Soprano12

West Side Story

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By plan or coincidence, TCM has scheduled theater showings of this great musical on June 24th and 27th. It will be a wonderful opportunity to apply what we have learned in this course as we watch it on the big screen.

In preparation, I have done some research and prepared some notes to share. Some of this comes from my experience as an English teacher or as a singer as well as childhood memories and personal opinion. Perhaps after viewing, this thread can get us talking about the experience.

West Side Story (1961)

 

1.    Origins: Like many of his plays, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based on previously-known  stories from various sources and based his play on them. Original stories came from authors Masuccio Salernitano (1410-1475), Luigi da Porta in the 1530, Matteo Bandello (1480-1562), French author Pierre Boaistuau whose story was translated in 1562.

2.    Modern setting:  a major character in the film are the slums of the inner city. This is not the NY, NY of On the Town.  The set designs and location duplicate the reality of the city. The buildings and chain link fences become visual and physical obstacles, symbolizing their imprisonment in a social structure that is not friendly to youth.

3.    It tackles in musical form social issues prevalent beginning in films in the 1950’s, most notably, James Dean’s portrayal in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Glenn Ford’s in The Blackboard Jungle (also 1955). For example, in Rebel, while his father parades around in an apron, Jim is on the couch, looking at the world upside down to personify the conflicts wrought by changes in male/female roles in the 1950’s.  Glenn Ford’s teacher is confounded by his rebellious, violent students and struggles to maintain his mission as well as to preserve his life. In WSS, everything is turned up a notch by the story itself as well as the music. The main characters all suffer great teenage angst and are conflicted about their futures as they stand on the precipice of adulthood.  The adults are ineffectual. In fact, in WSS, parents are never shown. The only adults are the storekeeper, teachers and policemen. Adults are supposed to help protect and guide kids. Here, kids are exposed and vulnerable. Yes, they are rebellious but they rightly question the world in which they live and innately see themselves as either puppets or victims of it or agents of change. It is a grim, realistic picture, so unlike the optimistic musicals of the past. Even when musicals tackled social issues before, they (especially Rodgers and Hammerstein) were in brighter settings and resolved with happy endings. In WSS, without the strength of blood relatives, kids seek family through gangs. They must prove themselves loyal and courageous in the somewhat twisted theme of conformity begun in the 50’s. Like Romeo and Juliet, bad things happen when anger, fanned by the need for revenge and saving face, and mob rule prevail. The adolescents are victims of society and poverty and the lack of effective adult/social intervention. It is a dark story with a small glimmer of hope.

4.    An important source of conflict is immigration and racism. Zenophobia and racial profiling were as prevalent in the 50’s and 60’s as they are today. Although the Brown vs Board of Education decision integrated schools in 1954, conflict abounded as shown in the WSS school dance. White flight took people out of the cities and into the suburbs, exacerbating the problem. Although Puerto Rico had been made a US territory in 1899 and its citizens Americans. For immigrants, tension was high.  Even today, we have not resolved these problems. Add in the current economic and political refugees and the pot continues to boil.

5.    The dancing and music of WSS are the pinnacle of musicals. Rooted in ballet and jazz, Robbin’s choreography adapts ballet and jazz to tell the stories of the characters. Perfectly synchronized to Leonard Berstein’s challenging score, it is organically integrated into the story. Like Gene Kelly, the characters walk like dancers even before the numbers begin. Indeed, most of cast come from strong backgrounds in dance. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are smart and emotional and give the dancers backstories to use as vehicles for their performances.

6.    West Side Story’s music forms the backbone of this production. By the 1950’s Leonard Bernstein was known by the musical establishment for both his composing and conducting. The general public had met him in the televised Omnibus programs from 1955-58 where he taught children and adults how to listen to classical music in his charismatic way. I fell in love with him and classical music right then although I was younger than 10. When he conducted the orchestra, every gesture and facial expression seemed to pull the music out of the instruments. In this musical, not only does the music pervade the film from start to end but it is the emotional landscape on which the story is told. It takes the audience from youthful exuberance, through menace, to tender love and tragedy.  I can’t wait to read Bernstein’s daughter’s new biography about her father.

