My Long-Term Relationship with 'West Side Story'

I was allergic to musicals growing up. Didn't see 'Grease' until the mid 80s. Didn't watch 'Sound of Music' until the late 80s. Around '90 became obsessed with 'Singin' in the Rain', later 'An American in Paris'. The musical form struck me as ridiculous when the world was full of David Lynch and cult classics and massive blockbusters.

In '85 I was subjected to the movie of 'West Side Story'. Well, it played in the background while something extraordinary was going on. I recall the whiteness of Tony's overbite. Cries of "Maria!" and co-marveling at the can-you-believe-this-dorky-musical-keeps-playing? moments.

What was really happening was an imprinting process.

I had a self-imposed ban on ever seeing the movie again, out of respect for that one time I barely watched it (we heathens have our rituals, too) and a few times was a bit of a pain in the ass about it. "Oh, no! We have to rent something ELSE! I shall NEVER..." blah blah.

As couples smash plates and glasses after a wedding under the premise those objects would never serve a higher function, I mentally smashed VHS copies of 'West Side Story' out of pop culture psychoemotional sanctimony.

And then, ENOUGH!

I rented. No, hold up, I BOUGHT 'West Side Story' on VHS and watched it.

Me: "I've decided NO FEAR and I am going to watch 'West Side Story'!"

My apartment mate (reasonably): "..."

In 1993 or '94 I watched it, all the way through. Of course, I laughed as most everyone does at the dorky gangs.

Sharks (L) are nattier dressers, with Anita on their side. Jets (R) are a bunch of smart-alecks. Go Sharks!

Think of what gang members have worn in the decades of your life. Aren't those fashions ridiculous? Nothing like the menacing gang members of the early '90s. Oh, those early '90s fashions are redonkulous now, too. There was no way for gangs in the 60s to look cool now. Hoodlums are trite. Go ahead and tell them I said it. I don't care.

Of course the movie's music, some of the bite, and the supporting performances got to me. I watched it over and over. Not perceiving the imprinting it had done under primal circumstances a decade before, the evidence of a bond manifested in my mocking the movie to vainly express an ironic distance. The precision and number of ways I was soon able to cite the movie would make the bond plain to all but the one snarking.

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp'st her.

I was hot for the movie, but was not aware enough to admit it. Like any tedious moral zealot having to stand before microphones to confess lust toward those he publicly rebuked/abhorred.

Chita Rivera, the original Anita on Broadway. Ooof!

I don't know the movie best in a room of people. I was baffled by a colleague a few years ago who made reference to "Puerto Rico, island of tropical breezes." WTF? I looked at him. "It's from the song 'America'." "No, it isn't" I said haughtily while running through the lyrics. He was right. It's in the musical, but is not a line in the MOVIE. He was being friendly, and inadvertently my erudition totally GOT SERVED!

Now, however, I get there are significant differences between the lyrics, order of the songs, and arrangement between the Broadway production(s) and the movie. Some lyrics are improved in the movie. And the song order makes more sense to me in the movie with "Cool" sung by Ice (!) after Riff is dead, and "America" is better as an interplay between Bernardo and Anita, the two best performers in the movie. So glad they both got Oscars.

Rita Moreno is an idol from 'The Electric Company' t.v. show ("Hey you guys!" was her catch-yell). That she also played Zelda in 'Singin' in the Rain' makes her all-time.

Once reminded of one song, they come not single-spies but in batallions. I end up reminiscing, humming, bellowing, jumping octaves while traipsing over the whole soundtrack.

John Barrowman, mensch, gives a really solid perfomance of "Maria" below. He miffs the last note (who wouldn't?) but he sings like he means it. So many use it to show off without trying to convey any emotion. "Check out the runs I can make!" kinda crap that induces saccharine shock on 'American Idol'.

But when I sing, it's not held to one character. Or the dude characters. Once I'm in, I'm in full throttle singing mostly all of the parts. Sometimes I invoke a heavenly/hellish daydream where I perform the entire soundtrack (at least the songs with lyrics) as a one-person revue. Keep the paddy wagon parked right outside the theater.

I know in the clip above Natalie Wood's singing is overdubbed. I know that, crazily, the Grammy-winning (and Tony-winning, and Emmy-winning, and Oscar-winning) Rita Moreno is overdubbed.

I know the movie is melodrama. I know neither one of their arguments makes sense. Anita: "Stick to your own kind!" Maria: "Right or wrong, what else can I do?" Both have ROTTEN advice!

Yet, even though the role of Maria can be a trilling soprano extravaganza at the expense of articulation (the version above is modest on this count) and expression, Could be the crying sound of ecstatic, despondent female voices, the urgency of the music. But I am moved most every time I hear the song, especially the end lamentation/surrender/boast. Decades away from such high drama in my own life, the coda makes me solemn.

I'm not entirely rational, is what I'm saying.