Carreón Cinema Club: Who Failed “West Side Story?”

The superb duo of Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler lead the impeccable cast of “West Side Story,” now in theaters.

I’ve been stalling in writing a post-mortem on Steven Spielberg’s emotionally resonant and superbly crafted adaptation of West Side Story. Not only is it Spielberg’s best film in years, but it is also exactly the kind of moviegoing experience that deserves to be championed. Yes, it is THAT good.

It seems trite in the face of the pandemic news cycle and the growing storm clouds of war in Ukraine to offer any analysis. Yet, I’m oddly compelled to weigh in anyway because it is hard not to feel that audiences and studio culture let this movie down.

Revivals on Broadway remain part of its lifeblood in art and commerce. When they connect, they can usher in new generations of theater fans. Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s 1993 production of Cabaret remains a marvel of reinterpretation. Susan Stroman’s take on The Music Man in 2000 and Jerry Zaks’s 2017 production of Hello, Dolly! brought out new colors and injected vivid spirit with its star power and inventive theatricality blend. This year, Marianne Elliott’s gender-switched production of Stephen Sondheim’s seminal Company earned love letters from a theatrical community eager to return to the business of entertaining audiences. So why can’t this phenomenon happen for film versions? More, why didn’t it happen for West Side Story?

Were adults afraid to return to cinemas in a pandemic? Sure. But that didn’t stop the recent spate of Marvel films, Dune, No Time to Die, and House of Gucci, from filling seats, which included many adults in the demo mix. Did the post-Glee generation lose interest in musical film? Maybe. Despite its being explicitly marketed to them, audiences avoided Dear Evan Hansen, but that didn’t dissuade releasing studio Universal from greenlighting the international juggernaut Wicked for the screen.  Is it a dying or dead genre? Explain that to Bill Condon’s sparkling take on Dreamgirls, or Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, the Mamma Mia! franchise, and The Greatest Showman, all of which were fueled by big names and turned out to be major box office in a world before the lockdowns shuttered cinemas brought the moviegoing cultural experience into an uncertain future.

Looking at the recent soft openings of Jon Chu’s stellar adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda & Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Tony-winning hit In the Heights and Spielberg’s West Side Story is perplexing as both films earned some of the year’s best reviews. Neither lived on as museum exhibits, something that plagued Clint Eastwood’s disappointing treatment of Jersey Boys in 2014. Heights and WSS both possess a vitality and freshness that makes going to the movies an absolute joy again, transcending their theatrical roots but not abandoning them. More, seeing real people express themselves beyond the blasts of special effects and neo-classic heroism is true magic. The expert craftsmanship fills every inch of the big screen along with casts, dance teams, design aesthetics, and musical scores overflowing with enthusiasm and possessing an even greater cultural purpose. However, here’s where things get a little complicated, though. Is spotlighting the effort to embrace cultural authenticity and diversity in the filmed arts turning off audiences on both sides?

Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, and Corey Hawkins in “In the Heights.”

As a Latino, it did my heart good to see the talent, sounds, and complex cultural realities of what it is to be from all parts of Latin America. We cannot always see such shows on the stage thanks to economics and the appearance of these works being solely made by and for “gringos” and “wannabe white” gente. That is not a gross generalization, either. While Fiddler on the Roof can pack them in regardless of the year of the production, Latinos are hard-pressed to partake in the Broadway or touring productions of shows that focus on their narratives.  The reality is shows like West Side Story and In the Heights will endure in schools, colleges, and amateur productions for a very long time. Yet, you can’t deny that they still feel like niche audience caviar when blown up for the silver screen. Worse, they are now targets for the woke political machine seeking to eradicate the “whitewash” in terms of representation.

The colorism debate that side-swiped In the Heights was devastating and demoralizing to watch happen in the weeks leading to its release last June, a situation made worse by apologies from its creators and supporters for not trying hard enough. They had no reason to apologize. The works speak positive volumes that cannot and should not be ignored or diminished.  

Months later, notice the campaign mounted for West Side Story, which opted to render the entire cast with the same beige skin tone with an artfully placed red, white, blue, and star flag. Subtle politicking from the liberal elite? Perhaps. But telegraphing “We are making a HUGE effort to tell ALL stories” is not the same as just letting the stories speak for themselves or weaving their cinematic spells without seeking approval or validation for promoting positive cultural representation.

Watching the studios patting their backs for their efforts is insulting enough. Knowing the executive suites do not include our voices in their mix is worse. How can they even begin to gauge how Latino audiences will react without someone from the community in their team to highlight the sensitivity minefields? More, what happens when you take the time to cull materials in Spanish, only to see the footage languish in the can, utterly ignored? This is something that I’ve experienced as a content producer several times, a symptom of tone-deafness that still permeates the marketing offices in Hollywood.

