Thursday, February 25, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Life can be bright in America ...

In rehearsal for Carnegie Hall's "West Side Story" at the Knockdown Center in Queens.
by Liz Smith

"West Side Story" — Still Relevant, Still Urgent, Still Timely.  Also — "Pet Sounds" at 50 ... A New Book About The Dangers (And Fun!) of L.A and Show Biz ... More Support For Idris Elba as James Bond ... Liz Taylor's Lost Film — "Young Toscanini."

"LIFE can be bright in America, if you can fight in America/Life is all right in America, if you're all white in America!"

So go some of the famous Stephen Sondheim lyrics, to the song, "America" from "West Side Story." (Music by Leonard Bernstein.) This was a great stage success in 1957 and was later made into a massive hit movie, starring Natalie Wood as Maria (one of those eternal casting controversies that will likely never end, on-screen anyway. Not that Broadway's original Maria, Carol Lawrence, was exactly, you know — Carol from the hood! )
Carol Lawrence (right) sings "I Feel Pretty" in the 1957 original Broadway cast recording of "West Side Story."
Natalie Wood as Maria.
Genuine Latina Rita Moreno did co-star as the sexy, rough and tumble Anita, and won an Oscar for that performance. Despite legend, Rita was dubbed for only one song in the movie, "A Boy Like That," by Betty Ward. (It was outside Rita's range.) However, Natalie had no range, and Marni Nixon, much to Miss Wood's distress, dubbed all her numbers! (Natalie, like Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" had been more or less duped into believing her extensive study and recording would end up on screen; both actresses were simply being humored.)
Rita Moreno as Anita.
We bring you this bit of back-story because on March 4th, 5th and 6th at the Knockdown Center, at Flushing Ave, in Queens, three performances of "West Side Story" happen. (The event is being presented by Carnegie Hall.)

Morgan Hernandez and Skylar Astin portray the star-crossed lovers, Maria and Tony. Bianca Marroquin struts her stuff as Anita. Other cast members include Donald Jones, Jr. (Bernardo), Manuel Stark (Riff), Chuck Cooper (Krupke) and Peter Gerety (Schrank.) The large cast also includes 14 high-school students from New York and New Jersey. Also, 200 teens from 25 schools from all over the five boroughs will sing brand new choral arrangements of some of the show's most famous ballads ("Tonight", "One Hand, One Heart," etc.)
Morgan Hernandez and Skylar Astin star as Tony and Maria in the Carnegie Hall production of "West Side Story" (© Richard Termine).
Amanda Dehnert and Marin Alsop are at the helm, as director and conductor.

"West Side Story" conceived by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents, was considered raw and groundbreaking in its time. (There was an acclaimed Broadway revival in 2009 that ran three years.) To be honest, it's still pretty raw and significant, maybe more so than ever. For tix info call 212-247-7800.

I don't know that we've ever written these words before but — get on over to Flushing Avenue, Queens!
The "West Side Story" family!
MUSIC PRODUCER/filmmaker/manager Alan Swyer has finally kept a promise he made long ago to the late, great Ray Charles. The two men became friends while Swyer was producing an album for the soul legend. Ray was fascinated by Swyer's abilities as a storyteller, his many adventures and projects (managing Ike Turner, writing and directing "The Buddy Holly Story," making music videos and commercials.) "You gotta promise me to write a book!" Ray exclaimed. Swyer said yes, but nothing came of it, until, well — now. While he was finishing "From Harlem to Hollywood" a documentary about singer/songwriter/author Billy Vera, he also began to write. And on April 2nd Swyer's comic novel "The Beard" will debut from Harvard Square Editions. It's been described as "an insider's guide to the cutthroat phoniness of L.A.'s west side nouveau riche."

Novel or not, one can be sure Alan Swyer's adventures protecting his own throat from being cut will be melded into the fiction.
Alan Swyer.
AND the 50th anniversaries keep on coming! Our pal and music expert in L.A., Hal Lifson, informs us that in May, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" album hits the half century mark. Despite some initially puzzled, lukewarm reviews, "Pet Sounds" went on to become one of the most influential albums of all time, more or less breaking The Beach Boys sunny image with much more mature themes. Paul McCartney has often said it is his favorite album and that it even influenced The Beatles groundbreaking "Sgt. Pepper."

Brian Wilson insists he will tour in the spring, in tribute to "Pet Sounds."
ANOTHER constant reader chimes in on the Idris-Elba-as James Bond-chatter. "Mr. Elba screams James Bond, especially in certain photos. And considering the financial disaster of the most recent Bond film, and considering the percentage of African Americans around the world who buy movie tickets, I think this is the moment for the Broccoli family to try something new and re-energize the franchise. After all, Mr. Elba is English and like all the other Bonds, a terrific actor."

Well, I'm all for it, myself. But I didn't realize "Spectre" had done so poorly as to be described as a "disaster." Of course, nobody shows me the books!
SPEAKING of Elizabeth Taylor. Well, we weren't, really, but we like to, and anyway — we can do what we want to, here!

The other day, channel surfing, I tuned into the Classic Arts Showcase network, which is an endless, glorious loop of snippets and portions of opera, ballet, concerts, movies and such. So, what did I find? Twenty minutes from Franco Zeffirelli's little-known, rarely seen 1988 movie, "Young Toscanini," starring C. Thomas Howell as the composer and Miss Elizabeth Taylor as an opera singer (yes!) who learns the error of her spoiled ways through her association with YT.
C. Thomas Howell and Elizabeth Taylor in "Young Toscanini."
I attended the one and only New York screening of this rarity, back in '88. It is sumptuous to look at, reasonably entertaining and Taylor (dubbed by the great Aprile Millo) does her level best to come off like a grand opera star, or a grand star, period. (When she meets conductor Arturo Toscanini for the first time, she is vastly put off that he has brought no tributes — no baubles, no silver, not even flowers! Our girl had no trouble with that scene.) Taylor looks fantastic. Zeffirelli insisted the then very slender ET put on some weight, which for once she was NOT happy to do!

Anyway, the scene chosen for Classic Arts Showcase, has Taylor all done up as the Nubian princess from "Aida." (Although on sun-worshiper Liz, the make-up looks like just another day not hoisting the parasol.)
And for my next number — the entire score of "Aida!" La Liz frees the people in "Young Toscanini."
She has a sudden epiphany onstage, breaks character, and gives a big dramatic speech about freeing the slaves in Brazil, takes a giant rock off her finger — a present from her lover, who is Brazil's president or something, and pledges to fight for civil rights. The audience erupts into cheers. Taylor's lover leaves in huff. No more jewels from him! It's a hoot, but also strangely moving in that it echoes Taylor's real-life battle in the AIDS cause.

"Young Toscanini" never had an official USA release and was seen only briefly in Europe. As it is La Liz's next to last feature film ("The Flintstones" in 1994 would be her final appearance on the big screen) I wish somebody would put Zeffirelli's fascinating rarity on DVD.

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.