Thursday, 14 August 2008

West Side Story

Right, so off to Sadler's Wells for the first time to actually see a performance, rather than drink in the bar.

I went off theatre a bit after doing a degree in it - over the course of four years I saw (and occasionally contributed to) so many bad plays that I felt that a (poorly paid) life in the theatre just wasn't for me. Most directors I met were charlatans and most actors I encountered had bigger egos than mine (quite an achievement) so I opted instead for an attempt at a career in an even filthier, stupider business (music).

So in short, I haven't been to see a show in a while.

So why did I relent? Well, simply because the show that was on was West Side Story, of which I am a very big fan. There are some fantastic numbers in it - America, I think, is one of the best pop songs going, containing some incredibly sharp lyrics that provide a very apt social commentary on today's United States, never mind that of the era which produced the musical (the 1950s).

Try these:

I like to be in America! / O.K. by me in America! / Ev'rything free in America. / For a small fee in America!

or

Buying on credit is so nice / One look at us, and they charge twice / I have my own washing machine / What will you have, though, to keep clean?

or

Life can be bright in America / If you can fight in America / Life is all right in America/ If you're a white in America

So what did I think of the stage version? I felt it was a bit of a curate's egg; if I were a judge on one of those ghastly shows presented by Graham Norton, I'd have given it five, or maybe six out of ten.

Maybe my seat was the problem - watching the show as though I were in a helicopter definitely didn't help. I might have felt a bit warmer towards the performance had I been closer to the action (there were, after all, lots of skimpily dressed dancers to admire; despite my best efforts, my seat and eyesight prevented me from appreciating them to the full).

A bigger problem than my not being able to admire the scantily-clad dancers properly was arguably the set. In its day West Side Story was one of the most realistic, or naturalistic musicals going (if bursting into song a propos nothing can ever really be considered that realistic). But with this version, the set designer opted for minimalism - there was barely anything on stage, and the odd items we did get to see didn't look very 'period'. Despite this, the costume designer had opted for fairly authentic 1950s garb, so a very odd little world - a mismatch of real and unreal - was created on the stage. Maybe that was the intention, but it didn't really work - it felt oddly cheap or something, as though they had run out of money when it came to the set.

However, I think that what made me feel most unimpressed by the stage show was something the cast and crew couldn't really do anything about: the 1961 film version. The movie is so spectacular, containing such exhilarating performances, that whenever you thought of them during the stage version, it couldn't help but feeling a bit flat.

Take a look at the film version of 'America', below. Even in pixelated Youtube, you can't help but think that Rita Moreno's performance is one of the most exuberant, sexy performances ever to grace the silver screen. And the prancing dudes are pretty cool too.



In the stage version, this number sadly didn't have the prancing dudes - they were offstage doing something else, so the girls had the debate about the merits of America, or lack thereof, amongst themselves. As a result the piece didn't have half the sexual tension of the film version, or the 'battle of the sexes' angle.

In any event, despite my misgivings, the Sadler's Well version was great in one respect: it revived my interest in West Side Story, and has got me spending far too much time looking at dancing Puerto Ricans on my computer...and I feel faintly in love with Rita Moreno, below.



West Side Story also got me thinking about how some of the best pop songs ever are to be found hidden in camp musicals - but more on that in another blog post.

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