"West Side Story"

"Hold my hand…"


Timothy Stillman

I still see them, in a rush of all my yesterdays and todays and tomorrows as well. Tony and Maria, dancing silhouettes on that dark enigmatic fire escape on the artwork of the movie of "West Side Story." I still see them. Maria (Carol Lawrence) in flight, captured in a still picture, running down a New York street, past tenements, with Tony (Larry Kert) just behind her, reaching for her hand.

I was a child when I saw the movie, totally unlike any other movie ever. The impressionistic colors, the moving camera to the beat of music that made me start to cry; the slow introduction to New York, the sky line, the center of it, the streets of it, then to the poorer sections, the streets, the tenements, the Sharks, the Jets, and pow! right in the face, man, little king--and Riff and he's snapping his fingers, profile, school yard, face determined and set and so young, a child, a warrior, and the Jets and the Sharks dance on the real New York street. And my god, how they danced. It was kinetic.

I never knew human beings could move with such magical fluidity and grace and make such incredible leaps, all to the tune of a sweltering New York day, and the lyrics to the songs stuck in my throat and heart and mind and form me from that day forward, from forever to forever; who can possibly not love Tony singing "Could Be" as he is taking out the Coke cases at the back of Doc's store, after he and Riff have vowed yet again, birth to earth, womb to tomb, and the unreal so beautiful dusk light only in movies on the scene, and Maria in her whit dress for her first dance in America swirling round and round in colors and dizziness and melding into the dance hall itself, and I was in the screen at that moment, and there was nothing—nothing I wanted to do more than dance down the streets with that gang, with Nardo and Riff and all those firecrackers waiting to explode, tight and frenetic, and moving like the whole sky of New York opened up, and somehow somehow through the magic of the people who made this work, it never occurred to me to wonder why street gangs were doing balletics, because it was right, because a thing enters a child's heart, and if he had always thought Manhattan magical to begin with, here was proof; here was "The Jet Song" and here was Russ Tamblyn as Riff, and George Chakaris as Nardo, and they were at each other's throats and the hatred of boiling summer, stopped not at all by Officer Krupke and Simon Oakland, all these great actors; Ned Glass as Doc, who ran the store where Tony worked; Richard Beymer, the most handsome actor in the world I thought then, and Rita Moreno who can think for Maria with her head, but Maria is with Tony forever.

For this is about true love, the quivering of it, the giddiness of it, the unsureness and the wariness of it, then the headlong rush of flight of giving into it most willingly, in such danger, in spite of, because of, and the shortness of it, and the violence, and the pain like a fist in my gut, a knife in my stomach when Riff is stabbed, and it all comes tumbling, and "Somewhere" has to be taken on faith, and "One Hand, One Heart" is pretend no more, you have to believe it. And I did, because there was such gentleness between Tony and Maria, and the lovely soft music and the blurs of the gangs dancing at the gym, as Tony and Maria (beautiful Natalie Wood, perfect, my true love then that moment) meet and dance and it is a lilting refrain—

..it is like from fairy tale music, soft and low and scared a little, but brave candle flame in it too strengthening, like that—you are not joking? Tony asks. Maria—I have not learned to joke like that, and now I think I never will. It works, this movie, it had me dancing on the front lawn at midnight. It had me getting the novelization of the play, still in print in Pocket Book all these years, and the record, played over and over with my friend Jimmy's sister and her cousin, in my attic, as we learned the songs and it was summer and hot and it was all the secrets, all the perfections tied into a perfect bow, with the roughness still there, with the anger and the gangs and the murders and the horrible ironies and the police sirens in the dark of night and furtive, and P.R.'s and how there was this hate on, as Ned Glass said, why is their such a hate on all the time? "Maria"—put the true name of my forever love from college to now in there, and you have him described—say his name "and there's music playing; say it soft and it's almost like praying." "Oh see only me; I have a love and he's all that I need right or wrong and he needs me too." Say Stephen Sondheim, say Leonard Bernstein, say Jerome Robbins, say Robert Wise, and I shout "Maria" in my love's true name and I experience the bullet fired at me from Chino's gun the sound of which breaks the night apart, and Maria holding the gun, saying how do you fire this thing of hate; I have hate too, now; I can kill now; and the Sharks and the Jets gently reaching to Tony and picking his corpse up and I'm dying in my theatre seat.

I can't believe it; life would never be that cruel; not when the door was opening and Tony was catching the moon, one handed catch, and if Anita had just told, and if the Jets hadn't done that horrible thing to her so she would not tell, and Ned Glass had to tell Tony and hit him to knock some sense into the magic the boy felt, and the ending and I thought life could not be like that; people could not scream inside like that for all their lives and keep living; they just can't. And then the end credits, with the crew and actors' names written in chalk on tenement walls and fences, wild writing, kid calligraphy, and the film said these are children; these are kids who want to be Superman and want to stop being Anybody's, and who want to be cool and die long from now and safe in their beds, and nobody was ever their age, not ever, nobody was ever my age then, and now, not ever, and the choreography and the singing and the words and the direction and the script all hold sway in my heart to this day; I sing the songs in my head; I sing for Maria. I sing for Tony. I sing for that tremendous impact of Tony and Maria meeting, after the foreshadowing of knowing they would, and since the rest of the film after the opening takes place on a sound stage in California, and since the colors are awash in color and unreal, we are taken inside reality because it seems to the blemished vision unreal and not about life, not about anything but a certain moment that is best left to whatever one feels one has to do with it or not as the case may be.

But to a lot of people, to that boy who would see the film over the years vast numbers of times and buy it on every conceivable home video tape and disc, that boy dancing in the moon light of midnight of a summer hot night, after having just had one of the greatest most heart pounding, most exciting experiences of his life, singing what words he could remember then, he knows them all by heart now, and "see only me" "see only me" "see only me." And rush me down a hot New York street and take me to the candy shop and let me talk with Doc and the Jets and let me tell Maria and Tony they will not die this night, he in actuality, she in heart, and remember always that, as the novelization ends, if this madness does not somehow be finished, it would always be this way.

It is to always be this way.

Only that boy, autumn hearted even then, filled with love he had never known before, danced the Tony/Maria dance and was not embarrassed or afraid; aflight with all that movie energy, that strength and power, and then when he had tired himself out, he sat on the porch steps and he looked at the night with its lightning bugs and he did what he was to become so good at doing. And after he dried his eyes, he went into his house and to his bedroom, and before he went to sleep, he said "Te adore, Antone." And then he said, "Te Adore, Maria." And he didn't feel alone for a long long time. And there is always Maria running so happy and young and free down the sidewalk, and Tony smiling and sure of himself and her love that will never die, and Tony almost getting to Maria in the movie and seeing her and she seeing him as Chino fires. No sane God could let such dreams die on the brink like that. No, not in the real world. Pardon me, but fuck the real world.