 

I read the Steven Spielberg is attempting to mount a revival of West Side Story. We love you, Steven, but please leave this classic alone.

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26 minutes ago, Soprano12 said:

I read the Steven Spielberg is attempting to mount a revival of West Side Story. We love you, Steven, but please leave this classic alone.

AMEN! IMO, when a director/producer suggests a remake of a classic film, it is either:

1 - Out of sheer ego that only they can do it so uniquely different & spectacular.

2 - Some are getting lazy and tired of inventing originals and some (sadly like Spielberg) have fallen victim of Sequel-Syndrome. IOW: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Just tweek it and reintroduce it. 

3 - They feel the current younger-majority-paying-movie goers won't (a) remember the original;(b) can't possibly relate to the original because it's of a different time & era; or (c) don't give a crap about authentic integrity & the meaning of the word "classic". 

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Speaking of remakes, I saw a couple of trailers of the new Star is Born with Lady Gaga. OMG, worse than awful. 

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One of the few remakes that was actually better than the original was Judy Garland & James Mason's 1954 version of the original 1937 "A Star Is Born"w/Janet Gaynor & Frederic March.

The '76 re-remake w/Barbra Streisand & Kris Kristofferson was pretty bad w/the exception of the song "Evergreen". 

Just watching the trailer of this latest incarnation w/Gaga & Bradley Cooper (how low HE has sunk) makes me want to wretch. Enough is enough already. Yet....the kids will flock to it.

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Just a minor quibble with something you wrote.

In fact, in WSS, parents are never shown. The only adults are the storekeeper, teachers and policemen. 

Glad-hand (played by John Astin), seen overseeing the dance, was a social worker, not a teacher.

 

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I think it’s a wash between 1937 and 1954 A Star is Born. Garland is wonderful and the production values are gorgeous in 1954. “The Man that Got Away” is one of the greatest song performances ever filmed. But for me 1937 is much more touching and believable. March and Gaynor feel like a real couple in trouble, where for me there is just zero chemistry between Garland and Mason.

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Just returned from seeing West Side Story on the big screen. I hope this film gets discussion in the remaining modules because it is the BEST film musical of all time. Bernstein's score is incredible and Sondheim's lyrics perfect. The choreography and dancing superb. The acting and singing by the two leads poignant. The integration of song and story delicately and precisely accomplished. Camera angles accentuate the dancers' positions and movements, especially when they seem to defy gravity.

There are so many things I noticed this time that I missed before. However, I will address one and get out of the way for others to chime in. Every scene is shot like a work of art, perfectly framed and colorized. The lighting reminds me of film noir not just in setting but the way that shadows add dimension and tone to scenes. Props in the set cast shadows as do the people. The setting and shadows menace the kids. In the sequence when Tony leaves Maria and walks down the alley calling for Chino, the camera is above him adding to his sense of isolation.  The sets are not only accurate for a city, especially New York, but they contain symbols that add to the deep meaning of the scenes. For example, windows and their tracery shadows are used to hint at churches. 

This is the epitome of film musicals bar none. There could be an entire course dedicated to this film.

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First- HUGE Thank You!  My June has been quite fun.  I would love for it to continue and to take an actual class on it.

Second- I hope that there is a discussion on West Side Story this week.  I went to the TCM Fathom Event today and loved it.  West Side is my all-time favourite and I have never seen it on the "big screen".  Thank You for putting this event together with Fathom.  I highly encourage everyone to go when they redo it on Wednesday.

 

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"West Side Story - the good, the not so good, the bad, and the ugly"

 

Apologies, I'm about a week behind on the course, so I don't know if West Side Story has been discussed yet. But I saw it today as part of the TCM Big Screen Classic series. I also have a bit of a connection to the musical, we performed it in high school.

The "good:"

This is the first time I have seen this on the big screen. Prior viewings have been limited to pan and scan TV presentations and the DVD. This movie is more amazing on the big screen than I had thought in prior viewings. For the street scenes, it is so gritty, the dirty New York City of the late 50's and early 60's as well as capturing a poverty and clash between two cultures that sadly still exists today. Not to mention the increased prejudice toward Latinos so prevalent in recent news.

