After the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim I discovered a podcast devoted to his work that’s been going on for nigh four years.
The format is straightforward: take each Sondheim show in sequence and examine one song at a time. Starting, of course, with West Side Story.
I’ve been listening to the episodes in sequence, or at least I started to, but while many of the episodes contain interesting perspectives on Sondheim’s work that I haven’t previously considered, all too often there is an egregious error or an opinion to which I take great exception.
For example, the host, Kyle Marshall, frequently opines that the Puerto Rican characters should be singing their lyrics in Spanish, and he hopes that the forthcoming movie (this was three years ago on the podcast) will do so.
This is just plain wrong! It’s not even a matter of opinion. It’s wrong.
And I’ll explain why.
The conventions of the stage are such that when the characters are speaking in a foreign language (for example, French people in a French setting), the actors actually speak in English unless there is some dramatic reason why they should speak in the foreign language. One reason might be if a foreign character is encountered by a group of English speaking characters and the characters on stage don’t understand what he is saying. So neither the characters on stage nor (presumably) the audience comprehends what the foreigner is saying.
The point here is that the play would have been written with that dramatic situation in mind, and whatever is important for the audience to know will still be conveyed to them.
Well, West Side Story wasn’t written with a dramatic situation like that in mind. And the songs were intended to be understood by the audience. (Forget that many of the lyrics to “America” go by so quickly that they are nearly incomprehensible on first hearing.)
As a matter of fact, a few years ago there was a misbegotten attempt to translate Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish for a Broadway revival (I assume Sondheim agreed to it because he finds the lyrics he wrote for the Puerto Ricans to be embarrassing). They had to revert back to the English lyrics because the audiences didn’t like it. You see, the show wasn’t conceived and written to be done partly in Spanish.
Anyway I was a bit apprehensive about the new movie. Would Spielberg be dumb enough to use Spanish in the songs?
Happily, no. The songs are all performed in English, I’m very happy to report.
On the other hand, there is a lot more Spanish in the spoken dialog. But that’s ok, because the script has been completely rewritten to incorporate Spanish dialog. Most of the time when the characters start speaking in Spanish, someone reminds them to use English.
Overall, I enjoyed the new movie, but it doesn’t replace the original. I think both of them are good in their own ways. I know Sondheim didn’t like the first one, but he had very peculiar tastes in movies.
The new movie adds more motivations for some of the characters, especially the secondary ones, like Chino, and in general it updates the story with a more modern sensibility (although it’s still set in 1957, of course).
I especially liked the staging of the big dance numbers; “America” was especially joyful.
My advice is to watch both movies and enjoy each for its individual strengths.