Thursday, January 20, 2011

West Side Story: I Believe in "America"

This will probably be the most personal of my blog entries. First of all, I’m a sucker for anything Romeo and Juliet related and West Side Story is my favorite Shakespeare film adaptation. West Side Story is also my father’s favorite film; he screened it for me when I was probably ten or eleven. At my wedding, my wife and I used mini-posters—like lobby cards—of Best Picture winners as table identifiers for the reception. My Auntie Lupe (my father’s sister) asked for the West Side Story place setting, saying that it was her favorite movie. My Auntie Lu also told me a bit of family legend: her eldest sister, Amelia, auditioned for a part in the film. The thing is, we aren’t even Puerto Rican; we’re Mexican, but Latinos everywhere claim the film for themselves.

What I also like about the film is that like many great films, my reaction to it has changed over time. Great films aren’t static; as you grow older and develop more life experiences, your perspective on your favorite films should change accordingly. A film that doesn’t offer fresh insight upon repeat viewings can be good—but not great. I remember when I first watched West Side Story; I was a full-on Jets guy.

It’s not hard to see why an eleven year old boy would like the Jets better than the Sharks. Let’s face it, the Jets are cool. They get the fantastic “Jet Song” that opens the film and the cool-as-hell introductory close-up—five tough guys, in close-up, snapping their fingers off the zoom-in from the birds-eye view of New York City. They have the funnier lines. They have the cooler names—Riff, Ice, Action, A-Rab, Tiger, Baby John. Riff, my favorite Jet, was based off my favorite character in Romeo and Juliet—Mercutio. I even recognized some of the actors. I knew that Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer—who play Riff and Tony, respectively—were also on a TV show I liked, Twin Peaks, though obviously older and in completely different kinds of roles (this should prove to you how strange I am—I was watching Twin Peaks surreptitiously at eleven).

But deep down—and this is a bit harder to admit than I would like, but completely necessary to say—I probably identified more with the Jets because I identified more with the white half of my ethnicity than the Mexican half. I don’t mean this as a negative thing—it’s simply a statement of fact. I lived in a small town full of mostly white people, went to school with mostly white kids taught by completely white teachers, and was raised by my white mother and white step-father. For all intents and purposes, my Mexican heritage was entirely subverted. I may as well have been 100% white. It was only natural that I identified with the characters that looked like me.

I can’t pinpoint when my allegiances shifted from the Jets to the Sharks, but I guarantee that the more I learned about my Mexican heritage and Latino culture, the more I felt that the Sharks were the true heroes of West Side Story. To be fair—I never disliked the Sharks. I liked George Chakiris and Rita Moreno—Shark leader Bernardo and his girl Anita, respectively—from the get go, and the Oscars they won for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress are completely deserved. They’re easily the best performers in the film. The Jets though, were just that more cooler, and they were cooler for a long time.

My allegiances shifted when I began to pay more attention to the lyrics and the acting, which is something that comes more naturally as one becomes a more mature appreciator of film. Musicals can be especially challenging films in which to soak in and absorb every strata of detail. Granted, I think many musicals are insipid (and there are two very, very popular musicals that won Best Picture in the 1960’s after West Side Story that fall directly into that category), but when they’re created with obvious layers and deeper meanings, as West Side Story is, they demand multiple viewings over an extended period of time. Having said that, what stood out most to me upon first seeing the film was the story, the catchy and memorable songs and music (the soundtrack, from lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein, held the record for the bestselling film soundtrack for decades, and I think it is without peer in movie musicals), and of course, how cool the Jets were. Later, I judged the film on its fidelity to its source material (Shakespeare would be proud, says I). It probably wasn’t until I was in college, armed with a better understanding of my Latino heritage, that my perspective on West Side Story truly changed.

Basically, I finally started to pay attention to the lyrics in “America”.

