Monday 9 March 2009


(#28: 23 June 1962, 5 weeks; 1 September 1962, 1 week; 15 September 1962, 1 week; 29 September 1962, 3 weeks; 17 November 1962, 1 week; 15 December 1962, 1 week; 12 January 1963, 1 week)

Track listing: Prologue/Jet Song/Something’s Coming/Dance At The Gym/Maria/ America /Tonight/Gee, Officer Krupke!/I Feel Pretty/One Hand, One Heart/Quintet/The Rumble/Cool/A Boy Like That and I Have A Love/Somewhere (Finale)

In my fourth year at school, our English class read out and studied the text of West Side Story. I think that this was a Shakespeare educational tie-in, even though the principal Shakespeare text we were given to study at the time was Julius Caesar, but given that this is now over thirty years ago I am necessarily a bit rusty about the detail. I’m pretty sure I’d seen the film on TV, and not recalled that much about it except that it was markedly more violent than any Hollywood musical I’d seen before (but then I hadn’t really seen Oklahoma!). What I do recall was a special screening of the film organised by our English teacher which took up the best part of the school morning.

My overall impression at the time was one of flatness; the text did not seem to sing, but then we had to recite it out piecemeal, including all the song lyrics, as though they were soliloquies (which, of course, they were). It seemed faintly trite, and detailed viewing of the film did little to change my opinion; like On The Town, it was filmed on location in New York (specifically in the Manhattan grounds which would one day house the Lincoln Center) but both flow and drive seemed fatally impaired. It looked like an artist’s impression of Hell’s Kitchen rather than the thing itself; none of the stars quite seemed to match with any of the singing; the story’s emotion seemed weighed down by compromise and strenuous efforts to impress the viewer with cinematic tricks – the opening descending panorama centring on Russ Tamblyn might as well be the Alps converging on Julie Andrews.

The latter comparison is not farfetched, since Robert Wise was responsible for directing both, and the suggestion that he needed a Welles to provoke him remains intact. Initially the show’s original Broadway director and choreographer Jerome Robbins was hired to direct, but he went painfully over budget and possibly wished to dot too many “t”s and cross too many “i”s; after ten weeks he was replaced by Wise who turned any residual sparkle into lumpy pudding. Likewise, screenwriter Ernest Lehmann had just come off North By Northwest, but his stilted scenarios for West Side Story would have been laughed off Mount Rushmore by Hitchcock. In addition, Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer both recorded full vocal tracks for all their songs but the producers heard them, shuddered and dubbed them over; Marni Nixon was back again to voice Maria, while one Jimmy Bryant covered for Tony. Rita Moreno did most of her own singing, though even she (as in The King And I) suffered one dubbed track; the voice of Anita on “A Boy Like That” belongs to Betty Wand. The result, unsurprisingly, was a sprawling porridge of a movie.

Perhaps the truth is that West Side Story was always unfilmable. Any enterprise involving a combination of Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins and Hal Prince was necessarily going to result in an explosion of egocracy but – as with The White Album and Tusk – the consequent sense of conflict was enormously beneficial to the show’s impact on stage. And really West Side Story has always had to be seen on stage, and maybe it had to be witnessed in its age; its Romeo And Juliet-made-hip-for-The-Kids approach needed its fifties/sixties transitional compass and its explosions had to be seen close up, in person; the dances, the fights, spilling out into the auditorium, the embryonic electricity of danger and the scent of blood felt at that moment and none other, and an ending deliberately constructed to contradict every known law of the Broadway musical.

As Sondheim would doubtless still attest, however, one needs to learn the rules thoroughly before one may break them and his youthful tutelage under Hammerstein cannot be avoided; after all, West Side Story turns on the same plot premise as Oklahoma! – who’s taking the girl to the dance? – but then throws urban mud back in its complacent face; multiple descendents of Jud throwing the knife into Curly, and without the promise of future, prosperous union; as the Moebius comic strip of “Gee, Officer Krupke!” demonstrates, the Jets and Sharks can turn any way they like, but at every turn will fail to find the future. The song “Somewhere” – based on that increasingly sinister two-chord leitmotif which hovers like a neutron bomb over the show’s landscape, and which finally finds respective resolutions in Bacharach and David’s “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa,” a song about the impossibility of there ever being a thing called “home” again, let alone getting there, and Scott Walker’s “Big Louise” with the man-woman lamenting in her/his haunted house, on a “fire escape in the sky” which may or may not be the same one on which Tony and Maria pledge their troth (as Manilow would late ask in “Copacabana,” what happens when these victims live on?) – seems the precise reverse of “The Young Ones”; Cliff and his chums have nothing to worry about, fear is an unknown concept to them, the future is all laid out, they can even get on with their parents. But – as again demonstrated in “Krupke” – these societal self-rejects may not even know who their parents are, and “Somewhere”’s delivery is based in a trepidation as scarlet as the album’s bloody cover.