WSS also so stylized in it's presentation - the visuals, including the incredible use of color in the lighting and in the costumes. The choreography - not just in the dance scenes, but also in the fight scenes - is so stylized and modern, nothing before it is like it. I don't know if the choreography of the great Jerome Robbins is represented elsewhere on film - I would certainly love to see it. And the music / lyrics of Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim. It is such a distinct and modernistic turn away from everything we had seen in the songs and music of typical film musicals and the work of the musical writers and teams up to that time.

Nearly everyone acting in the film works. I believed George Chikiras and Rita Moreno and the rest of the Sharks as their characters. I believed Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and the rest of the Jets as their characters. The casting of not so well known movie / theatrical actors was a masterstroke for the movie.

The "not so good:"

Having performed WSS in high school, I could pick nits as to the minor changes. Mainly dialogue - "**** to worm" is replaced with "burst (or birth?) to earth." And other lines like that to deal with early 60's censorship. Or the changes to some of the songs. Still, some other sexual references remain.

But there is only one aspect of the movie that doesn't work for me - Natalie Wood. Every time she appears on screen, I have to work to see her as Maria, as opposed to the other actors who I immediately believed as their characters. She was the only "name" - both before or after to appear in the movie. The producers could have made a better choice.

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are working on a remake. I hope that they are casting naturalistic performers as opposed to "names" in their remake.

The "bad:"

I generally like Ben Mankiewicz as a TCM host. Maybe it's not even his fault. But in his intro and closing to the movie, all he talks about is well-known trivia (which you can find on IMDB) for the movie. If you listen to classical radio stations or are in touch with local arts organizations, you will know that this year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Which was why I thought the movie was added late to the TCM Big Screen lineup.

But the Bernstein centennial doesn't get a mention. I really don't care about Rita Moren's EGOT. The Bernstein centennial should have been mentioned.

The "ugly:"

BE forewarned of seeing TCM Big Screen Classics in any multiplex. My auditorium must have been right next door to the one showing "Jurassic Drek." For over 150 minutes, the great music and love story is overwhelmed by a constant rumbling noise from whatever overblown nonsense is playing next door.

I really feel sorry for viewers who didn't grow up during classic movies, or who aren't familiar with them. All that they are familiar with is loud, loud, loud. SIGH.

 

Additional:

Okay, it was message board that censored a word that is a legitimate part of the discussion of West Side Story, above. Not me.

Edited by liberalnlovinit
Such a great thread title, which was lost when the thread was merged.
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YOU said: "But the Bernstein centennial doesn't get a mention. I really don't care about Rita Moren's EGOT.  The Bernstein centennial should have been mentioned."

I get it about the Bernstein centennial, but  that's no reason to knock the achievements of Miss Moreno.  Being a EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner is a big deal.

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29 minutes ago, liberalnlovinit said:

The "bad:"

I generally like Ben Mankiewicz as a TCM host. Maybe it's not even his fault. But in his intro and closing to the movie, all he talks about is well-known trivia (which you can find on IMDB) for the movie. If you listen to classical radio stations or are in touch with local arts organizations, you will know that this year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Which was why I thought the movie was added late to the TCM Big Screen lineup.

But the Bernstein centennial doesn't get a mention. I really don't care about Rita Moren's EGOT. The Bernstein centennial should have been mentioned.

Maybe Ben felt that TCM's dedicating an entire upcoming evening's programming to Bernstein's 100th was enough. Sunday, July 22nd, from 8PM ET to 4:15 AM ET.

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51 minutes ago, starryeyzze said:

YOU said: "But the Bernstein centennial doesn't get a mention. I really don't care about Rita Moren's EGOT.  The Bernstein centennial should have been mentioned."

I get it about the Bernstein centennial, but  that's no reason to knock the achievements of Miss Moreno.  Being a EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner is a big deal.

It's an egot booster, I'll give you that.