“America” is the Sharks' big number in West Side Story. It comes roughly an hour into the film, toward the beginning of the second act. Until that point, the story is told almost entirely from the Jets’ perspective. The first act of the film closes with the big dance, where Tony meets Maria (Natalie Wood—a fine actress, but miscast as Puerto Rican), and the white guy’s interest in the brown girl (and her mutual interest in him) is used as a reason to escalate, in Anita’s words, “World War Three”. The second act opens with Tony’s song “Maria” (Beymer’s voice is dubbed by Jimmy Bryant, and Wood’s voice is dubbed by voice pro Marni Nixon, who dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). From there the film catches up with the Sharks in their tenement building. (It should be noted that the film changed the order of “America” and “Tonight”, the song which recreates the famous balcony sequence from Romeo and Juliet. In the Broadway show, “Tonight” is first, then “America” and I think it should have stayed that way. “America” was also substantially changed, but for the better, and more on that later.)

Bernardo, overprotective, lectures Maria about the dangers of dating outside her own race. In a timeless example of Latino machismo, Bernardo says, “Someday, when you are an old married woman with five children, then you can tell me what to do! But right now, it is the other way around.” Bernardo commands Maria to bed, and as he and Anita make their way to the techo of their tenement building, they begin the argument that forms the crux of “America”.

ANITA: You know, she has a mother. Also a father…
BERNARDO: They do not know this country any better than she does!
ANITA: And you do not know it at all! Girls here are free to have fun. She-is-in-America now.
BERNARDO: Puerto Rico is in America now!
ANITA: Sometimes I don’t know what is thicker—your skull, or your accent.

Before delving into the song, it is important to note that the rooftop is the one place where we see the Sharks and their girls truly relaxed and not on guard. This is important, because while “America” is a debate, it is a playful one. In minority communities, the most serious of issues are most often discussed in places where the community feels the most at ease and comfortable. For the Puerto Ricans, the techo is that place. The men are off-guard and have toned down the macho posturing they display when with the gang. The women do not have to be the silent dressmaker’s assistants. On the techo, they are free to speak their minds. While the gender inequality is still heavily tilted toward the men (Bernardo’s attitude toward his sister completely spells out which gender has the ultimate decision making power), the women speak as equally, as frequently, and as passionately as the men. In terms of contributing to the discussion, the sexes are equal. Most importantly, everyone is honest.

Anita continues the argument about Maria at the dance—“She was only dancing.” Bernardo retorts, displaying his own prejudices—“With an American. Who is really a Polack.” (More on the ethnicities of the Jets at the end.) Anita’s comeback: “Says the spic.” This leads into a conversation about the jobs the Shark boys hold down. The girls are impressed that Tony has a job. Chino (Jose DeVega) says he has a job, too—an assistant—and Bernardo complains that Chino “makes half of what the Polack makes.” There are some lighthearted jests at Bernardo’s observation—his friends have heard it many times before—but the issue eats at his own self-worth and impression of what America would be like for him. “Well, it is true! When I thought of how it would be for us here…We came like children, believing, trusting…” For Bernardo, there has been a serious breach of trust between him and his adopted home.
As the conversation continues, Bernardo’s complaint is sort of brushed aside—remember, everyone has heard it all before from him—his Shark buddies dream of what America will bring them, and what they will return to Puerto Rico with. “I’m going back with a Cadillac!” “Air-conditioned!” “Built-in-bar!” “Telephone!” “Television!” “Compatible color!” One of the girls points out, “If you had all that, why would you want to go back to Puerto Rico?” Anita replies, getting to the heart of her position: “Even if you didn’t have all that, why would you want to go back to Puerto Rico?” Bernardo: “It’s so good here?” Anita: “It’s so good there? We had nothing.” Bernardo again, with the upper hand: “Ah, we still have nothing—only more expensive.”

This leads to flirting between Bernardo and Anita (say it with me and Bernardo—“Anita Josefina Teresita Beatriz del Carmen Margarita—etcetera, etcetera…”), who have really been playfully teasing one another the whole time. Bernardo takes it a step too far when he accuses Anita of no longer being loyal to her home country. “And now she is queer for Uncle Sam.” This leads to the song (and I am going to copy the entire lyrics with speakers below).

