Thursday, August 4, 2011

28. "America" from West Side Story

To know me is to know I hate West Side Story.

That's a critique aimed specifically at the movie, where miscasting abounds and too many a song falls totally flat, although there's something about the very concept of finger-snapping gang members that does a number on my suspension of disbelief.  Yes, I know it's a musical.  That doesn't mean it's allowed to be stupid.

Wait, this was not meant to be a diatribe.  See, for all the things that drive me batty about that damn movie, Robert Wise at least got one thing very right: "America."  Even terrible musicals can have a great song or two - take Aida or Paint Your Wagon - just like terrible films can on occasion stumble into a great scene.  Whatever my complaints about West Side Story, the exuberant "America" has got nothing to do with it.  It's rightfully considered one of the unimpeachable classics of musical theater, and considering the track record of other such greats, it's a marvel that it survives the transfer to film unsullied.

And that's kinda why I picked it.  When I think of the greatest of all musical theater songs, "America" is right up there with "Anything Goes" and "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" and a mere handful of others considered the best of the best.  "If I Were A Rich Man" might have made the cut, but there's one I feel plays just as well on stage, provided, I suppose, that you have Topol waiting in the wings.  But unlike those others, "America"'s cinematic counterpart ups the ante.  Credit Mr. Wise if you will, but it's the camera's love affair with Rita Moreno that electrifies the production.  She's funny and fierce, and she plays it to the camera and not the auditorium.  Stunning is what it is, enough to shake the torpor of the movie before it, alas, not enough for complete redemption.

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