One of the reasons why you may not often hear as much about plot or character when discussing musicals is that they tend to use age old stories at their core. More often than not it’s all about those tunes and performances, so those familiar tales are used to provide a familiar landscape from which to launch the song and dance routines. As I sat down to catch up with a couple of classic musicals with well-worn structures – a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet set in the big city and a backstage look at the lead up to a performance’s premiere with a big break for a young ingenue – I wondered if either of these tales could be given new life via more than just their music and production numbers…While each brought moments of wonderful creativity and sparkling entertainment (in different amounts), the stories were, for the most part, still born.
That’s not enough to dismiss either film though. In particular, West Side Story is a monument to production design and choreography. Just about every shot in the film is packed with colour from mixed pastels to bright primaries to everything in between in just the right combinations. As a series of stills it would make for an incredible photography exhibit. Of course, much of the secret to the film is its motion in the form of Jerome Robbins’ choreography (he’s also credited here as a co-director along with the master of many genres Robert Wise). It feels novel and exciting even 50 years down the road. It’s sharp and quick and powerful – in short, it’s incredibly physical. It’s an expression of the character’s youthful energy and their inability to find a place to put it, and so it ends up working perfectly during the confrontation and fight scenes where the dancing is essentially the fighting itself. If not every tune fully landed with me, the vast majority did and mostly kept me with the 2 and a half hour runtime. Mostly.
42nd Street, on the other hand, barely kept me focused for its first 75 minutes with a mix of occasionally cute, but mostly dull characters and situations. But then, the final 15 minutes came to life and I was left wanting more. Much more. Again, a great deal of this is due to the brilliant choreography and staging – this time by Busby Berkeley as he opens up the musical within the film (the premiere everyone has been working towards in the previous 75 minutes) into a space that would blow out the walls of most theatres. It’s a surreal shift from the blandish happenings we’ve seen behind the curtain, but since the players are suddenly playing to the camera as their audience, it’s an easy shift to make. Berkeley starts with a bride and groom off to Niagara Falls on the back of a train as it splits open to reveal its insides and numerous passengers. From there we move to a stage full of well-attired male and female dancers working through geometric patterns on a revolving stage and then on to a full city street scene (42nd that is), complete with buskers, a subway and even a murder. It’s a bit of wonderful fantasy thrown onto the end of the banal.
It’s a shame too. The backstage story starts off decently enough by focusing on the tyrant director Julian Marsh (played by a fine Warner Baxter) and his attempt to make one more hit play to get back in the black before his doctor stops him from doing any more. His cast infuriates him, the dancers have no rhythm and he needs to make sure his starlet keeps her attention on the man with the money and not her secret boyfriend. Meanwhile a duo of wise-cracking dancers (played with sharpness by Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers) befriend a first-timer (the flat and, frankly, rather dull Ruby Keeler) as they all get put through their paces. But whenever Baxter, Merkel or Rogers aren’t on screen, there’s such a lag in spirit that everything feels in slow motion – even if you decide to fast forward. Plot ideas are left by the wayside, characters stranded and dialogue left dangling as it fizzles. There was a template here – an old comfortable one to be sure – that could have yielded some nice surprises or nuggets of gold (especially when you have several of the cast members willing and able), but it’s rather perfunctory overall in bringing us to those final 3 musical numbers. But what numbers!
Over on the West Side, the big set pieces and routines are spread much more evenly throughout the film, but the star-crossed lovers drama (one from the Puerto Rican neighbourhood, the other from the Polish district) is half-baked from the get-go. The film handles the visual aspect of “love at first sight” in great fashion (when the two see each other for the first time, the entire rest of the dance floor is blurred on screen except for themselves as the whole world melts away), but once either of the couple gets the focus of the camera (outside of any singing) time slows to a crawl. Tony is as uninteresting as uninteresting gets and Natalie Wood (as lovely and charming as she has been elsewhere) doesn’t quite deliver the spunk one would hope from Maria. The rest of the cast is game though – Rita Moreno almost rips her skirt off during her fireball dancing in “America”, Russ Tamblyn sets the tone with athleticism in “Jet Song” and a whole mess of those Jets knock the best number (“Cool”) right out of that underground parking garage with a few random exclamations of “Pow!”. It’s damn invigorating actually. Which is helpful while you’re watching Tony and Maria coo at each other and waiting for the next number. At least there’s always some fine scenery to gaze at in the background.
Despite its failure to do anything of note with the Romeo and Juliet plot, West Side Story manages to impress with a unique, engaging and artful approach to transporting a stage play to the widescreen. And while 42nd Street did similar things to alter the audience’s notions of what a musical could be on a big canvas (albeit in 1.33:1 and in black and white), it ultimately fails by pushing almost everything of interest to its very last act. Of course, that last act (and even bigger stage-defying fantasies Berkeley created in later films like Footlight Parade and Dames) enabled West Side Story to exist in the first place, so I guess it did provide some new life in the end.