West Side Story

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The Elegy Double Feature: West Side Story & Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

This Friday (Dec. 3) marks one week since the passing of Stephen Sondheim, the openly-gay composer/lyricist that revolutionized the Broadway musical. In a career that spanned 70 years, Sondheim penned songs that have since become musical standards, and helped create some of the greatest musicals of all time: Gypsy, Into the Woods, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Company, among many others.

In tribute to said musical giant, we offer up two of Sondheim’s best stage to screen adaptations. West Side Story, released in 1961, won a whopping 10 Academy Awards, including trophies for Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Picture. The musical reimagines Romeo and Juliet as set in New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s. Instead of two rival families, two rival gangs, the Caucasian Jets and the Latino Sharks vie for control in of the streets. One former Jet, Tony (Richard Beymer) crosses paths with Maria (Natalie Wood), sister Bernardo (George Chakiris), who leads the sharks. Maria and Tony fall instantly in love, but must hide their relationship, especially when Bernardo and Tony’s hot-headed friend Riff (Russ Tamblyn), leader of the Jets, plan a deadly rumble.

Flash forward almost 50 years later to another great Sondheim adaptation: Sweeney Todd. Johnny Depp stars in the title role, a barber/serial killer bent on exacting revenge against a corrupt Judge (Alan Rickman) who sent him to prison years before. Following his release, Sweeney joins forces with Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), an aging, ditzy baker lusting after Sweeney. The two begin a deadly reign whereby Sweeney kills his enemies (and then some), with Mrs. Lovett using their meat to make pies. Go figure that her pie shop does record business with that secret ingredient. The movie also scored Oscar nominations for Depp as Leading Actor, Best Costume Design, and won for Best Art Direction.

Musical theatre aficionados often cite West Side Story as having the greatest score of any musical produced in the 20th century. We don’t know if that’s true, though we would point out that virtually every song–“One Hand, One Heart,” “Somewhere,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight”–has become a standard. Indeed, the lyrics, penned by Sondheim to the music of Leonard Bernstein (who was also gay, incidentally) inject raw passion into the story. They’re the key to making this love-at-first-sight story work. The film version of West Side Story often pops up on Greatest Movie of All Time lists thanks to its unique blending of realism & metaphorical dance and performances by Oscar-winners Chakaris and, in particular, Rita Moreno. Quite simply, hers is one of the greatest performances in the history of the genre.

The movie version of Sweeney Todd won rave reviews on release, though the film did offend some fans of the stage version for edits made to the score, and for the casting of Helena Bonham Carter, a woman much younger than the traditional stage Mrs. Lovett’s (Angela Lansbury originated the role in her 50s). Director Tim Burton does take an iconoclastic approach to the material: here is a musical where characters whisper rather than belting to the back row. Burton’s approach, while unusual by musical standards, is precisely what makes the movie work. Sweeney Todd doesn’t preoccupy itself with giant song and dance numbers. Rather, it tells an intimate tale of character relationships, psychoses, and macabre humor.

Virtually every musical composer of the past 50 years has cited Sondheim as an influence: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jonathan Larson, Howard Ashman, and even Sondheim’s friend Andrew Lloyd Webber modeled their work after his. Broadway and musical fans will forever mourn the loss of this great, gay legend. Watch a couple of his movies, and find out why.

West Side Story streams on Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.

Sweeney Todd streams on Paramount+, Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.

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