ANITA: Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion—
Let it sink back in the ocean.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing,
And the money owing,
And the sunlight streaming,
And the natives steaming.
I like the island Manhattan,
Smoke on your pipe and put that in.
GIRLS (chorus): I like to be in America,
Okay by me in America,
Everything free in America—
BERNARDO: For a small fee in America.
ANITA: Buying on credit is so nice.
BERNARDO: One look at us and they charge twice.
ROSALIA: I’ll have my own washing machine.
INDIO: What will you have though, to keep clean?
ANITA: Skyscrapers bloom in America.
ROSALIA: Cadillacs zoom in America.
ANOTHER GIRL: Industry boom in America.
SHARKS: Twelve in a room in America.
ANITA: Lots of new housing with more space.
BERNARDO: Lots of doors slamming in our face.
ANITA: I’ll get a terrace apartment.
BERNARDO: Better get rid of your accent.
ANITA and THREE GIRLS: Life can be bright in America.
BERNARDO: If you can fight in America.
ALL GIRLS: Life is all right in America.
SHARKS: If you’re all white in America.
(There is an interlude of whistling and back and forth dancing)
ANITA and CONSUELO: Here you are free and you have pride.
BERNARDO: Long as you stay on your own side.
ANITA: Free to be anything you choose.
SHARKS: Free to wait tables and shine shoes.
BERNARDO: Everywhere grime in America,
Organized crime in America,
Terrible time in America.
ANITA: You forget I’m in America.
(Another interlude with more dancing)
BERNARDO: I think I go back to San Juan
ANITA: I know what boat you can get on.
BERNARDO: Everyone there will give big cheer…
ANITA: Everyone there will have move here…
(“America” ends in an exuberant dance number.)

“America” is the immigrant experience in the United States of America. The dream and the promise; the reality and the cruelty. For the Sharks, their fight against the Jets isn’t simply because Bernardo doesn’t approve of Maria dancing with a white boy. They are fighting more a measure of respect and self-worth. For the Anita and the girls, America is a land of promise; Puerto Rico is the land of struggle and conflict. For them, America is the country where they are free and have pride. Both sides are correct, and for me, realizing that “America” illuminates the struggles immigrants face in this country is what made me be a Shark forever. These characters voice a struggle my father, his siblings and my grandparents face. It is a struggle that continues to be fought today. It is an issue I grapple with, that friends of mine grapple with. Having the Sharks and their girls voice this in West Side Story gives immigrants a voice on the silver screen; it gives us heroes that we can identify with.

“America” also represents a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers to give voice to immigrant issues on screen. In the original Broadway production, “America” was originally a duet between Anita, who defended America, and Rosalia, who took up the cause for Puerto Rico. Some of the lyrics in the original song could also be interpreted as painting a caricature of the island (example: “I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan/ If there’s a road you can drive on”). When adapted for screen, co-director Jerome Robbins made the decision to according to Moreno, “bring the boys in”. The lyrics were also re-worked to eliminate many of the lyrics that could be construed as too offensive. To be fair, the “America” in the film certainly paints the United States as the country of promise and opportunity, while Puerto Rico is home to poverty and suffering, but the song also makes room for some vicious, stinging and absolutely true criticisms about America.

And what an incredible range of issues the song brings up! There is a litany of topics brought up and dispelled, from simply purchasing items in a store (“Buying on credit is so nice/ One look at us and they charge twice”), to housing issues (“Twelve in a room in America”, “I’ll get a terrace apartment/ Better get rid of that accent”), job prospects (“Free to be anything you choose/ Free to wait tables and shine shoes”), to the big issue: facing the reality that the American dream, as advertised, does not apply to minorities because of the color of their skin and their native tongue. What else could possibly be meant when the girls sing “Life is all right in America”, then the boys retort—and this is so bad ass and subversive—“If you’re all-white in America”? All-white in America—that is the burning issue, it’s what eats at Bernardo and the other Sharks, causing them to rise up and take arms.

What is fantastic is that the girls are also right. When Bernardo has his opportunity to present his version of America—“Everywhere grime in America/ Organized crime in America/ Terrible time in America”—Anita hits him right back with a simple truth: “You forget I’m in America.” Anita here isn’t simply Bernardo’s girlfriend; she is his future, the promise of family. And really, isn’t that why immigrants come to America? The promise of a bright future for your family. Puerto Rico is where Anita is from; America is where her family will live. The song ends with the line, “Everyone there will have moved here.” What family will Bernardo have if her were to go back?

