Deechelle Discusses: West Side Story

Posted: January 26, 2012 by Dee in Dee, Deechelle, General Media, Jach, Movies, Musicals
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One of the reasons we continue to be such great friends is because we share a lot of common interests. You can see in most of our joint reviews that we have the same tastes, and we are also both big theater and musical fans. We were talking about how Glee did West Side Story songs for the first half of this season, and how it drew us back into the show because we’re such fans. Then we went ‘wait a minute, let’s watch the movie and talk about that!’ This started us on our musical kick, and you’ll be hearing about this a lot from here on. First let’s talk about the play that inspired us: West Side Story!

The West Side Story takes place in Manhattan in 1957. An American gang called the Jets are feeling threatened by a new Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks who are starting to move in on their turf. Jets leader Riff decides he’s going to challenge the Sharks leader Bernardo, but he wants his best friend Tony to be there by his side. Tony is trying to work and get a good life, and he doesn’t want to be in the gang anymore. He agrees to go to the school dance with Riff when he plans on challenges Bernardo. At the same time Bernardo’s little sister Maria is newly arrived in Manhattan, and she’s excited to go to her very first dance. His girlfriend Anita bonds with her and they all go to the dance together. There Tony and Maria see each other across the room and fall in love. Bernardo is furious and agrees to a rumble with the Jets. Maria begs Tony to stop the fight, even if it’s going to be with fists only, and when he tries he gets hit. His friend Riff jumps in and accidentally gets stabbed by Bernardo. Enraged, Tony takes his friend’s knife and murders Bernardo.

Maria is heartbroken at first but can’t give up on her love for Tony. She promises to run away with him, even though she knows the Sharks are aiming for him. Anita is furious at Maria out of her own grief and frustration, but she agrees to bring a message to Tony. When the Jets sexually harass her, Anita tells them that Maria has been killed. Tony decides to give himself over to the Sharks, but instead finds out Maria is alive. Right before they reunite, the new Sharks leader Chino shoots Tony. Maria considers killing the others due to her own rage, and maybe herself, but collapses in tears instead. In the end the gangs grieve over their dead together and there is some implication of peace being made. The West Side Story movie came out in 1961 and won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

First Time We Saw This

Dee: I must have seen it when I was young, because it was a long joke in my family that my dad would say “when you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way!” whenever he was trying to make a point about loyalty. He loves musicals and got me into them. The first time I remember seeing it is in middle school when they thought we’d like Romeo & Juliet more if we saw this. I loved it from the beginning. We sang a mash-up of all the songs in chorus.

Jachelle: The first time I saw this I was back in middle school as well. We had a free day in my orchestra class, and my teacher popped in this movie to entertain us. You know how it goes with movies in class, most kids were talking and doing whatever they wanted anyway, but I was hooked right from the start. I was that girl yelling at the others to be quiet so I could enjoy the flick. I’ve had a love of the theatre from a young age, and West Side Story just captures so many things I love. It was impossible for me not to love it from the moment I first watched it.

Favorite Song

Dee: “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love” with Anita and Maria. The anger / sadness / hope / tragedy in that song kills me every time I hear it. It’s actually such a small song compared to the longer and more sweeping songs of the play, but for some reason it’s the one that always stays in my head. Maybe because the emotion changes so much from fury and hate to hope and love. Maybe it’s because I feel like Anita and Maria are the best parts of the movie and their friendship is so strong, so I really feel for this scene and song. Either way, I just love it. It should also be noted this is another song my family quotes constantly.

Jachelle: Okay. Well, I WAS going to pick “A Boy Like That,” but since Dee beat me to the punch, I’ll go with “America.” Let’s face it, every song in this musical is amazing, so picking a favorite is really like trying to pick the cutest kitten. A Boy Like That is filled with raw, heart-breaking emotion, whereas America is just pure fun. It has a fire and a life all its own. The dancing is fantastic, Anita is FIERCE, and the lyrics are fun and catchy. No one close to me is surprised to hear me randomly burst out into this song at any given moment.

