Aug 16, 2011

The Relevant "West Side" Quote

As I mentioned in my recent post about the Sondheim/Porgy and Bess rumble, I knew I'd seen quotes in which he'd spoken frankly about West Side Story's flaws and strengths. I just dug up the relevant graf in Meryle Secrest's biography, Sondheim: A Life, and will excerpt it here in its entirety. No, Sondheim doesn't use the word "archetype," but the gist isn't far off (emphasis mine):
What the critics didn't realize—and they rarely realize anything—is that the show isn't very good. By which I mean, in terms of individual ingredients it has a lot of very severe flaws: overwriting, purpleness in the writing and in the songs, and because the characters are necessarily one-dimensional. They're not people. What lasts in the theatre are characters, and there are no characters in West Side, nor can there be. It's the shortest book on record, with the possible exception of Follies, in terms of how much gets accomplished with how little dialogue. It's more about techniques, not about people, and Arthur [Laurents] recognized the problem right away and instead of writing people he wrote one-dimensional characters for a melodrama, which is what it is. More happens in terms of plot of the show than in almost any other musical...and with less dialogue, which is how smart Arthur is and how he recognized that's the form it must take.
He talks elsewhere of preferring the show's dance music to its songs, which he calls "very up-and-down indeed." I have to say I've always found the show wildly overrated, as influential as it is, mainly because I think Laurents' book was born dated, but I wouldn't take away a single song (or dance tune) from its miraculous score. Sondheim may love Porgy and Bess more than he does West Side Story, but I think a similar save-the-transcendent-score-from-the-creaky-book critique/rethink may apply.

1 comment:

Joe Salvatore said...

Rob, I appreciate you posting this about West Side Story, as I think that the theatre production itself is difficult structurally. And Sondheim's thoughts about the characters being one-dimensional are really interesting to hear. One addition I would make is that I think the movie version is actually much better. The changes in song order, the different staging of "America," and the specificity of locations attainable through film make it a much more dynamic version of the piece. I wonder if this contributes to Sondheim's critique of the characters in the play?

Thanks for adding to this dialogue.