Listening to the music alone, however, one is struck by exactly how radical West Side Story was in so many unexpected ways, and it seems clear to me that its appearance here marks a boundary, an end of something and a beginning of something else, and perhaps a more significant dividing line than Please Please Me. The “Prologue” for instance offers remarkable fare for a 1962 number one album; beginning with a long, Morricone-predicating whistle, we move into finger snaps, rattles of percussion and dissonant (Bartok via Bob Graettinger) brass which wouldn’t have been out of place in Mingus’ Town Hall Concert of 1962. I had in my extreme youth thought the movie of West Side Story to have been shot in the mid-fifties, i.e. at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, but when I discovered that it had been filmed and released in 1961 it made a parallel musical sense; Bernstein’s projection of what might have happened with pop had it taken the Mingus/Pithecanthropus Erectus path rather than the Elvis/”Heartbreak Hotel” avenue in 1956. Extreme volume alterations (quiet followed by sudden loud) foresee the Pixies and Nirvana. There are sequences of overlapping xylophones which essentially say hello to Steve Reich. Lena pointed out some harmonic/structural similarities to Rollins’ The Bridge (also released in 1962). Franticity is terminated by a police whistle before breaking into passages of brass/woodwind counterpoint which could have come off Gil Evans’ 1961 Into The Hot disc (either the John Carisi or Cecil Taylor sections). And yet, periodically peaking its nose through all of this newness, are hoedown passages straight out of Oklahoma!

Ironically, given the film’s huge reliance on dubbed singing voices, a substantial emphasis is placed on “non-singing” voices in the ensemble pieces, a trope which certainly would not have been lost on Carla Bley as she began to piece together Escalator Over The Hill half a decade later. Thus Russ Tamblyn’s untutored voice on “Jet Song” is a genuine but fresh shock. The song crisscrosses its own roadblocked rhythms as though knowing its subjects are going nowhere, never quite settles (a drunken, diagonal march marred by mud). This is Dobie Gray’s “In Crowd” stripped of the mythical belt of knowing manhood, revealed as a bunch of kneejerk racist misfits (rather than “the greatest”), who pronounce “bugging” in a way to make it sound as much like “fucking” as possible. And what’s that “bat out of hell” I see flying into the dim upper left corner?

“Something’s Coming” I am interpreting as an influence on Bacharach rather than vice versa, with many characteristic rhythmic and harmonic jumps and pauses which Bacharach would soon make his own; although Bryant imbues the song’s already defeated expectations with slight Presley-isms (e.g. his “the air is humming” and the surprisingly virile “Come on, deeeeeeeee-liver to me!” like a fuck-you-eagle Prometheus) his air is necessarily lighter than anything Elvis would have lent to it (Presley was the producers’ first choice for Tony but Col Parker said that his boy didn’t do no Broadway; Bobby Darin, Richard Chamberlain, Tab Hunter and, perhaps most intriguingly, Anthony Perkins were also considered for the role; Perkins would go on to resolve his own difficulties with society in Welles’ 1962 film of The Trial – that Freudian slip of “pornograph” for “phonograph” – a film as deliberately closed in as West Side Story which recognises that the only way out is the end of the world)..

It is also significant that Tamblyn and Beymer would eventually go on to portray vaguely lost souls in Lynch’s Twin Peaks, since much of West Side Story’s music plays as though fading in and out of a peculiarly foreboding dream; the vertiginous strings which slash into the start of the “Dance At The Gym” sequence, the echoes which haunt “Maria.” Twin Peaks serves as Riff’s and Tony’s afterlife, or hell; here they wash up, middle aged, not quite intact, Sherilyn Fenn as an undamaged Maria (unless she grew up and turned into Piper Laurie; see also de Palma’s Carrie as an improbable bridging point). “Dance At The Gym” itself is a virulent war of old versus new, the barn dance being obscured by odd moments of quiet, hoedowns facing off against swing (though the central Tony sees Maria/rest of dancehall dissolves trope was borrowed from the “Broadway Melody” ballet sequence in Singin’ In The Rain). The song “Maria” could even mark out West Side Story as the first New Pop musical – since it could properly be retitled, or subtitled, “The Word ‘Girl,’”; Tony seems lost, entranced in caverns of his own fatal making, in love with a name rather than a flesh and blood person, obsessed with the notion of love rather than the act itself.

