By Michael Phillips
Earlier this month Steven Spielberg expressed strong interest in remaking West Side Story, and my first thought was a gut reaction: Why not Gypsy instead?
I’ve been second-guessing that ever since. So many major Broadway musicals could use another shot. Still, Gypsy first sprang to mind because its 1962 film version kept the 1959 musical’s greatness a secret. It’s sanitized and, although Rosalind Russell might’ve made a dynamic Mama Rose under more persuasive circumstances, she didn’t have those circumstances. The musical’s pungent showbiz atmosphere and pathos are almost entirely missing.
The right director — and the right Mama Rose, and the right Gypsy — could work wonders on film. The early 20th century history of American vaudeville and American burlesque, its black-sheep cousin, is practically a mirage now. In its way Gypsy, which I saw on stage again the other day, is an American frontier story. Like Show Boat two generations earlier, it canvasses a stunning variety of musical styles and settings. It’s about the end of an era, and the beginning of something else, something less innocent, though the show’s degree of sleaze is positively PG today.
Ever since the jitterbug fight sequence in 1941, that film’s highlight, people have noted Spielberg’s facility with movie musical tropes and dynamism. West Side Story, which would be the director’s first musical, likely appeals to Spielberg for a lot of reasons, one being the opportunity to capture a dance-driven story on camera.
A new screen version of West Side Story, the 1957 Broadway landmark with a score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, remains a tantalizing prospect. While the 1961 film version harrumphed its way to glory and many Oscars, it remains a work of uncertain and rather cloddish stylization. A lot of people love it because it’s not afraid of its crucial Jerome Robbins choreography. But it’s not a great screen musical; it’s more like a half-faithful, half-compromised translation.
Too many movie musicals fit that description. Guys and Dolls is my favorite show in the world, though not a film I particularly like. Wouldn’t it be great to see Spielberg, or David O. Russell, who has talked about making a movie musical, activate its joyous, raucous Damon Runyon universe on screen?
Movie musicals come and go. Ryan Gosling may be headlining a Busby Berkeley biopic. It’s heartening even when a clodhopper like the Les Miserables film finds a big global audience. It means people still accept the conventions and are open to anything, as long as it makes them cry, or laugh, or simply remember why they loved the stage version.