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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 2, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 48
West Side Story a great restoration of a great musical
Arts & Entertainment
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West Side Story a great restoration of a great musical

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

The 50th Anniversary Limited Edition Blu-ray of the 1961 film of West Side Story is a winner, well worth the extra price. Not only is the sound so good that you can actually hear the room in which the music was recorded, but the picture is also super-sharp, with vibrant saturated colors and a complete lack of flaws. In fact, the only thing at all dated is the slightly old-fashioned manner of a few of the special effects (colors superimposed or parts of the picture purposefully fuzzied-out to focus elsewhere). In all other ways, the Blu-ray disc is state-of-the-art.

Special features sometimes add little, but such is not the case this time. For instance, one can view the film in a mode that gives superb commentary on the choreography of Jerome Robbins by members of the original stage cast (such as Chiquita Rivera) and others such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, other choreographers, and Leonard Bernstein's daughter. This commentary comes on before each choreographed number, talks one through the number, and then begins the dance again without the comments. Far from deadly, these remarks truly illuminate the show and deepen one's appreciation for the stunning results.

Less illuminating, but of great interest nonetheless are the comments on each song by lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who was still a teenager when he was working with Bernstein and Robbins on this, his first successful musical. One accesses his remarks as one of the 'extras,' whereas the comments on the choreography come as an initial choice to make when pressing 'play.' Most interesting are Sondheim's self-criticisms about the lyrics that are too 'writerly' ('I Feel Pretty'), as opposed to more natural speech ('Maria').

So far, everything I've mentioned (plus a 'Music Machine' option that allows one to skip all dialogue, hitting just the musical numbers) is from the first Blu-ray disc. But this is a four-disc set. The second disc is a standard-definition DVD, with special features and the 'Music Machine' feature. There is also a 'Tribute CD' with eight of the songs covered by the likes of Julie Andrews, Tuck & Patti, Gloria Estefan, and others.

But the clincher, the reason anyone at all interested in this great film must get this anniversary edition, is the second Blu-ray disc of nothing but special features. I hadn't looked forward to sitting through so many extras, but ended up fascinated by it all. While much of it is self-congratulatory, I felt that the sentiments were fully justified. Among the features on this disc are interviews with the creators, both living and dead, as well as behind-the-scenes footage. One in particular shows how the opening scene choreography evolved with Robbins observing the group of dancers just walking down West 61st Street, trying out different moves and gestures, to find which seemed real and yet could be worked into dance movements. One gets a sense of the physical stress and pains the dancers experienced working under Robbins' extreme demands for hours, even days of re-takes.

The only element I found lacking was sufficient coverage of the singers who dubbed almost all the actors' songs. One does see a little of the great Marni Nixon. She had to dub all the songs that Natalie Wood had in fact recorded after the scenes were shot. (Usually the actor lip-synchs these scenes to the pre-recorded music.) But there is almost nothing beyond naming the other singers. We do get to hear what Natalie Wood sounded like. She's not that bad, although Nixon's voice and technique are vastly superior. The dubbing throughout is near perfection.

These extras, along with the superb technical quality of the discs, made me change my view of this film. As a freshman at Columbia College in NYC, I saw the original stage production twice on Broadway. When the film came out, I felt it lacked the intensity and excitement of the stage show; I liked all the original performers better than the film actors. Now, 50 years later, I'm happy to say I have come around to a most enthusiastic appreciation of the film. It won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it deserves them to this day. The loving care with which this anniversary edition was prepared does honor to a great movie of, for me, the greatest American musical ever created.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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West Side Story a great restoration of a great musical
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