No complaints here about Rita Moreno. She went from there to shouting "HEY YOU GUUUUUYS" on The Electric Company. That's dedication. She and Morgan Freeman are tops in my book (Freeman did all sorts of silly characters in that PBS show).

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2 hours ago, starryeyzze said:

YOU said: "But the Bernstein centennial doesn't get a mention. I really don't care about Rita Moren's EGOT.  The Bernstein centennial should have been mentioned."

I get it about the Bernstein centennial, but  that's no reason to knock the achievements of Miss Moreno.  Being a EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner is a big deal.

Being Leonard Bernstein is also a big deal.

No offense to Ms. Moreno, but she's been able to celebrate her EGOT for decades. We only get to celebrate Bernstein's centennial for this year.

It should have been worth a mention.

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TCM needs to update its method of introducing films. It is surprising that a company that uses technology in so many ways still gives intros with available, basic information, especially in this setting. They should assume that the audience is knowledgeable and interested in learning more. It really dumbs down the intro and insults viewers.

Back to the film, one backdrop detail that exemplifies the use of the set as part of the message. When the Jets head to the rumble, they are seen at first from the side with the words "East" and "War" on the building behind. As the camera pans left to bring them straight on, the middle word is exposed as "Warehouse." This is one detail that heightens the tension in the scene.

Some of you are concerned about Wood and Moreno. To me, Tony is not presented well. He is a co-founder of the Jets. Although he has matured and begun to conform to adult society (which is shown at its most helpless, apathetic worst in this film), there should still be some lingering toughness to him. He could still be tender in the love scenes. This emasculation is part of his ineffectiveness when he interacts with Riff and the gang. His authority only comes from Riff's insistence on his participation and command for respect from the others. Yes, he reverts to his baser instincts when he kills Bernardo. Still, it seems to heavy-handed to portray him this way.

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I saw West Side Story on the big screen.  I loved Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn.  Hated Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer.  I think they were put in because they were "stars" at the time.  Natalie especially annoyed me.

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Attended the 50th Anniversary at Radio City Music Hall where Rita Moreno and George Chakiris were there to talk about the movie and introduce the showing of the film as it had been restored.  Thus, I have zero need to see this film on the big screen.  What got me was Natalie, though a very popular film star, should have never been Maria.  I wish they had cast an unknown talented girl of Puerto Rican origin.  And as some have suggested, since Ms. Wood was very popular a big star, it would bring young people to come to see the film.  Hollywood decisions, go figure.  Rita and George were incredible in the film, and I was lucky enough to meet Ms. Moreno briefly to thank her for kicking down the Hollywood door for Puerto Ricans (you know she had to put up with a lot of stuff to be one of the firsts) and that she still inspires (EGOT goals, anyone?) and that we still need her today.  I'm so glad she is still active and wonderful.  She deserves everyone's respect.

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On 6/23/2018 at 12:43 PM, Suzy-Q said:

Speaking of remakes, I saw a couple of trailers of the new Star is Born with Lady Gaga. OMG, worse than awful. 

As far as the latest remake of A Star is Born, it looks good.  I don't know how one can judge "worse than awful" unless they got an advance copy of the completed film to make a true assessment.  It definitely is a character film, and I am intrigued to see how Gaga carries it.  She seems a natural.  As far as Cooper, I am holding off on any further assessment, he is also the director, and something he had been fighting to get done for several years, this is his pet project and I hope he and Gaga deliver on this in their own way and knock it out of the park.  To think, Elvis was supposed to play the Kristofferson role.  I think Elvis would have been extraordinary.  But we will never know.

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11 hours ago, Soprano12 said:

TCM needs to update its method of introducing films. It is surprising that a company that uses technology in so many ways still gives intros with available, basic information, especially in this setting. They should assume that the audience is knowledgeable and interested in learning more. It really dumbs down the intro and insults viewers.

 

I would love to see their intros go deeper into the themes of a movie, as opposed to well-known trivia. I guess that's hard to encapsulate into two-minute intros and outtros. Still, it's worth a try.

