By Steve Barnes
I don’t think I’d ever been directly told to snap my fingers before, but I was willing to go for it. The person issuing the command was Lawrence Goldhuber, a dancer and choreographer who was standing on stage at the Prospect Park Bandshell. Mr. Goldhuber was dressed as Officer Krupke, the portly beat cop whose job it was to try and keep a bunch of gang kids under control in West Side Story, a film that hundreds of sweltering Brooklynites had shown up to see on one of the hottest nights of the summer.
And snapping my fingers wasn’t all I was supposed to be doing. The finger-snapping was just a part of the “West Side Story Dance- & Sing-Along,” part of the Celebrate Brooklyn series of outdoor performances that runs for most of the summer in the park. In addition to snapping along with those cool kids as they sauntered down Manhattan streets on the big screen in front of us, we were meant to sing and dance along with them as well.
There were a few problems with that, however. The promotional material for the evening told us that Mr. Goldhuber was going to teach us some of the show’s famous steps, but the lessons consisted of just a few humorously executed sidesteps and pirouettes followed by a request that we get up and dance along with the characters whenever the spirit moved us. To help us sing along with the characters, subtitles showing the song lyrics were supposed to be projected onto the screen during each number. But there were a few snafus with that as well. Sometimes the lyrics were out of sync with the music, sometimes there were no lyrics projected at all, and in a few cases lyrics to songs from other musicals managed to find their way onto the screen.
But none of that really got in the way of the genuine pleasures of the evening. Before the film, a discussion between Scott Foundas of the Film Society at Lincoln Center and Henry Krieger, who wrote the music for Dreamgirls, set things up. And after Mr. Goldhuber’s pep talk, the sky got just dark enough for the film to get going. And, thanks to several large groups of the show’s fans in the audience, the feeling of a group singalong did take place. One side of the audience was labeled as the seating area for the Jets (the multi-ethinc grab bag of “white” kids), the other side for the Sharks (the Puerto Rican kids). The Sharks side of the crowd had many more worthy villains to hiss and sneer at, as well as “America,” one of the show’s best numbers (see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPlcE3GcoFc) to get on their feet for. But the whole audience was completely swept up the songs, the dances and the story. Except for the singing, the crowd was amazingly quiet for an outdoor summer event, with almost no one getting up to head for the concessions.
The centerpiece of the evening, the film itself, unsurprisingly proved itself a classic once again. For me at least, it’s one of those movies that really does seem to get better every time you see it. I’ve never really understood the people who think of it as dated (including the show’s lyricist and book writer, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents). It’s one of the archetypal New York movies, having much more in common with Scorsese’s and Sidney Lumet’s best work than with any other movie musical. It creates its own dream world without losing any of the grittiness of the slum streets that these kids exist on.
The next time you see the film, after you’ve marveled over the Bernstein/Sondheim songs, the Jerome Robbins dances, and Rita Moreno, you might want to look behind the characters at something else that really distinguishes West Side Story. It’s one of the most amazing looking movies I can think of, designed by the great Boris Leven. Leven uses both actual city streets (many of which were bulldozed to make way for Lincoln Center soon after shooting finished) and sets that are real masterpieces of scale and color. Even Saul Bass’s closing credits, composed of a series of weathered doors and street signs, would make a memorable short film of their own.
And the setting was a wonderful complement to the movie. Somehow it just seemed incredibly right to be seeing this film in a quintessentially New York spot, with a warm wind blowing, and the sound of the city audible in the distance. It made it very clear how much the city we live in now has in common with the one in which Tony and Maria act out their tragic story. Even if that had been the evening’s only strong point (which it wasn’t), it would have made the “West Side Story Dance- & Sing-Along” a worthwhile event.
Steve Barnes is a freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in such publications as ARTnews and the Wall Street Journal.