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WSS Singalong Report

Bernardo, played by George Chakiris, and Anita, played by Rita Moreno: The Dance at the Gym

I can encapsulate my feelings about yesterday’s West Side Story Singalong in one concise sentence: It was not my favorite way of viewing West Side Story. Since I’m prone to much more verbiage than that, however, I will elaborate.

The singing itself was kinda fun—it was nice to be able to sing as loudly as I wanted without anyone shushing me. I probably should have expected the words to be captioned on screen, and really, what’s the big deal that they were? But I couldn’t help feeling this was cheating. I’d gotten grumpy even before the movie started, when the two women who organized the program got up on stage to give us our instructions. Seriously—they told us how to wave our hands, when to shake the little lights they handed out, and which characters to sympathize with out loud (Baby John and Anybodys). As if the PC audience wouldn’t have known! They demonstrated their impeccable principles by hissing, laughing and making noise at appropriate moments.

Silly me, I thought Singalong meant simply that we would sing along, and I even wondered if I’d be allowed to say some of the dialog as well. Hah! There was so much extracurricular participation it was annoying, especially the hissing. At every Puerto Rican slur—and if nothing else WSS is a portrayal of ethnic hatred—they hissed. Okay, I wanted to shout, we get it, you don’t approve, you’re a good person!  I may even have muttered something like this at some point, but if anyone heard they ignored me. Almost as annoying as the hissing was the laughter—they laughed at some of the outdated dancing and the corny love dialog.

These are the artists who worked on West Side Story: Music—Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics—Stephen Sondheim; Choreography—Jerome Robbins; Director—Robert Wise. Listen up, morons: You don’t laugh at these giants of the theater. You just don’t. Yes, some of the dancing is outdated—but in 1962 it was new and revolutionary. Yes, when the Jets glide down the street in the opening number they look kind of silly: after all, they’re supposed to be gangsters. But WSS began as a Broadway musical, and in this scene the Jets are claiming their turf. That’s the way it was done, and it’s the kind of thing that’s still done on Broadway.

Ironically, when I saw WSS at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, a bunch of African-American teenage boys laughed their asses off during that scene—but by the time we got to “The Jets Song” they were speechless, and remained so for the rest of the picture. Not so the sophisticated audience at the Castro: they kept laughing. (By the way, I was surprised that the Castro wasn’t filled with gay men, but hetero couples and groups of young women. I’d expectedgay men to come out in droves since they love musicals—or has this changed?. Also, most of West Side Story’s male dancers were probably gay.)

During one love scene, with everyone cracking up, I asked a young woman sitting next to me what was so funny, was it the corny dialog, and she said yes, that was it. But I suspect the laughter comes from the same place as the hissing—as proof of sophistication.

I’ve never been to any Singalong, other than a piano bar, before this. I can see how certain movies—like The Sound of Music, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show—lend themselves to the format. In the case of WSS, however, it seemed like a trivialization.  Maybe I’m being over sensitive because of how precious WSS is to me. Then again, it is a remake of Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Shouldn’t we show some respect?


2 responses »

  1. I had never seen West Side Story, when I heard someone on Saturday Night Live say “Imagine the gayest knife fight you’ve ever seen. Then there was a parody of two rival gangs gliding and dancing their way to the rumble. I was in the hospital, and West Side Story was one of the selections. So I watched it.Yes in the beginning the Jets did glide down the street and Pas du chat, but after that, after Riff sang his Officer Rumpke (if that was his name I don’t remember) I really started watching it. The knife fight was definitely NOT gay. There was nothing “gay” about it. I did expect Tony(?) Richard Beymer to yell, “I am fortune’s fool!” When he kills Bernardo, (Romeo’s words when he kills Juliet’s cousin) but every time there was a nurse change I watched it again ( and again) it was so very good. Of course I didn’t want them to know I was watching this over and over. I could have watched it the whole time I was there, and always found something new.When I came home, I purchased the movie on PlayStore. But then we changed carriers and I lost it. I only had it for a few days. I also looked it up on the internet, found that it was made in 1961, but as the announcer repeated during the opening. “Unlike most classics. WSS grows younger every year.” It didn’t seem outdated, but then I am used to old movies. Gilda is one of my favorites, made in 1946 before my mother was born. And West Side was in color, which made it seem more contemporary.

  2. Dawn, your comment warms the cockles of my heart, to use an outdated phrase, meaning: i love it when WSS draws new and enthusiastic viewers. IMO, this is the greatest musical movie ever made. Thank you. Oh, and it’s Officer Krupke.

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