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5 minutes ago, ressydm said:

Attended the 50th Anniversary at Radio City Music Hall where Rita Moreno and George Chakiris were there to talk about the movie and introduce the showing of the film as it had been restored.  Thus, I have zero need to see this film on the big screen.  What got me was Natalie, though a very popular film star, should have never been Maria.  I wish they had cast an unknown talented girl of Puerto Rican origin.  And as some have suggested, since Ms. Wood was very popular a big star, it would bring young people to come to see the film.  Hollywood decisions, go figure.  Rita and George were incredible in the film, and I was lucky enough to meet Ms. Moreno briefly to thank her for kicking down the Hollywood door for Puerto Ricans (you know she had to put up with a lot of stuff to be one of the firsts) and that she still inspires (EGOT goals, anyone?) and that we still need her today.  I'm so glad she is still active and wonderful.  She deserves everyone's respect.

Problem was, there were few to no people of color or origin in the business at the time. The 60's film industry was still pretty much a "whites-only" business. People of color or origin were still being relegated to background roles of the "butler" or "maid." Sidney Poitier was still on the cusp of breaking the color barrier.

This is a reason I would welcome Steven Spielberg's remake of WSS, if for no other reason than to cast Latino actors in the Puerto Rican roles. I would also hope that Tony Kushner would expand the Puerto Rican characters in the film. I played a Shark during our high school production and was amazed at how little time the Sharks had onstage.

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11 hours ago, Soprano12 said:

TCM needs to update its method of introducing films. It is surprising that a company that uses technology in so many ways still gives intros with available, basic information, especially in this setting. They should assume that the audience is knowledgeable and interested in learning more. It really dumbs down the intro and insults viewers.

Back to the film, one backdrop detail that exemplifies the use of the set as part of the message. When the Jets head to the rumble, they are seen at first from the side with the words "East" and "War" on the building behind. As the camera pans left to bring them straight on, the middle word is exposed as "Warehouse." This is one detail that heightens the tension in the scene.

Some of you are concerned about Wood and Moreno. To me, Tony is not presented well. He is a co-founder of the Jets. Although he has matured and begun to conform to adult society (which is shown at its most helpless, apathetic worst in this film), there should still be some lingering toughness to him. He could still be tender in the love scenes. This emasculation is part of his ineffectiveness when he interacts with Riff and the gang. His authority only comes from Riff's insistence on his participation and command for respect from the others. Yes, he reverts to his baser instincts when he kills Bernardo. Still, it seems to heavy-handed to portray him this way.

Wow, that's insulting.  TCM is not about snobbery.  Every day there is somebody new that discovers TCM.  TCM doesn't talk down to people but you sure do.  I learn something new each time I see a film being introduced by TCM.  I don't see it as talking down to me but helpful information.  And I know I am not the only person watching or having access to TCM so I don't assume everyone knows everything when watching TCM or watching any other channel.  Loving and discussing films is not an elitist task. 

As you say, back to the film.  You're talking about a movie made in 1961, at a time where social mores were changing and movies like West Side Story were commenting on what was going on at the time with the influx of Puerto Ricans into New York.  The sad part that the neighbourhood that was filmed during the outside scenes is a neighbourhood (called San Juan Hill) that was demolished to make way for the fancy Lincoln Center.  We talk now of gentrification but New York City has always been changing its face.

What direction the actor playing Tony got, well, it's finalized on film for better or for worse.  As I recall, there were at least two directors on that film, so I imagine there was a lot of drama about who was giving what direction and what would stay in the final cut was probably drastically different than what was going on in production.  If anything, the emasculation of Tony is fitting.  And timely.

 

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6 minutes ago, liberalnlovinit said:

Problem was, there were few to no people of color or origin in the business at the time. The 60's film industry was still pretty much a "whites-only" business. People of color or origin were still being relegated to background roles of the "butler" or "maid." Sidney Poitier was still on the cusp of breaking the color barrier.

This is a reason I would welcome Steven Spielberg's remake of WSS, if for no other reason than to cast Latino actors in the Puerto Rican roles. I would also hope that Tony Kushner would expand the Puerto Rican characters in the film. I played a Shark during our high school production and was amazed at how little time the Sharks had onstage.

