SOUNDS FAMILIARBaby A. Gil – The Philippine Star

February 26, 2022 | 12:00am

Question please. Did young men wear rubber shoes when they went to dances in 1957?

As far as I know rubber shoes only became acceptable as formal wear these past few years. Back then, rubber shoes were a no-no. As my uppity grandmother would have said, it was pang-pahinante or pam-brawn, whatever that word means, let alone finally finding out the correct spelling.

I am asking because I noticed that in the new movie version of the musical, West Side Story, Tony, played by Ansel Elgort, remember him in Baby Driver, was wearing rubber shoes when he went to the dance at the gym. Was that intentional or a minor lapse? Who needs an answer? Not even me. I am only asking because I am nitpicking.

You see, I was prepared not to like this West Side Story. How dare anybody tamper with this musical. My musical. You see, as a kid, I was taken to watch the movie Oklahoma and told I would enjoy it. I did. But I asked to be taken to watch West Side Story. I thought Richard Beymer was cute. And I emerged from the theater stunned that a musical could be like that. So how does anybody equal, let alone improve on magnificence.

But then, that anybody is Steven Spielberg. Think E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List, Catch Me If You Can, Close Encounters of The Third Kind and other memorable films. He took a fancy to West Side Story and decided to make his own version. He had never directed a musical before but there was no question he would do an excellent job.

West Side Story is a musical conceived by the great dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Leonard Bernstein, also great, composed the music. Stephen Sondheim who, years later, would also be great, provided the lyrics. Along with writer Arthur Laurents, they produced one of the most beautiful musicals ever made.

West Side Story is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transported into the slums of New York with warring teenage gangs, whites against Puerto Ricans, instead of feuding families. The young lovers are Tony, member of the Jets, and Maria, sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. Just as it is in the play, their love would result in tragedy.

The show was critically acclaimed and a big hit on Broadway. It was also considered groundbreaking for tackling racial prejudice. It was made into a movie, directed by Robbins and Robert Wise in 1961, later won 10 Academy Awards and is to this day is considered a masterpiece.

No, Spielberg did not do a remake. With playwright Tony Kusher of Angels in America, he made a West Side Story as he imagined it should be. Flesh out the characters with back stories. Tony is now an ex-con determined to turn a new leaf. Bernardo is a boxer with a bright future. His wife Anita dreams of a career in fashion. For an iconic touch, replace drug store owner Doc with his widow Valentina, played by Rita Moreno, who was the Anita of the first film.

Spielberg brought in logic and the filmmaker’s knack for manipulating emotions. Emphasize the racial conflict by bringing in La Boriquena, the Puerto Rican National Anthem. Touch on Tony’s murderous tendency that landed him in jail. Make Chino’s wanting to avenge Bernardo’s death better understood. Bring on the irony as the Jets and the Sharks battle over a piece of turf they would soon lose to the Lincoln Center complex. And oh, oh, he made that Rumble came off too real for comfort.

Spielberg did not spare the musical numbers. Put the Jets in a police station for Gee Officer Krupke which has Sondheim’s most inventive lyrics. Heighten the looming death cloud by making Cool a dance duet with a gun for Tony and Riff. Go for the drama as Maria sings a joyous I Feel Pretty not knowing that Riff and Bernardo were already dead after The Rumble. Then, there is the inspiring Somewhere, originally performed by a Shark Girl solo on stage, became a Tony and Maria duet in the first film and is now a doubly poignant moment as Valentina’s song.

Now, l did not find Elgort cute. Must be because I’m old. Stronger vocals instead of the soft crooning for him would have also been nice. I also missed the Hollywood glamor cast of the first one. Natalie Wood, Russ Tamblyn, Beymer, Moreno and the devastating George Chakiris.

However, all of Spielberg’s hand-picked actors turned in competent performances, particularly newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and Broadway star Ariana DeBose in a star-making turn as Anita. As to be expected in a Spielberg film, photography, orchestration, design, total execution, are all flawless. The message was clearly delivered. Racial prejudice and violence of the senseless kind destroy lives.

For all my nitpicking, this West Side Story is an admirable reboot. It is just too bad that I am still in awe of the first one and not even the mighty Spielberg can change that.

Now, about those rubber shoes…

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