December 29th, 2011

Tempus fugit: when you’re a Jet you stay a Jet

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:

…Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
Even we,
Even so.

9 Responses to “Tempus fugit: when you’re a Jet you stay a Jet”

  1. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Every now and again, you’ll find on youtube or elsewhere, some of the folks you followed back in the day doing one of their signature numbers.
    And the song goes well, better if you didn’t know that there used to be a higher note just…there, and a longer vowel sound at the end of such and such a line.

  2. bobbl Says:

    Neo, I read you every day and have for over a year. Although I have always been a conservative, as a Jewish north easterner, born and raised in Massachusetts, but now living in NJ and having attended Brandeis, I know well what it is like living among those who think of me as a political anomaly. I relish it and have, for more than 50 years.

    No matter! This is about your wonderful choice of Musicals. I love each and every posting you make and I marveled that you loved Carousel and now have posted West Side Story, another great. They are my numbers 2 and 3 great musicals, respectively. What are your thoughts on my number 1, The Music Man? Has there ever been a more perfect pairing than Robert Preston as Prof. Harold Hill? I would love to know your thoughts.

    Keep your Blog going. Your insights are well reasoned, they help me through difficult times and you are doing God’s work!

  3. DNW Says:

    I usually ignore your postings on theater and dance culture. Not because of course that there is anything wrong with them, but simply because it’s not an area in which I have any interest or can I appreciate. It just has no meaning for me.

    However, I have given this posting some thought as it provoked dim memories of a certain broader social milieu. An era when middle class people throughout the US – places like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland – commonly went to the theater to see road performances of Camelot, or The Sound of Music say, or Pygmalion. Mom in her stole, dad in his top coat, out with friends to the theater and then to dinner.

    The song itself as it was covered by others serves as an example of another topic you broached recently, the infantilization of the public and their taste for neotenous looking celebrities.

    Not long ago, thinking to give my mother a taste of what’s available on Youtube, and recalling seeing her old Vic Damone albums, I showed her a clip from some variety show featuring Damone singing what started off as a jokey version of “Tonight”. (topical reference)

    Frankly it was a bit depressing to mentally contrast this fellow who projected, an image at least, which I could recognize as a fellow male, and who might have even – as a general type – been one of the family men in the neighborhood when I was a little boy: but who now represented a type extinct from pop culture, and almost bred out of existence altogether.

    When did we become a race of perpetual juveniles which never mature, but merely decay?

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    DNW: I don’t know when it happened, but I’d say it was within my lifetime.

  5. SteveH Says:

    “”When did we become a race of perpetual juveniles which never mature, but merely decay?”"
    DNW

    I think it’s an artifact of prosperity. People can’t mature without humbling adversity.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    bobbi: I think a lot of the musicals of the 40s and 50s were in a sort of golden age of musical theater. I saw many of the original productions that were in the 50s, and they were uniformly fabulous.

    That includes the original of “The Music Man.” However, it is not among my very very very favorites (which are probably the two you mentioned, “Carousel” and “West Side Story,” as well as “Fiddler On the Roof,” “The Fantastiks,” and “My Fair Lady”).

    I’d put “The Music Man” in the second tier, which is a wonderful tier as well—”Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” and “The King and I” (all of which I saw during the 50s in City Center revivals rather than the original productions, although I had the original cast recordings and listened to them incessantly) fall into it. There are others I loved, too, less well known but very fine: “Fiorello” (which had some very funny songs about politics that hold up very well) and “Kiss Me Kate,” to name just two.

    I think that “The Music Man” was a little too foreign for me, which is funny because it’s really a slice of Americana. But I was a New Yorker, so something about Iowa was terra incognita. However, I adored Robert Preston. I actually had a big crush on him as a child. Something about his boundless energy really grabbed me.

  7. DNW Says:

    neo-neocon Says:
    December 29th, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    DNW: I don’t know when it happened, but I’d say it was within my lifetime.”

    It just occurred to me to wonder whether some part of this – again, some part – might not be due to a simple matter of who has the disposable income and the will to pursue and pay for certain kinds of entertainments. If the consumers are all, or mostly of one type, then the product will match.

    Call it the TigerBeat-ization of pop culture. (I think that is the name of the magazine my kid sisters, a half generation younger than myself, used to read)

    Because they are the ones paying to watch, movies are apparently largely manufactured and shaped and probably cast to suit the sensibilities of 14 year old boys; in much the same way that AOL has apparently been shaped to suit the peculiar sensibilities and tastes of Ariana Huffington.

    Roman Polanski, an unsavory character with problems of his own in this regard, has nonetheless made interesting comments on how film editing and scene framing techniques have been affected over the decades by attempts to appeal to a target audience of adolescents.

    And on a slightly different note, Blake Edwards in his commentary on his Panther series has had interesting things to say about the extended framing and long-cutting of his scenes.

    But I’m straying from my own point and wholly ignoring yours …

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    DNW: I also read somewhere that the fact that movies are now widely distributed around the world makes them more likely to be action flicks or horror flicks or movies that don’t rely as much on dialogue or wit, which is harder to translate.

  9. Ben David Says:

    I connect this wonderful post with your previous posts that contrasted Margot Fonteyn with younger, more lithe ballerinas…

    I think you are being too hard on older artists…. there’s a lot that the in-crowd may spot, but audiences do not – they are still responding to the total performance.

    In the current theater scene, Carol Lawrence’s soprano would be helped along by microphones – and Chita Rivera needs no help connecting with an audience.

    The problem really is the short-sighted assumption that only young people pay for entertainment – and only stories about/for young people are worth mounting and telling…. many of these artists still have a lot to say, maybe even more to say than when they were young.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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