by Abigail Katz
Geoffrey Wheatcroft of The Guardian recently wrote an article that's been on my mind for the last few weeks. In "West Side Hyperbole" he asserts that West Side Story is not as great a work as many consider it to be, compared to other shows such as The Music Man and Pal Joey. His remarks include the following:
"The first problem is Leonard Bernstein's score...the simple diatonic melodies in West Side Story put him a long way below the true masters of the Broadway ballad: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and of course George Gershwin, the greatest American composer of the 20th century. If that seems harsh, try There's a Place for Us, and try it over and mind-numbingly over again."
He goes on to criticize the treatment:
"But isn't West Side Story set in another real world? Maybe - until you see the way it's treated, and by whom. Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins used their imagination to celebrate boy-meets-girl, but imagination faltered when they turned to poverty and violence; these prosperous bourgeois liberals conjuring up the life of teenage gangs have all of Steinbeck's little-man-where-art-thou condescension."
OK, now I can understand if "Maria" or "Somewhere" are not your favorite songs from WSS, but are we forgetting about the great opening of the show, with it's signature three-note call that introduces the relationship between the Jets and the Sharks? Or how about "The Dance at the Gym," performed by orchestras all over the world? And while it's a bit melodramatic, "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" when done well, is very moving.
I certainly don't disagree with Wheatcroft about the other artists and shows that he's mentioned (I for one am very excited about the upcoming revival of Pal Joey, a show that isn't done enough), but I must take issue with his evaluation of the Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents/Robbins great work. Is the score perfect? No, and what show (except maybe Guys and Dolls) has a perfect score? Are the lyrics the greatest ever? Perhaps not, but they are honest and serve the work. As for the treatment of the story and setting, how dare anyone use their imagination! It's a MUSICAL for heaven's sake! In the Heights is no more realistic about its setting, and this is 2008!
But having responded to Weatcroft's criticism, there is one thing he fails to mention that I think is an essential part of why West Side Story deserves the revered place it has in musical theatre, and that's the choreography. This aspect of the form is rarely given enough credit for a show's artistic success (it's a huge factor in In the Heights- go Andy Blankenbuehler!) and in WSS it is as much a part of the storytelling as the music, lyrics and book (in fact, the show was Jerome Robbins' idea in the first place.) The combination of all the elements is what makes the show a great and complete work. You can pick apart any show and criticize it's individual pieces, but to really assess its artistic merits you need to look at it as a whole.
OK, I'll get off my soapbox now, and we'll let the audience decide about West Side Story when it gets it first Broadway revival in over 25 years this coming February.