Bernardo also forgets that he and the Sharks aren’t the only ones having to deal with racism and social inequity. Anita and the other girls have to deal with all the same shit (a scene toward the end of the film, where Anita goes to the Jets to give a message to Tony, shows how nasty she really has it). What future do they have working in the dress shop? Not much of one. The girls have to hitch their post to a strong man, and hope that he isn’t pigheaded enough to get himself killed. The girls have made their choice—they know that America isn’t the paradise of freedom they dreamed it to be, but they have no other choice but to make the best of a less than ideal situation. The question becomes: How are these men going to deal with it?

The answer, of course, is a tragic one. Bernardo ends up unable to look past his anger. He ends up with a knife in his chest. The Jets are scarcely able to look past their own anger, and both the lives of Riff and Tony are claimed by violence. What West Side Story subtly implies is that the Jets are also descendants of immigrants. Tony is Polish, and the auburn-headed Riff is obviously Irish. Action (Tony Mordente) is clearly Italian. (I also love the tomboy Anybodys—played by Sue Oakes—who is unquestionably a lesbian.) Every one of the Jets belongs to a low economic class, a fact they are all aware of and confront with great humor in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The tragic irony in West Side Story is that there are two sets of immigrants fighting one another. If the Puerto Ricans weren’t in their neighborhood, the European immigrants that make up the Jets would be on the bottom of the scrap heap, the lowest of the low.

What each group doesn’t understand is that the Jets could be singing “America” and the Sharks could be singing “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Cool” and the words in each song would be true for both of them. When they could be working together collectively to improve the social and economic outlook of their neighborhood—their turf, if you will—they choose to deal with their anger through conflict. The tragic force of that irony comes full circle in the final minutes of the film. Inexorably, bloody consequences await, as Bernardo murders Riff, Tony murders Bernardo, Chino murders Tony, and both Anita and Maria are essentially widowed. Maria grabs Chino’s gun, and asks: “How many bullets are left Chino? Enough for you? And you? All of you? You all killed him! And my brother! And Riff! Not with bullets and knives! With hate! Well I can kill too! Because now I have hate! How many can I kill, Chino? How many—and still have one bullet left for me?” Only after violence has wracked these young people with its terrible consequences can these two groups of immigrants come to any sort of understanding. The Jets and the Sharks come together to carry Tony’s body away, and the audience’s tears are well earned.

West Side Story succeeds where so many musicals fail because it allows for thematic complexity. Musicals, by design, are meant to have simple stories with simple themes. What‘s The Sound of Music really about other than being strict and uptight is no way to raise children? My Fair Lady tells us that love isn’t defined by class. In An American in Paris, art and love are one and the same. The Wizard of Oz tells us there is no place like home (actually, that story is pretty complex, but the simple message is what is most remembered). West Side Story is an adaptation of a story that everyone knows—Romeo and Juliet—and like the play, the simple message of the story is why must tragedy unite warring factions instead of love? Yet where the play is primarily focused on the star-crossed lovers, West Side Story gives equal weight to what motivates the supporting characters.

In many ways, the heart of the film belongs to the Jets and the Sharks. Part of this is by design—Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer neither sing nor dance as Tony and Maria in the film. As mentioned earlier, their voices were dubbed, and the few scenes where pair is required to dance—the gymnasium sequence, “I Feel Pretty”—the choreography is rudimentary. Compare their participation to the majority of the cast filling out the ranks of the Jets and the Sharks and their girls. From the ballet inspired steps of “Jet Song” to the sweat drenched and intense “Cool”, the dancing in the film is a major factor in telling the story. Look at how dance is used in “America”, especially in the caustic responses from the boys (my favorite bit has to be when they act out “Twelve in a room in America”) and how the girls flirt and tease right back. The song could be wordless (and “Cool”, for the most part, is) and the idea of the two different Americas could be read loud and clear.

