Tuesday, July 17, 2007


It took the better part of one entire year, but I finally prevailed.

After refusing to veer from his steady habit of anime and Cartoon Network, Little Babe grudgingly allowed me to cajole him into watching West Side Story.

The Sunday night screening was one of the most magical moments of my recent life.

Following a relentlessly social Shabbat at the Love Shack and a trip out to Long Island to visit MOBB and FOBB (mother of Bungalow Babe; father of Bungalow Babe) in Great Neck and friends in Long Beach, Little Babe and I returned to Monroe, New York just as the sun was setting on Sunday evening.
Driving west on Route 17, a mysterious fog settled around us like a great big benevolent quilt. What I really longed to do at that hour was to dive onto my bed to read Mary Gordon's stories but somehow, as if by magnetic force, I found myself drawn into the new Target in the pre-fab new shopping development known as Harriman Commons.

The impetus for this detour was to pick up a few packs of the popular undershirt known as a wife-beater for Big Babe who has developed a sudden dependency upon them. Those of you who frequent Target are probably well-acquainted with the syndrome of check-out shock, which is the phenomenon of being utterly astonished at the check-out counter by the sheer quantity of (non-essential) items you have just purchased.

However, tucked into the trademark red and white bag were three magnificent metziahs (steals) that made the excursion entirely worthwhile: the musicals Hair, Fame and West Side Story on DVD, each for $9.99.

Oh, snap!

Upon returning to the horrifically messy Love Shack -- abandoned hastily earlier that same day in a mad effort to get HOBB (husband of Bungalow Babe) to La Guardia on time for his flight to Boston -- Little Babe and I collapsed onto the master bed, eyes trained upon my computer screen, which was balanced on the makeshift table that forms my desk. Between us rested Alfie the Pomeranian, blissfully squashed between our sandy, beach-burnt bodies.

The DVD player whirred inside my computer. The window for the DVD player popped up. I pressed play. The computer screen went black. That famous West Side Story whistle sounded, hovering in the silent air, and then the thrilling overture began, a skycam panning New York City, causing Little Babe to cry out in recognition -- "Columbia University!" "The Empire State Building!" "The East River!!" -- until the lens honed in upon a playground on the West Side.

In the quiet of the country, Leonard Bernstein's energetic music sounded overly loud and I kept compulsively fiddling with the volume button, afraid of waking the entire bungalow colony. Lying on our stomachs, facing the computer, chins resting on fluffy pillows, a soft breeze wafting through our curtains and brushing our pajamas, I kept stealing glances at Little Babe, monitoring his reaction.

Some adults take their kids to Disney World to show them the time of their lives.

For me, Disney World is eclipsed many times over by the wondrous world that Bernstein, Robbins, Laurents and Wise created in this film: the urban battleground of the Sharks and the Jets, the Eden of Tony and Maria, the sisterhood of Anita and Maria, the safe haven of Doc's Candy Store, the frilly retreat of the bridal shop, the shadows in the schoolyards and playgrounds (haunted by Anybody's), the alleys and streets, nooks and crannies of New York's dirty, down-at-the-heels West Side in the very era I was born.

The epic relationships of West Side Story have been with me my entire life: Tony and Riff; Anita and Bernardo; Riff and Bernardo; Tony and Maria; Anita and Maria; Maria and Chino. And the characters are hard-wired into my memory: Officer Krupke; Doc; Ice; A-Rab; Baby John; Velma; Graziela; Consuela; Lieutenant Schrank; Action and mah gurl Anybody's, the ultimate celluloid tomboy.

After four decades of watching this film, the characters of West Side Story have become mishpocha. Their story, oft-told, is family lore, a primer for life, a template for every situation one is likely to encounter -- love, longing, hatred, disappointment, betrayal, exhiliration, adversity, loss.
And rumbles. Especially rumbles.

To see West Side Story is to take a crash course in life-preparedness.

The first time I saw West Side Story was in 1972, watching it from the high-rise bed next to my cousin Rena in the basement of her house in New Hyde Park. The film was on TV, a Sunday night special, perhaps Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie. From the very beginning of the film, I was breathless with the thrill of discovery; I felt like the Vasco da Gama of Queens. Here was entirely new territory! Never before had I seen a musical like this, filled with characters I instantly loved... and wanted to be.

Watching the film unfold, I recognized myself in Riff, in Action and in Anybody's. With each viewing -- sometimes even between each viewing -- I wrote myself into the script. Little did I know that ten years later, their West Side setting would become my own neighborhood.

As I got older, I even tried on the persona of Anita -- sexy, savvy, hot-blooded, Spanish like me, though it would be many years before I learned the truth about my own Sephardic origins.

How bold the film was, confronting the tribal animosities of urban life! Yes, we all knew it was a modern-day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but it wasn't until I actually saw Romeo and Juliet performed that I realized how faithful the adaptation was.

And it wasn't until I was older that I realized how daring the film was, allowing good-girl Maria a night of sex with Tony. The scene of Anita coming upon an obviously post-coital, half-clad Maria in the room with the rumpled bedsheets, Tony escaping through the alleys was an important milestone in my moral development.

Don't listen to your parents...people in love can and do have sex, it informed me... even if they are not married! Good girls like Maria and good boys like Tony. People like Judy and Bob, my birthparents, a college and a medical student, in love, unmarried, utterly unknown to me at that time in my life.

Thirty-five years ago, I watched, miffed, as the final, melodramatic scene unfolded and Maria cradled a dying Tony. Naturally, my girly-girl cousin wept and naturally, I laughed at the corniness of it all, tomboy that I was. I remember rolling my eyes at that excess of emotion while my cousin shouted at me through her tears that I was ruining the ending for her. But the ending had been ruined for me by the director.
Until that final scene, everything had been great and irreverent and suddenly, there were violins and ashen-faced gang members and everyone was acting serious and grown-up and like they didn't hate each other anymore. Eeeeuuuuwww!

Outraged though I was, I ultimately forgave the filmmakers, pragmatically deciding that they needed to turn the movie into a tearjerker...this was Hollywood, after all.

I have no idea how many times I've watched West Side Story, seeing it anew through the eyes of each of my children, finding it ever more brilliant with each viewing.

So, what novel observations did Sunday night's viewing bring?

Well, for one thing, the choreography nearly made me swoon. It is utterly sublime, sophisticated and greatly varied -- ballet to mambo to jazz to modern and back again. I saw Little Babe's mouth open during each dance number, suffused with wonder that "boys" could dance so well.

This Sunday's viewing also activated my gaydar. Maybe it is due to the dancing, but at this recent viewing, most of the Sharks and Jets struck me as gay. Especially the Sharks. Check out their tight little butts and high-waisted pants. (The lipsticked pouty mouths don't help matters.) Still, the gayest guy of West Side Story has got to be Tony. When he attempts to look love-besotted, he merely manages a constipated grimace. The way he holds Maria is distant and awkward. It is far more natural to imagine him, say, making out with Bernardo.
Gratuitous musings about the the actors' sexual orientation aside, what my latest encounter with West Side Story gave me was the sheer joy of sharing it with Little Babe --wondering how it looks to him now that he is the very age I was when it entered my life in a very different world, a world before the Intifada and 9/11 and videotaped decapitations and American students going on murderous rampages and flaming jeeps being driven into airports. I wonder how Little Babe's mind will preserve the memory of the first time he viewed the Jets and Sharks rumbling in urban playgrounds and alleyways, an Upper West Side child on the cusp of adolescence, camping out in the country in the summer before his Bar Mitzvah.

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