Heights and WSS feature extraordinary Latino talent in front of and behind the cameras. The sights and sounds ring true because we see and hear them from the people who look like and sound like us. Is it a perfect rendering? No. Is it a crime they should exist? Hell no. It is easier for some to process a Coco, for example. Yet, why did Encanto have a more challenging time reaching the same heights, despite its reviews and being a beautiful film for all audiences? Did it play its cultural card too hard? Or maybe its message was too foreign compared to the celebratory nature of Coco? The grey areas are endless here.

What saddens me most about the problems faced at the box office by In the Heights and West Side Story is that the appearance of failure of these high-profile titles will make it harder for other Latino-focused stories to be made or given the big-screen treatment. Director Eva Longoria’s Flamin’ Hot, due in 2022, will be yet another litmus test to raise these issues all over again, adding further pressure to la causa.

It is a curious thing. Thanks to streaming, Latin America is exploding with talent and fresh inspiration, with such boundary-smashing series and films as La Casa de la Flores, El Baile de Los 41, El Juego de las Llaves, Luis Miguel: La Serie, Acapulco, and the upcoming Señorita 89. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s company Fabula and Pantaya, Apple, and Amazon Prime Video are crafting slates of original films and series that rival the best of what the American studios and streamers are offering. Why can’t some of these stories make their way up to el norte, too? We have the talent and the narratives that go way beyond dead rock stars and cholos. We need more faith in their realization and trust from the community beyond The Fast and the Furious-type IP.

Perhaps the disconnect between audiences and critics is the real culprit, a chasm that is as wide as it’s ever been and growing. Maybe the marketing efforts of leaning into diversity and inclusivity feel too much like moralizing, prompting audiences to ignore the “message” titles to just be “entertained.”

Reasons exist why the Marvel tent poles play to all demos. We know what they are before we take our seats in the cinema. Maybe it is time to stop leading the audience with the obvious or safe messages and let the intrinsic quality of a good story and singular artistry lead the way again. One way or another, audiences will find a reason to watch again in a way that makes them comfortable, secure, and inspired by what remains the greatest of art forms.

Writer’s Note: It is important to disclose that as a content producer, I am part of the team involved with the campaign for “In the Heights” and the upcoming “Flamin’ Hot.”

Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim transformed our cultural landscape as a composer and lyricist. For many devout followers of musical theater, he remains an icon, a true master of this powerful art form. News of his passing is heartbreaking and devastating, knowing we will never hear a new work of his. Yet, we are empowered and consoled by his legacy, one that will resonate for generations to come. I am not alone in feeling strong emotions today. Mr. Sondheim, thank you, for everything you left us in your work. Rest in power, our forever hero.

www.nytimes.com/2021/11/26/theater/stephen-sondheim-dead.html

“Pride”

“Pride”

It was the summer of 1978 and I was in Mexico City. Dad had left me and my sister Lil in the care of his family. His parting wish was that we not only get to know all of our aunts, uncles, and cousins but that we learn Spanish and understand what it meant to be part of two cultures.

In the years since that legendary visit, the lessons learned continue to fill me with pride. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been at odds with my American and Mexican identities in the years, but at 50, I am glad to be that perfect mollete of American & Mexican ingredients.  Back to 1978…

I was already a voracious reader and I brought along quite a few books to help me deal with the shyness that was still my want at that age. As the weeks went by, my shyness lessened, but I had my moments. One weekend, Tía Beba and Tío Pio headed to their ranch in Celaya, Guanajuato. They were this amazing duo, a matriarch and patriarch culled straight out of Tennessee Williams by way of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She was fair, blonde and every inch a Ms. DuBois. He was dark, silver-haired and a caballero from an era long passed. Their passing left a gaping hole that swallowed the entire family alive in the end, but that’s another story left to be told in the future.

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I didn’t want to go to the ranch that day. I preferred to be left alone in the hotel we were staying at outside the property since construction was still shaping up the main house. For whatever reason, I chose to read my book, a novelization of the NBC mini-series “Holocaust,” in the lobby. I’d seen the series earlier that year and the novel was no less vivid or engrossing. I was so immersed in the book, feeling this overwhelming horror and sadness over the plight of the Weiss family. That this happened in the 20th century scared me speechless.

As I continued reading author Gerald Green’s adaptation of his screenplay, the degrading atrocities experienced by European Jews tapped into my own burgeoning abilities of imagination and empathy at that age. I pondered, “What if that were me? What if that were my family? I felt a fear I did recognize. At that moment, the light fixture hanging from the ceiling chose to fall and shatter upon reaching the tiled floor. It only took seconds for me to get up and call my family to come get me. I didn’t want to be alone anymore.