Jerome Robbins, who co-directed and choreographed West Side Story, was a relentless taskmaster that demanded absolute perfection from his dancers. The cost of perfection made for a busy costuming department, as dancers wore out over 200 pairs of shoes, had over 100 pounds of makeup sweat right off their bodies, and 27 male dancers danced until their pants split open. Not to mention the crushing physical toll taken on their bodies, as the first aid unit dealt with numerous injuries (and according to the making-of article included in the DVD booklet, 18,000 Band-Aids were applied during the production) and dancers literally passing out from exhaustion.

Because of their limitations as dancers, Beymer and Wood were unable to contribute to the film on the same level as their castmates. As such, the love story in the film inevitably carries less weight. I also feel that while most of West Side Story is perfection, it is not a film without flaw. Frankly, the Tony and Maria sections of the film are far less compelling and more than a little saccharine. The flaws in their storyline only serve to make the social conflict in the film even more compelling, and the screenplay is structured so that each story carries equal weight. And I will say that when the finale of the film hits, when the love story and the gang conflict intercede, it is Wood who gives the film its final, haunting power.

Finally, I think the choice to make West Side Story not only a tragic love story, but a social issues picture improves and modernizes the source material. Shakespeare created a masterpiece in Romeo and Juliet, but the Capulets and Montagues are the Hatfields and McCoys of the theater—the feud has been going on for ages, and nobody can recall how it began. The Capulets and Montagues are also two upper class families, and one gets the sense that the feud is really about which family is richer. Only though the character of Prince Escalus—a minor part—does Shakespeare tip his quill as how the blood feud of the two families has affected Verona. In West Side Story, there is no specific reason as to how the rivalry between the gangs was sparked, but the broad reasons are abundantly clear. In “America” the Sharks sing that because their adopted country has shown nothing but racism and hardship toward Puerto Rican immigrants, they must fight to gain respect. For the Jets, it’s a socioeconomic issue. They have to keep the Sharks down because they no longer wish to be the lowest of the low in terms of social class. Both reasons run deeper than mere hatred.

When I examine why my family loves the film so, a big reason is, of course, the film is ridiculously entertaining. As far back as I can remember my father has hummed the tunes and sang the lyrics from songs in West Side Story. Yet without ever directly vocalizing it, my father showed the film to me because there were characters in the film that he identified with, who looked like him, that shared the same struggles. He was telling me—these too, are your people. On a subconscious level, we all identify with characters that look like us. Countless musicals—which in the early 1960’s were basically the equivalent to a 3D special effects blockbuster today, in other words, the bread-and-butter moneymakers for the Hollywood studios—are the near-exclusive domain of characters white as Wonder bread with problems vanilla as a milkshake. (Which is why, as fine of an actress as Natalie Wood was, it’s a bit hard to buy her as Puerto Rican, another flaw with the character of Maria.) Latinos, regardless of country or origin, claim West Side Story as their own because the film chooses to give voice to characters of color. My father knew this, and knew exactly what he was doing when he showed West Side Story to his son. It just took me a bit longer to catch on to the message.

Te adoro, Papa.


West Side Story (1961)

Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Jose DeVega, Sue Oakes, Marni Wood*

Studio: United Artists

Total Oscars: 10* (Best Picture—Robert Wise, Best Director—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins**, Best Supporting Actor—George Chakiris, Best Supporting Actress—Rita Moreno, Best Art Direction (called at the time, Best Set Decoration, Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Editing, Best Score, Best Sound) from 11 nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay—Ernest Lehman)

* Jerome Robbins was also awarded a special Oscar for Brilliant Achievements in the Art of Choreography on Film (though it does not toward the official total)
**Wise and Robbins set an Oscar record by becoming the first “established duo” of directors to be nominated for and win the Best Director Oscar. In addition to Wise and Robbins, Warren Beatty and Buck Henry were nominated for 1978’s Heaven Can Wait. Joel and Ethan Coen became the second established duo to win a Best Director Oscar for 2007’s No Country For Old Men.

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1 comment:

  1. Amazing review, if you don't mind, I would like to use this as an example in a college paper I am doing about "West Side Story" which will analyze the controversy over its portrayal of latinos. People usually perceive the characters as distasteful stereotypes, but I feel in your blog article you have showed that there is another story behind the characters and, while there may be stereotypes, it is not the point the musical and the film are trying to convey.