Least Favorite Song

Dee: This is kind of funny, because “Something’s Coming” used to be one of my favorites, but I have to tell you: since seeing Darren Criss sing it in Glee, listening to it again from Jimmy Bryant was a little painful. He does so well in Tony’s other songs and I didn’t realize how weak his voice sounded in that song, but wow is it noticeable now. Now that’s just in the execution, I still love the lyrics of the song. So I’m going to go with “Cool” which just doesn’t work for me. I’m like ‘okay bored now let’s get back to the story.’

Jachelle: YOU SHUT UP, DEE. COOL IS AWESOME. Where was I? I think my least favorite song is probably “One Hand, One Heart.” Which is kind of hilarious, because the entire scene leading up to it in the dress shop is one of my favorites. Maybe that’s part of the reason, actually. We get Tony and Maria being adorable together talking about their families and basically playing dress up, and then that song comes along and I zone out. It’s so boring. Look, I know it’s their vows to love each other forever, but it’s SO BORING.  And I think Natalie Wood totally overpowers Jimmy Bryant in it. Not my fave.

Opinion on Music In General

Dee: I love this musical, although I have to say I think the stars of it have gotten better voice-wise. I’ve heard a few cast recordings since and obviously the Glee episode recently, and it did make me notice that Jimmy Bryant’s voice really wasn’t as strong as I wanted from Tony. Riff’s voice was also kind of weak, I’d expect everyone in a big musical like this to be experts, but only the women sounded amazing. And they did, both Maria and Anita have gorgeous and emotive voices. Beyond the voices, I love the lyrics. I love how clever it can be. To be honest, the thing I love most about West Side Story is the music beyond the songs. The melody, the dance routines, the exciting beats, and I could seriously just sit here swaying and dancing to it all night.

Jachelle: When she says she “could” sit here swaying all night, what she ACTUALLY means is that she IS sitting there swaying all night. AND I’M SWAYING RIGHT ALONG WITH YOU, DEE. The music in this show just kills me, in the best possible way. The orchestral pieces are fabulous and they tell the story just as much as the singing and acting does. I mean, just look at the prologue for god’s sake. The lyrics are wonderful, managing to be clever and touching. Dee’s right that the male leads voices could use a little work, but I’ll forgive them, because they were so damn committed to the story.

Favorite Non-Musical Scene

Dee: The entire school dance sequence. The two gangs facing off with their dance styles and the musical chairs dance (lol) and then Tony and Maria seeing each other. That was well done in this movie, with them fading out everything else so only they are clearly seen. Just a great sequence in general and it sold that bam okay there’s chemistry here. I’m not a huge fan of love at first sight, but I at least believed the two of them were inescapably drawn to each other. Plus any scene where there’s a lot of dancing is going to be high on my list.

Jachelle: I mentioned it briefly earlier, but I just can’t get enough of the scene of Maria and Tony in the dress shop. They are both so hopeful about the future and just indescribably adorable. I’m not a big fan of the love at first sight theme, but in this moment, I can genuinely believe that these two have fallen in love with each other. They’re in that cute, playful, honeymoon stage and I just want to squish the two of them. Of course, then after that I’m forced to watch as the two are completely and utterly destroyed and I sob like a little girl with a skinned knee.

Favorite Quote (s)

Dee: Bernardo: I think I’ll go back to San Juan
Anita: I know a boat you can get on
Bernardo: Everyone there will give big cheer!
Anita: Everyone there will have moved here

Jachelle: Maria: My brother is a silly watchdog.
Bernardo: My sister is a precious jewel.
Anita: And what am I? Cut glass?

Favorite Character

Dee: Anita of course. We already knew we’d both pick the same character and for the same reasons. She’s badass and smart and funny and powerful. I love everything about her in this play and movie. Flawless.

Jachelle: Definitely Anita. She is epic in so many ways. When my high school did a production of West Side Story, I overcame my INTENSE fear of singing in public to audition for her on the ridiculously small chance that I might actually get to play her. I didn’t even come close, BUT I REGRET NOTHING. Anita was worth it.

