonist--not Tony.

As for the romantic angle--Is it romantic? Oh sure. But not because of the story. The bulk of the emotion comes from the music. It's what most people remember about West Side Story, it's what sets it apart as an adaptation, and it's what got it the most critical attention. The story might be timeless, but the music is just as wonderful. It's moving just to listen to the soundtrack without any visuals to go along with it. I should probably mention that neither of the main actors here did the singing parts (although why, I don't know, because Natalie Wood can sing), but that doesn't take away from the impact it still has on audiences today. It helps with the suspension of disbelief, as I mentioned, and it's where we get our poetry in this version--it's not Shakespeare, but it's still quite beautiful.

We don't really know what happens after the last scene with our Juliet still living. I like to think she united the Jets and Sharks and became some sort of underground Mafia boss, like a female Marlon Brando. But that's me.

Next week: Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Nov. 22nd, 2013 09:04 pm (UTC)
although why, I don't know, because Natalie Wood can sing

Hiring someone for "song dubbing" was a pretty common thing back then. The same thing happened to Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady after Hepburn spent months with a voice coach. The real tragedy, though, is often times the singers weren't credited, which leads you to think the actors actually did the singing. My only guess is maybe the studio didn't think Wood and Beymer had rich enough voices.

I like that in updating the story, the writers pulled from the actual tension of racial/ethnic divide that was happening in the city; making it more than just sticking Romeo and Juliet in contemporary times and calling it an update. Not surprisingly, "America" is my favorite number and Rita Moreno is AWESOME.

But man is this a long version. I always get bored/antsy around the half-way mark--usually about the time the Sharks and Jets are going to the rumble.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )