'West Side Story': A happy ending
Seeing our son on the big screen in Spielberg's wonderful remake was a joy
Two years ago, on December 10, 2019, I attended the first preview of Ivo Van Hove’s challenging and radical reimagining of the Broadway classic “West Side Story.” Our son, Ben, was making his principal debut as Riff in the splashy revival, which featured video cameras, new choreography, and rain on stage.
Less than a month later, just weeks before the show formally opened, Ben fell in that rain and dislocated his shoulder. The lead producer opted to recast the role rather than wait for him to return from the injury.
It was not our son’s first injury, or his first career setback in an industry where 99 of 100 auditions end with some variation on the Monopoly cards, “You win 2nd Prize in a Beauty Contest. Collect $10,” or “Go to Jail. Go Directly to Jail…”
You get the idea.
Exactly two years after that ill-fated preview, moviegoers now have a chance to see our son in “West Side Story.” It’s a smaller role — Ben plays Mouthpiece, one of the Jets — in a much bigger production, a highly acclaimed Steven Spielberg reimagining on the big screen.
It is, thankfully, a happy ending. At the same time, it’s also a new beginning.
Seeing the Movie
Jill and I went to see the new “West Side” during early showings on Thursday night. It was the first time we’ve been to the movies in almost two years. We sat in a mostly empty theater near our home in Alexandria, one of those large metroplexes that has — like others across the country — been devastated by COVID.
Spielberg, a staunch proponent of the big screen experience, postponed the movie’s release for a year rather than push it out a time when no one was going to theaters. In the first 30 seconds of the movie and throughout the 2-hour, 36-minute running time, you understand why. This film is meant to be seen on the big screen.
I’ll start with a confession: I’m not the biggest fan of the 1961 “West Side Story,” or of any of the versions I’ve seen on stage. Yes, it has debatably the greatest score in musical theater history, and the lyrics written by a then 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim are indelibly etched into our memory bank. But the original book/screenplay — it’s not a spoiler to tell you this was based on “Romeo and Juliet” — is just meh.
While the Jets have several classic numbers (“Cool,” “Gee Officer Krupke,” “The Jet Song”), the Sharks are mostly in the background, with only one song (“La Borinqueña,” the official anthem of Puerto Rico) and limited character development except for Bernardo and Chino. The women — Maria and Anita — fare much better.
The original movie won 10 Oscars, but in retrospect it also had a number of problems, the least of which was the staginess under which it was presented. Most troubling was the casting of Natalie Wood as Maria as well as mostly white Sharks, who were caked in heavy brown makeup, as was Rita Moreno. Like other films, it is difficult to watch in today’s context.
Spielberg and his team — led by screenwriter Tony Kushner — correct many of these problems from the literal beginning, when audiences see “The Jet Song” performed among the Robert Moses-led slum clearance that soon would become Lincoln Center. By opening the film up, complete with brilliant cinematography and production design that makes you feel like you’re in late-1950s New York, the songs come alive in new ways.
The decision to cast Moreno in a newly written role — as Doc’s widow, Valentina — also was inspired. For me, the movie’s best non-script change was having Moreno, now 90, sing “Somewhere.” That switch turned a piece that once featured the ill-fated Tony and Maria into a broader discussion about society as a whole. Purists may chafe, but I think it was a masterstroke.
Spielberg’s reimagining is nearly perfect. The Sharks are still woefully underwritten, in large part because of the original source material, but the performances and direction are wonderful. The camera work matches the rhythm of the music impeccably. Ben is prominently featured in “Gee, Officer Krupke” and gets his share of screen time.
Of course, we sat in the theatre and picked him out, and several times I squeezed Jill’s leg. It was, as she said after, overwhelming to see our son on the big screen.
As we walked home, I texted Ben with a single word: “Wow.”
The Parenting Dance
At its best, parenting multiple children is a delicate dance. On that note, I often feel like I have two left feet.
I’d like to think my kids — now all adults in their 20s — have learned things from my mistakes, just as I learned lessons from my parents. I can be stubborn to a fault and “my way or the highway” about things. I subconsciously try to get in the last word, at times when I shouldn’t.
It is natural for any parent to have preconceived notions of what their child will or won’t do/pursue in life. And in today’s world, where there is pressure to hover over your child’s every activity and action, those preconceived notions can easily become a slippery slope. What Jill and I have attempted to do is allow our children to pursue their passions without pressure and with our support.
COVID has dramatically affected everyone’s life, but it has been devastating to many of those who work in and around the arts. Our daughter, Emma, graduated early from college and moved to New York to pursue her dreams, only to see the entire industry shut down for 18 months. Ben went from the wonderful experience of shooting this movie in the summer of 2019 to being injured on stage, then into COVID.
Both have been resilient and have persevered, even as the world struggles to recover. Today, Ben and Emma turn 24. I remember the day they were born as if it were yesterday.
Now, when I look at my four adults — Nick turned 29 on Thursday; Kate will be 25 on Dec. 27 — and all they have managed to achieve in their relatively short time on this planet, I’m viscerally reminded of why “West Side Story” is such a tragedy. The story, for all its contrivances, is heartbreaking because you see these kids who have little to no hope.
On Thursday night, I left the movie wanting to give all my children a hug. I’m not sure that was Spielberg’s intent, but that was the lasting impression. His reimagining of “West Side Story” sticks with you; I’ll be curious to see you react to it as well.