Thursday, August 14, 2008

completely boy

At the denouement, the final dramatic unraveling, the music stops and we talk it. Tony is shot and Maria picks up the gun and makes that incredible speech, 'How many bullets are left?' My first thought was that this was to be her biggest aria. I can't tell you how many tries I made on that aria. I tried once to make it cynical and swift. Another time like a recitative. Another time like a Puccini aria. In every case, after five or six bars, I gave up. It was phoney...
Leonard Bernstein

Song of the Week: Jet Song (and everything that follows for the next 2 hours) - Leonard Bernstein

Me and my little sis, Monkey2 went to see West Side Story at Sadler's Wells last night as part of her birthday treat. It's a very conservative, conventional production, with some excellent performances from last night's Maria and Anita, and a A* rendition from Action and the Jets of Gee Officer Krupke, Sondheim's lyrical high-point with its terrifically funny attack on well-meaning liberalism. The seething, angry, sexy choreography of Cool positively bristled and pulsed with hormonal tensions. Finally, the costumes for the dance; Jets in slippery silvers, cold-blooded greens, golds and the occasional feminine burst of yellow or orange; the Sharks in a tropical array of hot pinks, reds and purples that screamed sexy teen exuberance, were inspired. But as usual, with any performance of West Side Story, the star was Leonard Bernstein's incredible score.

So, today I hand the baton onto Lavinia Greenlaw, and excerpts from her chapter on West Side Story in The Importance of Music to Girls. It's (almost) impossible to pick "the best" song from this, the best of all musicals ever ever ever. America's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, I cried in the theatre during Somewhere and Maria (what a cheeseball) and Something's Coming is brimming with youthful hunger and expectation. But my favourite, always, is the musical's opening Prologue. It's just a taster of the delights that are to come, and it segues wonderfully into the Jet Song, which, aside from being a joyfully macho kick-starter to the action, is the song I rather bizarrely chose to choreograph and perform in front of my primary school as part of a Year 5 assembly. And for this reason, it will always hold a very dear place in my heart. And I still know all the moves off by heart.

I was Riff, natch.

West Side Story was a fire-engine-red album cover with high-rise black lettering propping up a fire escape on which the sharp silhouettes of a man and woman danced (fell? fought?). From the first whistles and clicks, the spasmic strings and bass, it erupts into a drama of such extension and motion that I gave myself up to it. This music has its own architecture, machinery, circulation, boundaries and weather. I got lost and found myself back where I started. I passed places I'd seen earlier. I found dead-ends, alleys, shocking open spaces, blind corners and always the pleasurable sense of something building. A city still buidling itself - what could be more exciting and alive?
And these characters who spat or sang were neither adult nor child. Until I saw the film, they weren't characters at all but each a formulation of feeling,. I was astounded that they could be talking, quite ordinarily, mroe than ordinarily, and from there, burst into song. I thought people either stood around talking or stood around singing, but here was a new possibility; you could go about your life and then, when the mood took you, you could dance, you could sing, and everyone around you would know the words and the steps, and just like that the world would be musical.
Here were boys, bristling and strutting and unlike London's floaty hippies, the end-of-the-pier Teddy Boys or prissy Mods, they were completely
boy. They fought, smoked and swore even as they sang and danced. The opening scene in which the Jets strut through their territory, threatening and teasing and showing off, is described in the libretto as 'half-danced, half-mimed' as if the whole of it lay in movement.
Song and dance are explosion and interruption, and sometimes the only way to keep up with what's happening. Mid-strut, the boys pause, spine and glide, their arms opening into a
port de bras (which means 'the carriage of the arms' and it was as if they were carrying arms), parting the airt as if to reclaim a space they felt themselves losing. They could sing and dance and then get back to business; they could have feelings, they could recover from them...
...Leonard Bernstein wrote in his West Side Story Log in 1956 (by which time he and Arthur Lorenz had been ruminating on the idea of West Side Story for seven years): 'Chief problem: to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and "just dancing"... The line is there, but it's very fine, and sometimes takes a lot of peering around to discern it.' Like the narrowest tenement, West Side Story is built on this fine line which is why it is such a volatile structure, why it keeps falling and rebuiling. The score is kept teetering by the use throughout of the destabilising tri-tone. This is an interval of three tones, or six semitones, which sounds powerfully unsettled. So much so that in the Middle Ages if was known as diabolus in musica. It is the augmented fourth, the diminished fith. Play middle C and F sharp on the piano and your ear wuill insist that something has gone wrong or has been stretched too far.
The Jets and Sharks meet at a dance in the gym. No one speaks but everyone dances through a sequence of 'Blues-Promenade-Mambo-Cha-Cha'. These dances are expletive, plosive, headline and subtext. This is war and even the girls, who mostly simper and flounce, produce some brutal moves. It wasn't the girls I idenitifed with, nor was it Tony and Maria, the simepring Romeo and Juliet. I identified with the music.


And herein lies West Side Story's biggest problem. Tony and Maria are our Romeo and Juliet, an innocent pair of star-crossed lovers. But everyone cares far more for the boisterous Riff, the hot-tempered Bernardo, the sultry Anita: their appetite for Shakespeare's more violent delights makes them much sexier, stronger and much more appealing. I feel far more watching Riff tumble at Bernardo's blade than watching Maria andTony feverishly collapse on each other's lips. And I think Bernstein feels the same. Like Milton with Satan before him, he gives the bad kids all the best lines.

Until the end that it is, hence my choice of picture. All the music - kaput; just silence amidst the horror of the Jets' rape of Anita and the lone gunshot that murders Tony. All that beauty and squealing joy of the earlier scenes has gone. The same passion that brings forth such ecstasy ends in misery. How wonderfully...Shakespearean. Just Maria, howling "Now I can kill because I hate now."

Yes. I cried. Gets me everytime.


At 15 August, 2008 12:54 , Blogger paddington said...

Sorry, can't make much of an intelligent comment about WSS, but your post (and the title of the book you quote from) made me think of something else: what is the difference between the way teenage boys and teenage girls react to pop? The teenage girl's relationship with pop seems more genuine, less forced, to me. Boys don't abandon themselves to pop as much, or at least not in the same way - instead of cutting a rug, they make lists or collect everything their favourite band has ever done - anything to distance themselves from (and, in a way, deaden) the music.

Girls "get" pop more than boys do - they immediately find meaning where boys have to search for it. And it is more limited to a specific time, place and set of feelings - hence why women are often less lifelong in their passion for music. The glorious, estacy of teenage pop obsession exhausts itself for girls, whereas boys turn into neurotic, depressive rock fans (cf High Fidelity).


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