West Side Story (1961) Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
It is the personal and humble opinion of this writer that West Side Story is the best movie musical (I know these things get contentious). AFI (and many people) would disagree, in favor of Singin’ in the Rain, but I am going to let my opinion fly and say this one, this one is the greatest.
It has the pedigree - a story based on Romeo and Juliet and written by Arthur Laurents, a score from Leonard Bernstein, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and visual consulting from Saul Bass. It has the performers - yes, Natalie Wood and even Richard Beymer (although I had a hard time getting Benjamin Horne out of my head), but ESPECIALLY Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. It has the visuals - the perfect cinematography that immediately draws us in and turns the universal into the personal, and the rich use of colors that were at their best in 70mm. And it has the emotional impact that comes from good storytelling - a story of love and loss and the immigrant experience.
But what really solidifies this for me as the best musical are the songs and the dancing. Prior to this viewing, I had probably seen Singin’ in the Rain more recently, but other than the titular number, I cannot recall any of the songs, and only very little of the dancing (Donald O’Connor’s scene with the props, the cabaret scene). Whereas I know almost every West Side Story song by heart, and some of the choreography too. I can’t even name a favorite scene - the Mambo at the dance? The skewering of America on the rooftop? The absolutely exhilarating medley of Tonight after intermission? The biting commentary of Officer Krupke? The bitter desperation of Cool? All of them, all favorites.
And I could go on for paragraphs more about Rita Moreno and her character, Anita. That perfect, perfect woman with her flawless facial expressions and flawless acting and flawless dancing and her tragic, tragic character. Rita/Anita is what stood out to me most this time, the tragedy of the character, and the tragedy of the sorry fact that this amazing woman was largely unable to get more films and more roles good enough for her, a situation that has not improved greatly for women and especially women of color.
The end still somehow moved me close to tears, which left me feeling somewhat embarrassed. Aren’t I supposed to be past musicals, past seeing them as anything but a slightly ridiculous means of expressing emotions? But no, not when the emotion is so real and the story not much different in the America of the 2010s as it was in the America of the 1960s.
#176 - 8/25/2012