"West Side Story" is one of the few movies I remember going to with just my Mother and older brother. It must have been 1968 when I first saw it and it was on a double bill with "In the Heat of the Night" of all films. I don't know if it was a nationwide match but I do know that the Mirish Company produced both films so a double feature was a probability. So I saw two Best Picture winners on the same night and I was probably just ten years old. I did write about "In the Heat of the Night" earlier this year when it was the opening film at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival, but as far as I can see, there is not a previous post on "West Side Story".
I know that the Lambcast this week was going to be a movie musical draft, and I hope this is one of the films that got picked. It has always been a film that moves me. My daughter laughs at me because I tear up at the finale of the film. That's right, I'm a big wuss. The modern day re-telling of Romeo and Juliet is deeply moving just concerning the story, but when you pile on the fantastic dancing, the dynamic performances and the Leonard Bernstein music, it just knocks me over.
The overture today got my heart racing. As each melody is introduced, I could pick out the instruments in the orchestra that were playing and listen for the personality of each performer. When the lush violins come in for "Tonight" I began to feel the emotion build. The Jet Song gets the plot started and sets up the premise of the rivalry, and then Tony sings "Maria" and I frankly well up with admiration for the delicate poetry of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. The whole orchestra bangs into the Dance at the Gym numbers and it was loud and powerful and gets the blood stirring. When people say they don't like musicals, to me it is almost like saying you don't like music. How could you not want to follow our lovers, fear for our friends and families and marvel at the dances in this movie?
So much of the credit goes to the original Broadway director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. He managed to make gangs doing ballet moves look like something that would express their feelings and still leave them as dangerous youth. Robert Wise brought cinematic magic to the movie as well. The opening helicopter shots and the quick edits to the locations match up with the Bernstien music and drag us into the context of the film quickly. There are a half dozen transitions that are clearly created by Wise and the color design of the film with the terrific cinematography is definitely more Hollywood than Broadway. Twenty years ago, one of the English Teachers who taught a cinema based class was out for a few weeks. The Dean asked me if I could take over the class and show a film one day and talk about it enough the next class day to help the students with their paper. I was happy to do so and the film that they were showing was "West Side Story". The Dean knew that I was a film buff and could probably carry it off. Fortunately, I did not have to read the thirty or so papers that were written, but I did get to talk about the film making techniques, and director's choices made here. It might have been my first attempt at a movie blog, even if it was not published on line.
The emotional peak of the music occurs during the "Tonight" Quintet, as several different voices trade off their stanzas, each one using the same notes but lyrics that are sadly at odds. The heart breaking innocence of Tony and Maria is contrasted with the bitter sniping from Riff and Bernardo and underscored with Anita's lustful planning. It builds to a crescendo and then it is immediately followed by the haunting silence which is broken by familiar whistles as the two gangs converge for the rumble. The L.A/ Philharmonic stays right in place with the screen and the music works marvelously. Today they were led by David Newman, an Oscar nominated composer and a regular conductor of classical music and film performances. I have seen and heard his conducting work at the Hollywood Bowl on numerous occasions and this day he dis another smashing job bringing the music of the movies to life for an audience.
The experience today was an invigorating end to a long holiday weekend. It was a great surprise and offered me an additional opportunity to write something for you "Tonight".