West Side Story: Special Edition (DVD)
In the one-hour documentary accompanying the new double-disc West Side Story DVD, the show's lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, insists that neither the Romeo And Juliet-derived 1957 Broadway production nor the 1961 movie adaptation have anything profound to say about bigotry, juvenile delinquency, or William Shakespeare. To Sondheim, West Side Story is about the theater, and nothing else. Creator/choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein set out to shred the conventions of song-and-dance stagecraft in order to find newer, more abstract ways of conveying raw emotion, and for the movie, Robbins and co-director Robert Wise continued the experiment. Wise, a veteran editor, worked with Robbins to create a sense of rhythm and kineticism with cutting and framing, letting gestures from separate shots flow together in time to Bernstein's jazzy score. The young performers speak in a rabbit-punch style, treating screenwriter Ernest Lehman's dialogue like music; when they dance around the colorful sets, they're pinched by the camera in such a way that even the sky looks like it could scrape the tops of their heads. In spite of all this artistry, and even though the movie remains beloved more than 40 years after its initial theatrical release, many cineastes (and even musical buffs) haven't embraced West Side Story. The story of two New York City gangs–the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Anglo Jets–battling for control of their mutual neighborhood "turf" may try too hard to be streetwise and slangy, making it all the odder when the supposed tough guys start dancing in tandem. The Shakespeare swipes are even cornier, as an ex-Jet (Richard Beymer) and the Shark leader's sister (Natalie Wood) sneak away from their respective crews for sparkless romantic rendezvous set to straightforward love ballads. Given the often-exaggerated Puerto Rican accents, the abstractly choreographed knife fights, and the flat inevitability of the second act, West Side Story often fails as believable drama. Taken on its own terms, though, and seen with the impressive digital polish of MGM's special-edition DVD, Robbins and company's work can still persuade. On a purely emotional level, the musical doesn't have the transportive power of contemporary productions like My Fair Lady, or the lusty swagger of the early rock 'n' roll movies, but Sondheim's lyrics are witty, and Bernstein's complex symphonic structures are the aural equivalent of watching a diver flip, twist, and jackknife into the water. West Side Story works best as a spectacle of color and movement, as an example of how smart creators and inspired staging can let the rage and pressure of youth come through in a turn of the head or a flip of the arm.