Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Forgotten Characters 2:9 (Special Edition)

There are some persons I’m not sure if it’s their characters that are forgotten, or just them completely. Ask anyone to name a good musical of the sixties, and though My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music might take a number of votes Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 piece will turn up invariably. The thing is, everyone remember The Sharks – Rita Moreno (very good), Natalie Wood (similarly good) and George Chakiris (not so much). Everyone forgets The Jets? Why is that? I don’t though, hence the following commemoration…
Richard Beymer / Russ Tamblyn in West Side Story (my review)
As Tony and Riff
Along with Tucker Smith as Ice, Gina Trikonis as Graziella, Susan Oakes as Anybodys, Tony Mordente as Action, Carole D'Andrea as Velma & Elliot Field as Baby John
I’m a fan of Russ Tamblyn, remembering particularly his work in Peyton Place…I’m always nonplussed to the love for George Chakiris’s uninspired take on Tybalt/Bernardo when Russ’ superior take on Mercutio/Riff is forgotten. Similarly, I often wonder why Beymer isn’t remembered as Tony. Sure, he’s lip synching, but that doesn’t make his performance any worse. Take that early moment where Tamblyn and Beymer discuss the imminent batte. The chemistry between the two is strong as Riff cajoles Tony to attend that fateful dance. Sure, I’d give Tamblyn the edge – he is the stronger of the two, but Beymer’s reticent charm shouldn’t be left unnoticed. I will say, in a decade of excellent lip synchers (Kerr, Hepburn, Wood) Beymer takes the cake. I don’t know if it’s sheer luck on his part that they found a singer who’s voice is so close to his speaking voice, but it all just comes together well. The tentative romance with wood is a beauty to watch, even though I don’t see them as obvious complements to the other. Few romantic moments are as honest as the meeting on the fire escape in “Tonight”.
The Sharks have their moments with “America”, of course it’s more female centred because a large part of the story revolves around Anita. The female Jets aren’t as lucky. Sure, they do their dancing at the dance but they rarely get a moment to shine. Still Trikonis and D'Andrea come off well with the light comedy. I like their cutting remarks at Anybodys.Trikonis’s line-reading is a favourite of mine, “An American tragedy!” she says referring to the adrogynous girl. This soon segues into “Officer Krupke”, an oft forgotten number. It’s not as eclectic as “America” but I love it just as much. The number is sold by Tamblyn who just has a knack for the physical comedy. He completely understands the irreverent leadership of Riff (as opposed to Bernardo’s iron fist), but he’s just as loyal. Riff’s (perhaps, misguided) devotion to Tony is a significant part of his character. As they said at the beginning, “birth to earth, womb to tomb”. It’s for this reason that Riff’s death makes me sad. Bernardo’s death is only one that saddens me incidentally, I know Anita will be hurt and so will Maria. But I feel no connection to Chakiris, which is perhaps, as it should be.
You know West Side Story to inevitable tragedy but Beymer’s (and Wood) innocence still have you hoping something will happen. As honest as “Tonight”, “One Hand, One Heart” takes it just a little further. It’s a striking romantic duet, and measured against the inevitable fallout only makes it more poignant. And of course it only gets sadder, “Somewhere” has to be the most moving bits of lipsynching, and it makes you realise how much work Beymer (and Wood) are putting into it. We may not be hearing their voices, but all the emotions we’re seeing are real and effective. It’s as if all the Jets are saving up their best work for after Riff’s death. Like the way that Smith effectively steps into place as the interim leader. The rendition of “Cool” is the easily the strongest group number of the entire score and placed right there after the heat of the two murder’s makes it more than just an extraneous number. It's Smith's moment to shine, along with all the other Jets - and they do. It’s the same way that the annoying Anybodys becomes more grounded after Riff’s death too. It’s like everything comes into motion. It doesn’t make their coffee shop with Anita any more forgivable, but it’s depressing when we put into perspective. I suppose that moment skewers the narrative in the direction of the Sharks when it comes to sympathy. It’s all leading up to the inevitable tragedy. Beymer’s strongest moment as Doc tells him of Maria’s “death”. It’s unlike the Tony we’ve seen before and it’s the moment of bliss on his face as he spies her in red suspended there as his life expires that most profound.
Sure West Side Story went on to win ten Oscars (the most for any musical) but there seems some injustice that Beymer, Tamblyn and all those other Jets haven’t endured over time…or do you remember them too?


Simon said...

I remember doubting Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican...but I haven't seen it in years. I don't remember anybody.

Jude said...

Richard Beymer is SO good in this! He's so overlooked. I feel like Natalie is overlooked a bit also. She's totally Oscar worthy.