I'm not thrilled with Spielberg being the director.  What is wrong with a Puerto Rican director?  They are out there.  And the film industry now is still struggling with the "whites only" being the majority.  Whose fault is that?  There are plenty of talented Hispanic, Puerto Rican people who are actors who do not catch a break because of this systemic bias.  But some got through.  They had to change their names though.  Too "ethnic".  Ah.  Still the news of today.    But for every one that did, hundreds did not. And all I want to see in Puerto Rican roles that specifically are Puerto Rican, are actual Puerto Rican actors of Puerto Rican origin or descent.  I don't want to see "Latino" -- because that's too broad, and is a blanket term for people who come from all over the world who happen to speak Spanish.  West Side Story is an updated remake of Romeo & Juliet, not the Montagues & the Capulets.

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One reason and one reason ONLY for Steven Spielberg to direct the remake - he has the clout in Hollywood to choose which films he wants to make and greenlight a film. It's going to be hard enough to get this film greenlit because it doesn't have superheroes, lightsabers or dinosaurs in it. Spielberg attached to the production also guarantees a larger box office.

With the budget required for a remake of WSS, Hollywood is not going to take a chance on a lesser known director, even if that director is Hispanic.

Sadly, the bottom line in Hollywood IS the Bottom Line. So it's Spielberg or the movie doesn't get made. Give Spielberg credit that he understands and pays attention to these issues, and will hire the production crew and cast the actors to achieve the inclusiveness that you and I seek in the remake.

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Leonard Bernstein's Daughter Jamie published a Biography about growing up in the Bernstein family, Famous Father Girl. I have only read three chapters but the second chapter was so vivid because of this class. She mentions his compositions, West Side Story and a host of details and insights that will be interesting to all who are fascinated by this man and his works. The timing marks the 100th anniversary of his birth.

For anyone interested in Rodgers and Hammerstein, a new book, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution, covers their lives and partnership.  Again, I only read the first four chapters but the insights it gives regarding their lives and the obstacles they faced both in Hollywood and on Broadway touching on the world we entered through this class. They were not over-night successes and had other collaborators before they melded their skills together.

I recommend both of these books.

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Saw the in-theater screening today of West Side Story and LOVED it. The use of the wide screen, the sound (no problems in this theater), the beauty of it. The choreography is mesmerizing, the music and lyrics are works of art in themselves. Plus, I love Ben's introductions -- I think you're expecting too much of these, maybe. How could only a couple of minutes capture the entire musical, anyway. I think emphasizing Rita Morena made a lot of sense. What bothered me consistently, however, was Natalie Wood. Sure she's a good actress and pretty, but the put-on Latina accent plus the dubbing of her singing voice -- and not always a very convincing job of lip-syncing.  The other characters are cast true to ethnic type and she just stuck out. I enjoyed the outing -- it's like this class had a Field Trip. Thanks for the recommendations.

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I also saw this today.  Something was odd in the rumble scene: why would some gang members climb the fence when they could go through the corner tunnel?  The fence climbing seemed like it was just put in for dramatic effect.  Even the injured Tony has to throw himself over the fence. 

I haven't ever understood the Anybodys character.  She's a counter to Baby John, a yang to his yin,  a rough and tumble female to his sensitive male.  But she seems like more than a tomboy, the worst thing for her would be to be thought of as a wuss, like Baby John.   Is she supposed to be a plot device, acting as a scout to transfer gang information back and forth?  Or is she supposed to be a humorous counter to the traditional girlfriends/molls of the Jets?  She's at the dance, but does she dance with anyone?  

The action numbers are so visually intense that the romantic Tony/Maria ballads seem to drag the movie down more than ballads usually do in musicals.  Tony and Maria are so boring.  I don't care what happens to them.  Maybe it's because I've seen this movie a bunch of times.  The Maria/Anita duet is much more interesting.   

And I forgot how looooooong this movie is.  It lasted 90 minutes to intermission, and then maybe 55 to 60 minutes for the last half.  The whole thing was over three and a half hours.  Yikes. 

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