Too Many Talents

Too Many Talents

I was hoping to see Steven Spielberg’s new West Side Story in a theater, but by the time I could go, it was gone. So I watched it the other night on TV.

In short, I thought it was great. With a few minor exceptions, Spielberg did a masterful job of adapting this 1950s story for contemporary audiences. 

To me, the biggest flaw was in Tony Kushner’s otherwise terrific script: the ending went on too long. Once the rumble begins, I think the story needs to race through those awful events to the tragic conclusion, and that was precisely where the story bogged down. For me, as a result, the ending didn’t have the momentum it needed.   

Spielberg and Kushner did something the original film did not do well: show the story context—so-called urban renewal, in which neighborhoods were destroyed to create shiny new spaces, in this case Lincoln Center. Several scenes brought this issue forward, such as when the gangs face each other and comment that the territory they’re fighting over will soon be gone. Thus social tragedy—the death of a neighborhood—is presented alongside personal tragedy.

My big takeaway was the music: this was Bernstein’s masterpiece, with tremendous energy, originality, and drama. Too bad he didn’t focus as intently on musical theater for his whole career; imagine what he could have done.

Some believe that Bernstein threw away his talent on the idea of fame and the cult of personality, but I think it was more than that: he had so many talents, and tried to fulfill all of them rather than focusing deeply on any one. As a result, today we think of his multiple accomplishments rather than his profound achievements in any one area. He was musical theater composer, symphony composer, conductor, educator—and stellar in all but not immortal in any. What a shame, as he surely was one of the most talented musicians of the century.