Nearly 40 years later, I woke up on July 27 to feel a similar sense of fear and dread felt on a summer evening in Guanajuato. However, it didn’t leave me speechless. Quite the contrary, anger surged within me. We were still dissecting 45’s petty and bilious speech at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree. The scorched Twittersphere and media landscape is still digesting Trump’s infamous decree that transgender men and women are barred from enlisting in the military. Imagine the cruel joke that is the trash fire known as the Trump Administration doubled down on further eroding the protections for the LGBTQ community:

“The Justice Department has filed court papers arguing that a major federal civil rights law does not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, taking a stand against a decision reached under President Barack Obama.

The department’s move to insert itself into a federal case in New York was an unusual example of top officials in Washington intervening in court in what is an important but essentially private dispute between a worker and his boss over gay rights issues.

“The sole question here is whether, as a matter of law, Title VII reaches sexual orientation discrimination,” the Justice Department said in a friend-of-the-court brief, citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. ‘It does not, as has been settled for decades. Any efforts to amend Title VII’s scope should be directed to Congress rather than the courts.’

The department filed its brief on Wednesday, the same day President Trump announced on Twitter that transgender people would be banned from serving in the military, raising concerns among civil rights activists that the Trump administration was trying to undermine lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights won under previous administrations.” — From the New York Times article, published on July 27, 2017.

The Pentagon has no intention of changing its criteria on transgender enlisted officers just yet. The intervention sought by the White House and Department of Justice is also going to take the time to resolve and will be challenged in court. But Trump’s daily Twitter coffee and cigarette dump succeeds in playing to his support base of intolerant miscreants with such power, the message is too loud to ignore. That’s what strikes fear and anger is so many. It is being digested and accepted by those who want to see the LGBTQ lose its protections sectors of this American society seeking to blame the dreaded “Other” as their sources of woe.

Once he took office, Trump’s Orwellian desire to erase any and all achievements of President Barack Obama was just the start of his all-too obvious agenda of hate. The media still blasts his “achievements” with tongue in cheek, snide glee reserved for the second rate reality star that he is. Too many of the electronic and digital media sites are breathless in their constant, “Oooh. Look what he’s doing now!” If I wanted to watch a monkey throw shit out of his cage, I’ll go to the fucking zoo!

It’s infuriating, but not nearly as maddening as the lack of balls shown by the Democrats or the lack of concern from the Americans who DIDN’T vote for him. And how about the center ring of this circus manned by the Unholy Trinity of Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and, just added to the cast, Anthony Scaramucci?

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When cabinet members take to giving interviews to The New Yorker and utter statements like “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” you have to wonder if this is really our new normal — more — is this the start of the fall of the Great American State? You have to ponder the “show” that is being carefully curated and unveiled every given day. Cock sucking statements issued by Scaramucci is just a distraction. The Boy Scout Jamboree rant is just a distraction. The real show is what’s happening in between, slices of tasty sandwich meats topped with savory cheese but only available to select few. It’s not designed to satisfy us all.

The cowardly acts perpetrated by this administration are tailor made with the skins of the LGBTQ community because of the bias that already exists against them. It doesn’t matter the race, color and creed because being gay/trans/cisgender strikes that chord of terror-fueled intolerance in many people. But what the rest of us need to realize is that being silent makes us complicit in the eroding of precious civil liberties. Don’t think for one moment that Trump’s wrath won’t include you at some point.

This era of complicity is shaping up to be the personification of “First they came…,” the legendary poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller, first published in 1947. Europeans, especially Germans, saw the signs of an imminent genocide at the hands of Adolf Hitler. In the end, over six million men, women, and children would lose their lives. Silence allowed scores of husbands, wives, daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, doctors, artists, writers, scientists, all major contributors to society, to be eradicated without mercy. How many do you want to see claimed if Trump and his acolytes continue the brandish their brush of white wash on this country? Perhaps they won’t be murdered, but they will be stripped of their American identity, a crime in itself.

When I first started this essay, it was meant to be an examination of being gay, a piece inspired by the month of Pride festivals all over the country. Other life events took ownership of my thoughts, of course. Then this week of infamy started. It has dredged up a few unsavory realities about my earlier life. Like how I grappled with the desire of wanting to be white. I didn’t want to be treated differently because I wasn’t born into the tribe of Muffy & Trip. Or, how I stayed in the closet for as long as I did because for some being gay made you a carrier of AIDS, which was viewed as a punishment by those who felt it was “killing all the right people.”

We are born how we are born. Choice exists in what we learn in terms of how we live our lives. Men like Trump prey on those with weak minds with the isms that define the darker side of being human.  It is when we are most distracted that the thieves storm the castle, and not always at night. It is here why stupidity has a habit of getting its way.

This is the time to be heard, not succumb to a herd mentality.

This is the time to be strong, not weakened by being divided. This is the time to be out and proud, not hidden or silenced.

This is the time to be a true American.

