Indulging in one of my favorite pastimes, surfing on YouTube, recently led me to a clip of a 2007 rehearsal of a new production of the musical “West Side Story.” The sequence begins with the cast of the 2007 revival, who are later joined by 22 members of the original 1957 production.
That’s a passage of 50 years. Most of the originals would have to have been at least 70 years old when the video was made. Carol Lawrence, the original Maria, would have been about 75 years old in the clip, and Chita Rivera, the original Anita, nearly the same age. The guys who were in the chorus of Jets—including the original Riff, who’s the first older person to appear—are there, as well as a great many of the female dancers/singers of the original chorus, who join in performing “Tonight” at the end of the segment.
There’s something about this video that makes tears well up in my eyes—something about the passage of time and the coming of old age, and the contrast between the extraordinarily agile young people who sail through the choreography with flair, and the old people who used to be just like them but move so differently now.
Because dancers’ bodies are their instruments (and finely honed, athletic instruments at that), they experience physical decline much earlier than most people. What’s more, they can easily measure it. Even as soon as the 30s and 40s, the jump gets tamer, the leg can’t kick quite as high, and it becomes apparent that it’s time to stop, often long before the performer is mentally ready to do so. The same is true at a slower pace for singers—for most, it happens at some point well before extreme old age. The high notes go and the tone changes, and the power diminishes.
But despite all that’s been lost, here they are, gamely strutting their stuff once more. The setting is casual, a rehearsal hall. They’re mere shadows of their former performing selves—and yet, and yet…something indomitable and quite wonderful remains. Carol Lawrence (red hair, black sweater, long red and black skirt) is still extraordinarily beautiful, although her famous pellucid soprano is faded and quavery. Chita Rivera (all in black, with coal black hair) remains a firecracker:
We can’t really travel back in time. But we can do the next best thing, and watch a clip of Carol Lawrence and her original Tony (Larry Kert, who died in 1991), eternally young and singing “Tonight:”
And just in case your appetite for the 1957 production isn’t yet sated, here are a bunch of still photos accompanied by some of the songs. You may find that you recognize quite a few of these people from their more ancient manifestations in that 2007 clip:
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,