“America” plays like the revenge of South Pacific; islanders knowing full well that the promise of a New Nation is a sham and yet, despite all their cynicism, mocking and suppressed terror, being utterly enchanted and hypnotised by its spectacle. Despite Sondheim’s extremely barbed lyrics this is clearly a celebration of the whooping new, anything, even slavery in different robes and disguises, being preferable to the deathly glare of the old. The Puerto Ricans see America as a challenge, but also as a potential suitor.

Amidst all this fiery furore, there lie surprisingly familiar oases of calm. “Tonight” structurally and emotionally is pure Rodgers and Hammerstein love duet; mindful of the shadow of “We Kiss In A Shadow” but with a pregnant cosiness which makes it feel like a resolved “If I Loved You” from Carousel; the “if” has disappeared, the promise young and profound. Similarly, “One Hand, One Heart” is a fulfilled “I Have Dreamed” even though its post-Tosca torrents of slo-mo augmented minor fifths intimate an unpleasant awakening.

The light relief also seems to underline some basic truths. “Krupke” seems to me more and more the show’s key song, since it not only outlines that every answer offers no answer at all, but also radicalises the Broadway musical’s vocabulary; if there was another preceding mainstream show which utilised words like “junkies,” “punks,” “marijuana” and (perhaps most significantly) “analyst” in its song lyrics, I’ve yet to hear it, but answers in the usual place if there be any. It is also the most terrifying song in the show, possibly because it comes across as the most lighthearted; it indicates with gleeful firmness that this may indeed be a war to the bloody death, and in the end always with themselves as their own enemies.

Likewise, “I Feel Pretty” is not as straightforward or cheery a post-My Fair Lady ditty as it might appear (Eliza and Freddy – they also have nothing to fear in comparison). Derived structurally in part from South Pacific’s “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy,” it continues the show’s policy of continuously deconstructing itself as it proceeds; Maria’s exclamation of “I can hardly believe I’m real” is disconcerting amongst all this surface perkiness.

The complex “Quintet” sequence of antiphonal apocalypse outlines to me why we had to read those lyrics out in school; these are difficult songs, hard to master or even control. Here all the strands come together, or at least ragingly co-exist briefly; “Tonight” is turned into a war chant, and the swarm of voices diagonally converging, channel to channel – and converging on what? – again strongly predict the devastating final sequences of Escalator. The “Rumble” sequence proceeds steadily to demolish all the structures which were quietly built up, and then suppressed, throughout the musicals previously discussed; the subtexts of received racism, violence, enchainment now fuse and fissure in the hands of the descendants of Oklahoma, Maine, Siam and Bali, and particularly in the fists of the Oklahomans; musically this plays, as Lena commented, like Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” turned inside out and then fiercely folded into itself. There are no crops of comfort to be dug here.

As the “America” sequence was predominantly female-led, and bright despite itself, “Cool” is chiefly male and as coldly rationalist as anything in the Broadway musical, its chants of “Let’s…go…crazy” foresee Cuckoo’s Nest far more than they do Prince but the dynamics and delivery seem also to earmark West Side Story, not only as the first rock musical, but also as the aesthetic birthplace of Tom Waits; the harsh whispers, the sudden lunges into the foreground, the “POW!!!!” followed by a catarrhal cackling, the extending deployment of space as a foil or undertow to rhythm.

In contrast the Anita/Maria medley is a last, desperate struggle of a cling to the old versus reluctant acceptance of the new; Anita’s is conversely the more modernistic-sounding of the two voices, jagged, abrupt, discordant, but she is eventually overcome by Maria’s quiet defiance, sourced from Carousel’s “What’s The Use In Wond’r’n’?,” and we know that this story will end similarly (Lena and I couldn’t help but think of Rihanna while listening), and without the gratifying tool of afterlife blessings to compensate. Together the two shakily harmonise at the end (and provide another preview of Escalator; compare with Bley and Ronstadt’s harmonising at the end of “Over Her Head”).

And, then, finally, the Passover, the Bodhisattva, the transference of the candle from one world to another; “Somewhere,” a love duet born out of a fear of everything, ready to embrace anything if only they could find it. “There’s a place for us,” “Peace and quiet and open air…wait for us…somewhere.” It is impossible not to listen to this pledge and think of it as a far wider statement; not just in terms of what happened in the States a few months ago but, in more immediate terms, what was going to happen with the sixties. Tony and Maria’s world was, as of 1962, still five years away, but they know that something is coming, has to come. And the paths remain multiple; at the other end of this decade will come Hair, where the old is finally shaken off, or at least seen to be shaken off; but still amongst the surviving Jets and Sharks there is already a fatalism about their (temporary?) pallbearing union at show’s end, a knowledge that some of them, the ones who don’t get sent off to get killed in an East Side Story, will grow up and become Johnny Boy or Travis Bickle. Or Frank Booth.