I went to the last event of the MoreLondon Free Festival at The Scoop, which was an outdoor screening of the 1961 Oscar winner for Best Picture, West Side Story. I saw it mostly to see how well it stood the test of time, and for the most part it still manages to entertain in the way that movie musicals from that era usually do (read: Funny Face, The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain). The music was laid on too thick, the choreography overdone and the dialogue hokey. But I don’t say this to disparage the movie because I think that that’s where you actually derive most of the pleasure in re-watching it. Instead, I’m suggesting that if there ever is a Platonic ideal for 60’s musicals, West Side Story comes pretty damn close.
Part of what makes it really entertaining now is that it is, of course, extremely campy. As if the cheese factor of the Romeo and Juliet story wasn’t enough, the gang rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks that manifested in pirouettes and pliés was pure, unadulterated theatricality, the kind of which can’t be performed anymore without someone batting an eyelash at the smarminess of it all. And what makes it authentically campy is its unintentionality. As Susan Sontag said in her classic piece “Notes on Camp”, camp which knows itself to be campy is usually less satisfying. So when Maria’s says “Tony, when you come, make sure you enter the back door,” you can’t help but be amused by its naïveté.
Watching it in the outdoor amphitheater amplified some of the emotions that still manages to resonate fifty-one years after the movie was first released. It lent Maria and Tony’s duet Tonight an extra poignancy, for example. And the fantasy wedding scene between the two while a tad mawkish still managed to convey sincere emotion. And I guess what makes West Side Story refreshing when it came out is the way it treated serious national issues — gang violence, immigration, racial tension — with an air of frivolity that trivialized it in the way that made it seem like they really should be trivial. It sought to redeem the American dream, that people should’t be fighting and killing each other over their places of birth because in America, everyone gets a new start and gets to leave their baggage behind. Of course now, that myth has been shattered and when Anita sings “Buying on credit is so nice” you want to give her a pat on the shoulder and say, “No, dear. It really isn’t.“
I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems that people tend to ignore West Side Story when the topic of movie musicals come up. The last time I remember it penetrate the cultural conversation was when Glee ran a subplot about the kids staging the musical for their school, but that really isn’t saying much. Like its other more-loved contemporaries, there are a lot of gems that shouldn’t be forgotten here, like Rita Morena’s scene-stealing performance as Anita, or yes, even Jerome Robbins’ choreography that predates Grease in the way it brilliantly combines the tough-guy, street gang culture with the femininity of ballet and dance. There are a lot of things that didn’t age well, and Natalie Wood’s tragic demise probably altered the way people have appreciated this movie, but it is one that on occasion, should be revisited, if only to revel in Maria’s ode to feeling pretty or in Tony’s anticipation that something great might be coming tonight. Because really, who knows?