Friday, July 24, 2009

Of Imperfection

I had a great post planned in my head about near-misses and flawed perfection, about the film West Side Story and how the perfectionist choreographer and co-director Jerome Robbins won an Oscar for this work on the film, ironically, after having been fired for his expensive and meticulous restaging, rehearsals and over-preparation.

At the time of his firing, most of the film had already been shot, but as I learned in the PBS American Masters documentary about Robbins, "Something to Dance About," director Robert Wise did have his former collaborator's notes to consult while shooting and cutting the "Mambo at the Gym" sequence.

This sequence, although beautifully danced, has always seemed an anomaly to me within the film. The largely static camerawork (except for that thrilling tracking shot that follows Russ Tamblyn's partner Velma sliding to the floor and up again), the wide open framing and workhorse editing create a sequence that lacks the dynamism of the film's other dances. Compare "Mambo" to the thrilling opening "Prologue" that Robbins designed and redesigned, to the point that the dancers were getting shin-splints from dancing on the pavement. "Prologue" uses space, storytelling, setting, camerawork, cutting and dance and oh God Bernstein's music in a kind of harmonic perfection we haven't seen in the 48 years since...

Well, writing that post was my plan, anyway, until I came across Lynn Becker's great Chicago blog, "Repeat." Becker, an architectural writer and contributor to the Reader, says all I wanted to say about the flawed "Mambo" and more, here, in a post about the Music Box screening West Side Story in 70mm last December.

Becker also writes about the dead mall looming on Michigan Avenue, the disappearance of Chicago landmarks and other great stuff. Check it out.

Why have I been thinking about musical missteps? In anticipation to our trip to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to see Disney's Aladdin live on stage. I don't want to say my expectations were low, but Chris Jones was not impressed and I wasn't sure if the stage version would also make a crucial omission that for me keeps the film from greatness.

The rough draft of the film of Aladdin's story took a sharp turn before ending in its current form. Aladdin originally had a mother (!) to whom he sang the most beautiful song never heard in a Disney film, "Proud of Your Boy." Howard Ashman and his partner Alan Menkin wrote the lovely melody and moving lyrics including these lines:

I've wasted time/I've wasted me/So say I'm slow for my age/A late bloomer, Okay, I agree.../You'll see, Ma, now comes the better part/Someone's gonna make good/Cross his stupid heart/Make good and finally make you/Proud of your boy.

That Ashman, who died of AIDS at the age of 41, lived to see the removal of their song, but not the film's release adds another layer of poignancy to this story of a beautiful opportunity lost.

And with Aladdin's reflective moment excised from the film, we are left with a shallower character and less investment in his success. Jackson Pearce, possibly the cutest novelist/writing instructor on the web, points out that nearly all Disney movies include a song of longing from the main character early in the films. Snow White sings "I'm Wishing." Ariel tells us, "I want to walk; I want to run; I want to spend all day in the sun." Mulan wonders "When will my reflection show/Who I am inside?" Etcetera, etcetera.

Jackson Pearce explains, "It's a very clear, cut and dried presentation of what the main character wants....The song sets up without a shadow of a doubt, what our protagonist is after."

I was hoping the Chicago Shakespeare Theater adaptation might bring back Aladdin's important song, as some live productions have, but once the lights dimmed and the show began, any trace of coulda-shoulda-woulda disappeared.

The challenges loomed large for the show. Honestly, how on earth could a live performance compare to the manic magic of the film's lightning speed animation and Robin Williams's quicksilver act as the blue genie? This production's solution? Don't try. Bill Larkin as the genie does a stand up shtick with new and hilarious jokes with a delivery that is more reminiscent of a laid-back Gilbert Gottfried (without the raunch) than Williams. The stage business surrounding the big show number, "Prince Ali," is rendered with giddy silliness rather than trying for impressive spectacle, a much more satisfying choice in the intimate setting of the 300 seat Courtyard theater. The juicy villain Jafar gets new music and great lines, much to our delight.

And the beginning of the song we had all been waiting for, "A Whole New World," is slowed and simplified to emphasize a different quality of the lyrics. The change transforms the song; instead of a thrilling love duet as Aladdin and his princess soar through the clouds, "I can show you a world/Shining, shimmering, splendid," becomes a tender entreaty, a hopeful promise. For me, this new look at an old chestnut almost takes the place of Aladdin's "wishing song" and endears him to me a little bit more.


2KoP said...

Funny, I've always felt that way about the Mambo at the Gym scene, too, just never in a way that entered the front part of my mind. I look forward to reading Becker's take on it.

Tracey - Just Another Mommy Blog said...

Whoa. You've put way more thought into your review than I. I think mine said something along the lines of "It was neat. You should have seen the camels."


Janet Hale Tabin said...

Ah, beautiful. Have to keep remembering to read what you write. You are a treasure, Cindy Fey.