This is the time to have pride, in ourselves, in our nation, in being a human being.

Tomorrow should belong to WE, dammit.

 

Now you know. Sometimes, all you need is a little Sondheim — #musicalmondays

Now you know. Sometimes, all you need is a little Sondheim — #musicalmondays

If you know me, then you know how much I revere the art and artistry of Stephen Sondheim. His ability to drive narratives with some of the most stirring music and insightful wordplay is beyond compare. More, he is one of the few songwriters who can give voice to the many selves we carry inside.

It’s been illuminating to see his most iconic shows on Broadway, particularly since turning the ages of the characters that impacted me most. “Company,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Follies” and “Gypsy” all transcended what I initially felt for such musicals a kid. As an adult, his contemplative themes of youth, age, fear, death, life and, especially love, shed their romance and to become something tangible. The intricacies of the melodies and the precision of his lyrics revealed to me as much about the real world as any relationship or friendship I’ve encountered in over 40 years of living. I hope to tell him that in person some day.

One Sondheim show that has eluded me is “Merrily We Roll Along,” which annoys me because of its connection to my high school days. Believe it or not, I dared to act and sing while at El Rancho High. Our drama teacher Stan Wlasick was often bold in his choices for this Chicano-centric school located in the jewel of the SGV, Pico Rivera. He was going to stage “Merrily…,” a show even New Yorkers failed to embrace when it debuted on Broadway in the early 80s. But the show had so much to say about the idealism of youth and how we corrupt ourselves with success and other trappings of adult life.

Granted, what do any teenagers know about such themes? Hell, I played disillusioned and unhappily married Dr. Jim Bayliss in the ERHS production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” (A harbinger to come? No. But it was so cool to tell that to Miller in person. Short version: he laughed over my anecdote. I’ll save the full version for my book.)

I so wanted to play the part of writer Charley Kringas. I felt such a connection to him. He was the second banana to his glamorous bestie Frank Shephard and I understood that. (I wasn’t meant to be center stage, even then. But I knew I had something to contribute to the show that is life, you know? I just didn’t want to be languishing in the background.)

Charley and Frank formed part of a trio of friends, which included Mary, who carries an undying torch for Frank. The beauty of their story is that it is told in reverse. We see what they’ve become at the start, and it’s not good. Frank is an jaded egomaniac, about to divorce his glamorous second wife. Charley carries bitter resentment over losing his best friend and writing partner. Mary’s unrequited love is steeped in acrimony and alcohol. But, what makes “Merrily…” such a profound piece is seeing where they all begin. They are the epitome of youth, looking at the future in the horizon with such hopes and dreams.

We’ve all entertained thoughts of “If only I could go back…” It isn’t magic that fuels “Merrily,” just this voyeuristic look into people’s lives in reverse. It is an imperfect show, but it is an unforgettable one.

I was able to witness a digital broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production last year with my dear friend, Mimi G., herself a young actress with her star on the rise. (Now that I think of it, we were the embodiment of what the show was about. Maturity and youth. Interesting….) Needless to say, we both had strong emotional reactions to our respective halves of the show. It was a near perfect production, but man, I want to see it staged for real.

One of the key songs, outside of the longing ballad “Not a Day Goes By” is Mary’s acceptance of how life will disappoint you. Given what’s been happening around me of late, the song “Now You Know” seems awfully apropos. At one point, she sings:

“It’s called letting go your illusions and don’t confuse them with dreams.”

I don’t confuse illusions with dreams, at least not anymore. And life can be crummy. But we don’t have to fall apart, even if it feels like everything is so broken. The emotions of this complex year did overwhelm me. And we’re not out of the woods yet. But none of us are alone, either.

Now you know…

Monday, October 27. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena.

NOW YOU KNOW by Stephen Sondheim

“All right, now you know:
Life is crummy.
Well, now you know.

I mean, big surprise:
People love you and tell you lies.
Bricks can fall out of clear blue skies.
Put your dimple down,
Now you know.

Okay, there you go ?
Learn to live with it,
Now you know.

It’s called flowers wilt,
It’s called apples rot,
It’s called theives get rich and saints get shot,
It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot,
Okay, now you know.

Okay, now you know,
Now forget it.
Don’t fall apart at the seams.
It’s called letting go your illusions,
And don’t confuse them with dreams.

Yes sir, quite a blow ?
Don’t regret it,
And don’t let’s go to extremes.
It’s called what’s your choice?
It’s called count to ten.
It’s called burn your bridges, start again.
You should burn them every now and then
Or you’ll never grow!

Because now you grow.
That’s the killer, is
Now you grow.

You’re right, nothing’s fair,
And it’s all a plot,
And tomorrow doesn’t look so hot ?
Right, you better look at what you’ve got:
Over here, hello?
Okay, now you know,
Right?”