Wednesday, March 17, 2004

"The greatest love story the world has ever known" 

That tag line on the Baz Luhrmann production of Romeo and Juliet always infuriated me. After several years I've grudgingly come to admit that it's a very decent film - I avoided doing so originally in reaction to everyone's love of Leonardo DiCaprio - but I still believe it worked despite its story line, not because of it. Romeo and Juliet is my least favourite Shakespeare play. There are worse ones, sure, but none to which young people are subjected more often, none for which such a reputation is claimed without desert.

There are a few nice lines in the play, I'll admit, but hopelessly marred for me by the fact that these people have only just met each other and are taking what essentially seems to be mere animal lust to ridiculous lengths. Romeo is obviously the sort of person who, if he lived now, would be coming home from a club every weekend telling his friends he'd met the girl of his life, while said friends rolled their eyes, groaned and said 'not again', while Juliet is a spoilt little kid looking for any way out of an arranged marriage (fair enough, but why him?). The only thing tragic about this love is that its allowed to bear the name, and dares to speak it only too much. Send these kids back to their rich daddies and tell them to wake up and smell the shit.

However, the reason I'm writing this, as I'm sure everyone has an embittered friend around who can moan to them about Shakespeare (no home is complete without one), is to rave about an example of what can be done with this story to improve it. Now I often used to be accused of being a musical snob, but I've broadened my tastes in response to the real snobs I've met. At school I had a music teacher who would weekly declare that opera is the highest form of art, and would refuse to allow us to listen to anything non-classical in class. No suggestion ever that there could be any musical merit in, say, jazz, rock, even country and western. No, opera was the highest, the only really pure, form of art because it combines everything - theatre, music, dance. Anyone else recognise another form of art which does that? Musicals!

Now I'm quite willing to make fun of musicals along with the best (see below), but I'll confess that I've been a huge fan of them ever since I saw Guys and Dolls in Edinburgh, aged seven (no, that doesn't mean I like the Tory Bastard Andrew Lloyd Webber. I still have some taste). I spent much of my youth listening to musicals recordings, thanks to The Musicals Collection magazines which came out in the early nineties, and from that experience I've known the songs from West Side Story for most of my life.

But a couple of weeks ago I was given the chance for the first time to see it on film, in the famous version from the 60s which made all the young girls swoon. And really, it's exciting stuff. The leading man, Tony, is a slimeball, but other than that the whole thing is well nigh perfect. The film begins with just a screen of coloured shapes, which after a little of the overture gradually melt into an American city skyline. The focus gets narrower, from the city, to the West Side, then to a basketball court, where the two groups, Jets and Sharks, are antagonising each other. These are our Montegues and Capulets. The Jets are white trash boys, 'socially sick', the Sharks Puerto Rican immigrants, and the racism they suffer, mainly from the law, already adds an extra element to the old story.

For the first ten minutes of the film nothing much happens apart from gradually increasing taunts and chases between them, until they're separated by some policemen. The orchestral backing ebbs and flows in support, while the action is straight out of a ballet, groups stalking along in perfect time, clicking their fingers and rapidly building up the tension. Only after they separate do we get the first song, and that's when Sondheim's wonderful lyrics make you realise the whole experience is going to be something out of the ordinary.

Like every Romeo and Juliet story the Romeo and Juliet characters themselves are the least interesting part of this, or at least their duets are the least subtle part of the music. These are the songs people have heard of - 'Tonight', 'One hand, one heart' and 'Somewhere' - but the best bits of this are easily the group numbers, where the energy of the youthful actors brims over in everything they do. It's the ultimate advert against obesity - just watching it makes me want to go to a gym and learn to dance. But so far the only result it's actually had is to make me write this, proof that nothing can make the determinedly lazy person change her ways.

It's in the group numbers, too, that the politics comes out. 'Gee Officer Krupke' is an eloquent assessment of society's attitudes to delinquent youth, 'America' shows the different experiences and views of the American Dream among immigrants. Both are serious songs, but are conducted wildly, joyfully, life-affirmingly. Here, too, the story is examined more closely, so that in 'I Feel Pretty' Maria (Juliet) is made to feel as insane in her attraction as she really is.

Youth is emphasised everywhere, and unlike in the traditional story the couple do not really get married, but act out a marriage in the dressmaker's shop where Maria works. It's a sweet scene, but it shows just how unprepared for a serious relationship they really are. Maria is the more grounded of the two, making fun of Tony (Romeo) at first for his wild assertions of love. She recognises the problems of their different backgrounds and her family's fear. Bernstein, Sondheim et al never try to suggest that theirs is 'the greatest love story ever told'. The story works because it brings out the foolishness and futility of their romance to the full.

What's tragic in this is that these two groups, both targets of 'society', fight each other rather than joining their efforts. It's the old story seen everywhere, the lower classes played off against one another, anything to prevent them rising up and fighting those in power. Every once in a while you see them doing it - as in the cafe at midnight, where the Jets all stay silent rather than allow the police to take in the Sharks (who are their main targets, being foreign). But still their first hatred is reserved for the other group, who are taking their territory, meagre as it is.

The sadness of the love story is that fighting has made what would probably have been a brief fling into something secret, sustained and, ultimately, something tragic. It's not just a tragedy for Maria and Tony, but for all of them, left in the end with nothing more than they had when they began, still demonised, still worthless. As Maria and Tony sing 'there's a place for us - somewhere', it's not just for the two of them, but for all of them. The rallying cry of a better life.

Romeo and Juliet is by no means the best love story ever told, but it can turn into a truly great story when music and dance is added to words, and when social struggle is added to romance. Here we see the lowest in society venting their frustration - tragic young men going down under bullets, as in the best Westerns - their pointless lives tunnelled into frustration after frustration, finally ending in death. The moral, of course, is not to try to rise above the other group, but with them. Join forces! Fight the bastards who keep you down!

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