I just watched a remastered (hate that word) print of the magical movie musical from 1961, West Side Story, at the classic Castro Movie Palace in San Francisco. It was the first time I'd seen it on the big screen since it was originally released and probably my 20th viewing. And it holds up. The music (although it barely shows an acquaintanceship with a Puerto Rican musical idiom) is brilliant in that Stephen Sondheim way. Unresolved, poignant melodies that swell without becomeing too Andrew Lloyd Webber-like and they still carry the story forward.
The dancing is exquisite---athletic, sexy, and, like the songs, carry the story in an integrated way. Okay, I know that Natalie Wood didn't have a PR bone in her body, but she did have those big liquid brown eyes and even if her trilled 'r' was over the top...she did still have those big liquid brown eyes! And I know Richard Beymer didn't really sing and George Chakiris was really Greek but they were emoting with enough life for every ethnic group put together.
There was a time when those inconsistencies made me politically unhappy and they still do on my most Virgo days. But the artistry is so magnificent, the story so compelling (yes, it's Romeo & Juliet cliche squared) and most importantly it had a powerful message that we as human being are still failing to heed: horizontal hostility only benefits those w/their feet on our necks. The friction between ethnicities and different classes helps keep us in our 'place'---that's not the place they were singing about.
'There's a Place for Us' the starcrossed "PR" and "Polack" (quoting from the movie not my vocabulary) sang and I've always wanted to believe that. That Tony and Maria could find a way to live together w/out cross cultural fear and hatred. That I could marry my partner Diane without cross cultural fear & hatred. That we could educate children, create art, find decent housing, get jobs, immigrate, etc. w/out cross cultural fear & hatred.
But I worry that this is not a belief or dream many of us share. Sitting several rows behind me in the theatre was a group of what looked to be heterosexual, white couples---about 6-8 people----who laughed every time an 'issue' came up on the screen and especially any time the men did anything 'unmanly' like dance. It was a wierdly ominous sensation to have such a group of cynical, unconscious, racist, sexist people sitting at my back.
I know people giggle when they're uncomfortable...and musicals often make younger people, inexperienced w/the genre feel awkward. I have a dear nephew who was incredulous when I shared my disc of West Side Story...he thought musicals were from Mars. I still love him.
But this group's responses were so specifically about the ethnic and class concerns and the things that the men performed it felt like a huge signal that something in our culture had gone awry. The men snorted and suppressed laughter as if they were in elementary school. It was so disturbing I worred that they might make some childishly inappropriate response at the emotional high point of the film and I'd go berserk and throw my diet coke at them. (They didn't and I was determined to hold my temper. no matter what)
There is, however, good news---This was only a small segment of the audience. There were plenty of other younger, white men (and many of them seemed to be straight) who were having no problem with thinking about the unfairness of immigrant sweat shop conditions or relating to the desparate aspirations of the equally poor members of the Jets and Sharks street gangs or admiring the sheer beauty of male dancing.
So on reflection---maybe there is a place for us, somewhere.