Sunday, October 21, 2007

West Side Stories

By Tony Buchsbaum

Walk into a crowded room and ask for a show of hands if you love West Side Story, and my hands shoots up. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like the musical, with Leonard Bernstein’s sharp-edged music and Stephen Sondheim’s sharper-tongued lyrics. I was, in fact, named after the ill-fated hero, and the film, which won 10 Oscars, was released the year I was born. So, not that it matters, but I guess I’ll always have a strong tie to the work.

It’s really the original high school musical, if you think about it. Sure, the conflicts can’t hold a match to the recent Disney Channel movies—racism and homicide vs. jealousy and summer jobs—but still.

All of which is why is pains me to say that the new 50th anniversary recording of West Side Story left me feeling flat. Recorded to commemorate the anniversary of the Broadway version of the musical (the film re-ordered song of the songs, I’d say for the better), the new production features Hayley Westenra as Maria and Vittorio Grigolo as Tony. These two have wondrous voices, but they seem distant here, as if they just couldn’t find a new way (or any way) to connect with the famous and oft-recorded material. They’re two of the most celebrated voices of our time, though, so surely someone thought their marquee value was enough. Pity. The recording could have used actors who understood their roles instead of coasting through them; the music soars, but the performances don’t. Maybe the 51st anniversary will get better treatment.

On the other hand, the second Disney Channel blockbuster, High School Musical 2, is really fun, though totally shallow and predictable. Starring Zac Efron and a cast of teen stars, the music is kicky and fun. Forgettable, sure, but isn’t that the appeal of Britney Spears? (Not that she’s in High School Musical 2. I’m just saying.)

The opening song, “What Time Is It,” performed by the cast, is great fun, sung as the kids break free of the tyranny of high school for the summer, where they’ll all find jobs at the same hoity-toity country club in New Mexico. Course, they bring along all the in-school rivalries and jealousies. (The fact the movie debuted in August, at the end of the summer, makes no sense to me, but whatever. Besides, it was the highest rated cable program of all time, so what do I know?)

“Fabulous,” sung by Disney TV star Ashley Tinsdale, is a tribute to her Royal Shallowness, and it’s so silly it works. But the standout numbers are “Gotta Go My Own Way,” sung by Vanessa Anne Hudgens, and “I Don’t Dance,” which, built on the eternal theater kids vs. sports kids conflict, is about as close to West Side Story as this stuff’s ever gonna get.

For anyone looking for their Zac Efron moment, he has one intriguing song, “Bet On It,” but you’ll have much better luck getting your hands on the Hairspray DVD when it comes out on November 20.

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