West Side Story

Posted: January 16, 2015 by nrhelms in Announcements, Program Notes, ShakesFilm
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For those of you who came to see The Tempest last night, thanks so much for supporting what we do! Now, take a deep breath. Release it. That’s about how much time you have before our next offering: the 1962 film West Side Story at the Bama Theatre, Monday, January 19th at 7:30pm.

West Side Story

Here are the program notes for the film, courtesy of Dr. Emma Wilson. Hope to see you there!

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

The story of Romeo and Juliet was already an example of cross-cultural adaptation when Shakespeare took up the gauntlet and created a Protestant stage version of a tragic romance between ill-fated lovers from Catholic continental Europe. There are more sources competing to be Romeo and Juliet’s origin story than there are factions and brawls in Shakespeare’s play, ranging from an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello from the 1550s to a French version by lawyer Pierre Boaistuau. While it is uncertain which, if any, of these texts Shakespeare knew in their original languages, he certainly drew on the first English-language iteration of this story, The Tragical Fate of Romeus and Juliet penned by Protestant militant Arthur Brooke in 1562. Brooke’s attempts to aid the Protestant cause in the French wars of religion were thwarted when he died in a shipwreck in 1563, but in bequeathing Romeus and Juliet to us, not only did he spare us from the joys of John Madden’s spectral Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter from Shakespeare in Love (1998), but he enabled an almost complete English conquest of this tale. Two quarto printings of Romeo and Juliet survive from 1597 and 1599, in addition to its inclusion in the First Folio of 1623, and whilst diarist Samuel Pepys said “it is a play of itself the worst I ever heard in my life”, history has sided with Samuel Johnson as the arbiter of taste when he declared that this is one of Shakespeare’s “most pleasing plays”.

The infamous story of star-crossed lovers from rival Italian families scarcely needs retelling here. From their first chance encounter at a dance to their final reunion in a shared tomb, Romeo and Juliet challenged classical ideas of what it meant to write a tragic play. By giving us not one but two forceful protagonists, who are then subject not exclusively to a series of inevitable and fatal steps, but rather to the more fickle hand of fortune, which delivers a letter too late, Shakespeare reconceptualised tragic procedure for his audience. In so doing, he inspired a slew of subsequent adaptations of this story, each of which would explore the frequently depressing consequences of different types of rivalry and factious behaviors. The 1961 film version of West Side Story clearly speaks to the cross-cultural origins of this narrative, bringing a Shakespearean perspective to cultural and national issues which remain troubling today, including racial tensions and urban discontent. Through these kinds of adaptations, we can think about the ways in which, in the 1590s, Shakespeare was writing a very modern tragedy.

 

West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise (1961)

Winner of the 1962 Academy Award for best picture, in addition to 9 other Oscars including 2 acting awards, and recognition for direction, color cinematography and art direction, costuming, editing, and sound, the film version of Broadway musical West Side Story was rewarded on all fronts on its release. Furthermore, its originator Jerome Robbins was the recipient of a Special Award from the Academy for his choreography of this Shakespearean adaptation. Yet whilst these accolades recognize the translation of West Side Story from Broadway to Hollywood, they do not engage with the other pivotal stage heritage of this film, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. So what was it, in 1961, that made Romeo and Juliet want to be in America? High society of sixteenth-century Verona seems a world apart from 1950s New York City. However, both settings are perturbed by the same key issues of distrust creating bitter divisions between rival factions, with tragic consequences for their young people. Waves of post-war immigration escalated tensions among urban neighborhoods, meaning that 50 years on from the placement of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet at the feet of the statue of Liberty, praising America’s open “golden door”, immigrants were experiencing a much more mixed reaction to their arrival in the Big Apple, ranging from wariness to outright hostility. West Side Story adapts Shakespeare’s rival noble Montagues and Capulets to dramatize these challenges via the established migrant gang the Jets and the newly-arrived Puerto-Rican gang the Sharks in New York City.

Shakespeare’s tale and West Side Story rely upon contrasting the happiness which the young star-crossed lovers experience together, from their first forbidden encounter at a dance to balcony serenades, with their ultimate tragic demise. Through enduringly joyous lyrics such as “America” and “I feel pretty”, Puerto-Rican Maria (Natalie Wood) of the Shark clan, and the audience with her, fall in love not only with Tony (Richard Beymer) of the rival Jet gang, but also with the American dream. However, following the fatal consequences of the ultimate showdown between the Sharks and Jets, the giddiness of the opening scenes evaporates as Maria states, “I can kill, too, because now I have hate”. In so saying, she probes some of the central questions which this Shakespearean adaptation raises: were these events inevitable? Did a chance meeting at a dance really let fly a tragic volley? Or is this a case of “chopt logic” which could have been averted through greater tolerance? In raising these issues, West Side Story allows us to explore afresh what constitutes a tragedy today.

~ Dr. Emma Annette Wilson.

Shakespeare on Film, 2014-15

September 15_____________ Ten Things I Hate About You

November 4______________________ The Bad Sleep Well

November 23________________ Shakespeare Behind Bars

December 16_____________________ To Be Or Not to Be

January 19__________________________ West Side Story

February 16____________________ Deliver Us From Eva

March 11_________________________ Forbidden Planet

April 27_______________________ Love’s Labour’s Lost

Sponsored by: The Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

All films are free and open to the public.

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