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Still pretty and witty and gay: a new double-disc DVD release of West Side Story recalls the four gay geniuses who made it happen.

West Side Story * Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris * Screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on Arthur Laurents's libretto * Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins * Music by Leonard Bernstein * Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim * MGM Home Entertainment

With Chicago a smash hit and talk of a full-scale revival of the movie musical in the air, the time could not be more ripe for the DVD debut of West Side Story. Critically lauded and enduringly popular, this reconfiguration of Romeo and Juliet among the street gangs of New York was one of the biggest musical blockbusters in Hollywood history. And just as with Chicago, a raft of gay talents--composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, librettist Arthur Laurents, and choreographer-codirector Jerome Robbins--was responsible for its making.

Winner of 10 Academy Awards, this 1961 release has been lovingly presented in letterboxed format and packaged with a separate documentary disc, West Side Memories, in which surviving creators, performers, and crew members (Rita Moreno and codirector Robert Wise among them) are interviewed. Clearly, nothing beats seeing a film like this on the big screen, but no lover of musicals will want to be without the DVD--even if you may find the small-screen experience falling short of true movie greatness. One thing that can't be denied is the historical importance of the piece, particularly in relation to the gay men who made it.

When it opened on Broadway in 1957, Sondheim recalls, West Side Story "got excellent critical press, and people left in droves." Alas, the big award-winner and public favorite that year was West Side Story's polar opposite, The Music Man. It was the film, four years later, that made songs like "Tonight" and "Maria" standards. Moreover, the story's plea for racial tolerance between its white and Latino street gangs matched the spirit of the times in Hollywood. But did this extend to gays too? Well, the character of Anybodys (Susan Oakes), the tomboy would-be gang member, was read as lesbian then--and doubtless would be recognized as transgendered today. But as for the rest of the work, its makers had their hands full pushing the notion that balletic dance movements could stand in for street-gang macho. This was further complicated by Robbins's internalized homophobia (gruesomely detailed in Laurents's memoir, Original Story By) and the otherwise conflicted feelings shared by Sondheim, Bernstein, and even Laurents back when the work was born and none of them was out of the closet.

One player in the saga is deserving of special note--Tucker Smith. Onscreen Smith played Ice, the lead singer and dancer in the pivotal "Cool" number. In addition to his own work, Smith dubbed Russ Tamblyn's singing voice for the film. Great things were predicted for Smith. But as he wasn't inclined to be closeted, he drifted out of Hollywood and back to Broadway as a dancer, not a lead, until his death from AIDS complications in 1988. That's something to think about while watching him in this film, snapping his fingers and laying down the rules of "Cool."

Ehrenstein is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000.
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Author:Ehrenstein, David
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Video Recording Review
Date:Apr 29, 2003
Words:515
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