Sunday, August 26, 2012

Family Movie Night: West Side Story

Film: West Side Story
Directors: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Image via IMP Awards

West Side Story is the greatest Broadway musical of all time.

We'll come back to that discussion in a moment.  First, I should fill you in on Family Movie Night.  We're coming up on three years for this tradition at our house.  We take turns each week picking.  Friday is our preferred night but occasionally, it gets moved.  This week was My Wife's turn.  She chose the Broadway masterpiece.

So, why is West Side Story (WSS) the best?  I have to admit that I don't usually like musicals at all.  I am primarily a choral musician at heart - the older the music, the better.  Palestrina masses are in my wheelhouse.  Show tunes?  Not so much.  Show stoppers are very effective in serving their purpose.  They sell shows.  When you're actually in the play or, heaven forbid, serving as musical director for one, the tunes haunt your soul for weeks or even months on end.

I'm not a big Romeo and Juliet fan either.  Obviously, I admire the Bard tremendously but R&J is not my favorite.  My problem is the ending.  Suicide, to me, is the worst of narrative cop-outs.  (Surely four centuries is well past the statute of limitations for a spoiler alert.)

So again, why WSS?  In my experience, even most of the very best shows are either strong in music but average in story (My Fair Lady) or the other way around (Fiddler on the Roof).  WSS is one of very few that is strong in both. For the music, it's all about Bernstein - Leonard, that is.  It's hardly a revolutionary assertion that Leonard Bernstein was a cut above the average Broadway songwriter.  His songs are opera-worthy in terms of both musical quality and technical demand.  As for the story, while the basic plot is derived from R&J, WSS actually managed to improve on Shakespeare's ending. 

For a music geek, WSS is a treasure trove.  The 6/8:3/4 meter for "America" is pure genius.  It's a great show for ear training mnemonics: "Maria" for a tritone (The Simpsons theme works, too) and "Somewhere" for a minor seventh.

The very best aspect of the movie, for me, is the beautifully filmed dance sequences.  My favorite shot is at 0:58 of the following trailer, with Bernardo and his Shark lieutenants dancing toward the camera in an alleyway:

Just as with Shakespeare's original, the show is stolen by the supporting cast. George Chakiris (Bernardo) and the incomparable Rita Moreno (Anita) both move so beautifully that one imagines they could have won their Oscars without speaking a word. 

Multi-generational considerations:

- This was Our Girl's first time watching West Side Story.  There is no denying that the story is dark.  I think she enjoyed it, though she was troubled by the violence - an appropriate reaction, I'd say.  She was genuinely concerned for Maria and Tony.  The near-rape scene is the most uncomfortable for any viewer and it's good the scene doesn't go any further than it does.

- "Too much kissing."  Her words, not mine.


My Rating System:

5 = The best of the best.  These are the films by which I judge other films.
4 = High quality films which I feel could hold up well in repeated viewings.
3 = The vast majority of films.  They're fine.  Once was enough.
2 = I wasn't even sure I wanted to finish it.  It's not a 1 because I'm not prepared to say it's a terrible film - just not my cup of tea.
1 = A terrible film.  An insult to the art form.


  1. '(Surely four centuries is well past the statute of limitations for a spoiler alert.)'


    Good to start off this series of posts with a 5 so we know what we're dealing with, here.

    Well done. Looking forward to more.

    1. I didn't plan it that way but it worked out nicely. It's my daughter's turn to choose this week.