Least Favorite Character

Dee: Riff. I’ll get into why below.

Jachelle: Going with Dee again on this one. Riff isn’t a bad character, necessarily, just flat. All of the Jets, with maybe the exception of Baby John are not very well defined characters. For a two hour film, I really feel like they could have given us a little more depth to the characters. Riff is such a flat character that I don’t really care at all when he dies.The only reason his death means anything at all is because it’s what leads to Bernardo’s and eventually Tony’s deaths. I want more to Riff than just a loud mouth.

Opinion on it based on Romeo & Juliet

Dee: I’ll talk about my issues with Riff here since it’s a major one for me, and it has entirely to do with Romeo & Juliet. In some ways I wish I didn’t know this was based off it, but I know that’s also one of the major aspects about it, so it’s a mixed bag. I’m a Shakespeare nut and when they miss some really fantastic things about the original play, it infuriates me. Riff, for example, is supposed to be Mercutio. Mercutio is my favorite character from Romeo & Juliet and one of my favorites in all of Shakespeare. His death is supposed to be completely tragic and avoidable. He’s not even a part of the gangs really, he is Romeo’s friend and he gets in the middle of the war and dies for it. Riff here actively seeks to kill Bernardo and is the leader of the gang, and that for me loses the major impact of his death.  He was quite literally asking for it, rather than being a tragic martyr. Another problem I have is that Maria lives. The crux of Romeo & Juliet is that they both die. I do think that is necessary for the story to fully work, and leaving her alive bothers me. I have more to say and I’ll get into that in the next part. LOL. I’ve written essays about this play. I’m holding back!

Jachelle: If I could copy and paste everything Dee just wrote, I would. I was really bummed at the Merrcutio/Riff translation, and it still bothers me that Maria lives at the end. I mean, yes, the story is still tragic but it changes the tone of everything when Maria doesn’t die. That being said, I do appreciate the story as an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. A lot of people just hear the name “Shakespeare” and automatically tune out, so I enjoy watching adaptations of his stories to see how people react to them.

Opinion on the play as a whole

Dee: I love this play. I love it. I still know every song, I still am amazed at the fantastic dancing, I get sucked in and emotional every time I watch it, and the movie does great with all of those things. I think what the play does beautifully is depict the immigrants and their struggle in America, and their joy at being there and the strife they face. I think making this into a race battle was a bold move for West Side Story, and I’m impressed that they went there, but on the other hand I think it makes it harder to sympathize with the Jets. They’re racist angry punks, seriously. At the time this was done it was a much more ripe subject and I’m sure there were people who would’ve demonized the Sharks instead, but for 2012 I’m like ‘jeez the Jets are practically demons in this.’ They start the war, they harass them, and they almost gang rape Anita for crying out loud. That’s messed up. And it’s great, it makes you emotional and makes people think when they watch it. But I do think they took more time to make Bernardo and the Sharks more interesting and well rounded as characters, and because of that the Jets seemed much more one-note. For the movie I love some of the lighting they do, the dancing is sooooo great, and while the male voices make me go whaaaaat now, I spent the whole movie enraptured. All these years and West Side Story still has a place in my heart.

Jachelle: West Side Story is and always will be my favorite musical. And yet again, Dee already went and said everything I was already thinking. So I feel like a broken record, but I’ll reiterate. I’m not going to pretend I have any real frame of reference for being a foreigner, but even without that, I feel like I know and understand what the characters were going through. You sympathize with the characters, and you so desperately want everything to work out in the end, even though you know it’s not going to. And can I just take a second to gush about Anita and Bernardo? You guys, seriously. WHO DOES NOT LOVE THESE TWO? Their chemistry in the film is just SO GOOD. Their is such a spark between them. I could watch that scene of the two of them after the “America” number FOREVER. Okay, gushing over. Back to the topic at hand. West Side Story is a very poignant look at race, in addition to being a lovely and tragic love story. The music is wonderful and timeless, and while it’s not a perfect rendition of Romeo and Juliet, it’s a captivating story that still draws me in every time.


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