Sunday, 20 January 2013

Real cool

It was beginning to seem like a dangerous way to skip the first Hockey Night in Canada in many months. The Resident Fan Boy, younger daughter and I penguin-walked and skidded down the icy sidewalks between walls of snow. Fifteen centimetres of snow in one morning had given away to rain by evening, freezing into silver chutes. However, we had purchased rush tickets earlier in the day for a screening of West Side Story, with the instrumental soundtrack provided live by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and for the sake of younger daughter, who adores this musical, we were going - come Hades or high water (or frozen sidewalk).

Our rush seats, a wonderful bargain courtesy of younger daughter's student status, were in the mezzanine this time, almost dead centre. We had a beautiful view of most of the NACO, although the horn section was obscured by the movie screen because of our height above the stage. The conductor, who normally opens with a humourous banter, took the stage, bowed and immediately sat in front of what appeared to be a screen the size of a large laptop. We've been to Pops concerts where the musicians played live soundtracks before -- an evening of selections from films based on Rogers and Hammerstein musicals and a showing of Bugs Bunny cartoons years ago. I'd never seen how the conductor synchronized the live musicians with the soundtrack either of those times and now rather wished I'd brought my binoculars.

As the MGM lion roared and the three eerie whistles signalled the beginning of the film, I was astonished to feel my chest constrict with excitement. I mean, I've seen this movie dozens, if not scores of times. However, I don't think I've ever seen it on a big screen in a packed auditorium -- and Southam Hall in the NAC complex is a large venue. Three large green vertical columns moved from left to right across the monitor in front of the conductor who raised his baton and brought the musicians in.

The images and music were almost as familiar as the back of my hand, but I found myself concentrating in a way I'd never done before, marvelling at the beauty of the dancing, even in the fight scenes, noticing tiny things for the first time: how Riff controls his gang with a wordless jerk of the head; the playground where Tony begins singing "Maria" is the place where he will die at the end; the foreshadowing hint of "There's a Place For Us" at the end of the rapturous lovers' duet "Tonight".

Something else I'd never noted properly - the fabulous dancing of the Jets' girlfriends, both at the fateful gymnasium dance where Tony and Maria first meet and later in the edge-of-hysteria dance number "Cool" where the remaining Jets try to come to grips with the deaths of the rival gang-leaders Riff and Bernardo.
Watch those girls dance! They're doing most of the same moves the male dancers are, and they're doing it in skirts and heels. ('Twas ever thus.) Most of the dancers you see here were in the original Broadway production, although not necessarily in the same roles. The blonde girl is Carole Andreas, the original "Velma" on Broadway and also the wife (now ex) of Robert Morse who created the role a J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying.

More than fifty years later, some of the lingo is dated, but the dancing isn't. I was a bit taken aback when at intermission, an acquaintance of the RFB told me that she wasn't prepared for how skinny the dancers were. She meant she didn't think they looked substantial enough to be in a street gang, perhaps being more used to the six-packed footballish image of the present-day tough guy. We had just watched this men scramble over fences, hurdle horizontal bars, dance with girl on one shoulder. I told this woman that I wouldn't want to pick a fight with a Shark or a Jet: "They could dance circles around me."

For a great deal of the film, I simply forgot to watch the musicians as they played along, which is probably a testament to how good they were. The NACO, after all, is a world-class orchestra. I watched as younger daughter sat forward in her seat for the entire three hours, rapt. The Resident Fan Boy and I felt the same. It was almost like seeing the film for the first time.

One more thing: I never felt this way for one second during my first and only viewing of Les Miserables. West Side Story has heart-break and passion, but it's also got dancing and humour, all conveyed through the varied (let's emphasize this - varied), intricate music of Leonard Bernstein, the clever lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and the fluid choreography of Jerome Robbins, to say nothing of the performances by the cast.

West Side Story dances circles around Les Miz. Simple as that. It was worth the skid.

1 comment:

Audrey Humaciu said...

What an amazing experience. Totally jealous