A PRETTY ISSUE By Peter Filichia
“Aren’t you going to say anything about the decision to drop ‘I Feel Pretty’ from the upcoming Broadway revival of WEST SIDE STORY?!”
Since the announcement on Nov. 15 that director Ivo van Hove and/or lyricist Stephen Sondheim decided to drop one of the most famous songs from the landmark score, not a day goes by when one of my readers or listeners doesn’t ask me that question.
Many musical theater enthusiasts have been terribly upset and have expected me to be equally as outraged.
(I’ll wait and see the show and then report on it.)
Whatever the case, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. Sondheim has had issues with “I Feel Pretty” since that August day in 1957 when the show had its first run-through in New York. As he recalled in Craig Zadan’s SONDHEIM & CO in 1974, “Some of my friends were out front. I asked Sheldon Harnick after the show what he thought, knowing full well he was going to fall to his knees and lick the sidewalk.
“But he said, ‘That lyric, “I Feel Pretty.”’
“And I thought that the lyric to that was just terrific … I had spent the previous year of my life rhyming ‘day’ and ‘way’ and ‘me’ and ‘be’ and with ‘I Feel Pretty’ I wanted to show that I could do inner rhymes, too. So I had this uneducated Puerto Rican girl singing ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel.’ You KNOW she would have not been unwelcome in Noel Coward’s living room. Sheldon was very gentle but I immediately went back and wrote a simplified version of the lyric which nobody connected with the show would accept.”
(That must mean librettist Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, and director-choreographer-auteur Jerome Robbins.)
“So there it is to this day,” Sondheim continued, “embarrassing me every time it’s sung.”
Okay, while we’re at it, would teens or young women in their early twenties say that Maria would be in “an advanced state of shock?”
But how good a lyricist would you be while facing your first Broadway audience at twenty-seven? At thirty-seven? Now?
Never mind rhymes, at which Sondheim has always been sensational. (“That Puerto Rican punk’ll go down and when he’s hollered ‘Uncle!’”). Let’s talk about profundities.
In “Quintet,” both Maria and Tony reiterate “And make this endless day endless night.” Haven’t you felt that way when you’ve been deeply in love and can’t wait to see your boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé or fiancée? The day seems like hundreds of hours long until you finally meet your beloved – and then the night seems only seconds long. If you’ve ever had to endure an “endless day” in waiting for your love, couldn’t you at least have an “endless night” to enjoy each other?
Another “Quintet” example: Lehman Engel liked to say, simple is best if you’re not simplistic. And what could be more simple than the Jets roaring “Well, they began it!” and the Sharks insisting “Well, they began it!” And yet it’s a terrifically effective line because you know that each gang firmly believes that it’s stating the absolute truth.
In “Cool,” each Jet is told (by Riff in the stage show and by Ice in the film) that if no one panics “You can live it up and die in bed.” Now “live” and “die” are words often seen as opposites, and yet Sondheim found a way to make that “live” word mean something else entirely by adding two tiny words. Although many people do die in “bed,” most don’t “live” there – but we all like to “live it up” there, don’t we?
In 2008, Laurents told Sondheim the suggestion made by his long-time partner Tom Hatcher. Perhaps the upcoming revival could have the Sharks and their girlfriends sing in Spanish. Did Sondheim agree partly because no one would then hear his “I Feel Pretty” lyrics? Was he assuaged that most of the Broadway audience probably wouldn’t understand Spanish?
(Could it be? Yes, it could.)
So when the revival opened in 2009, audiences heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s translation. The lines that had so embarrassed Sondheim has been changed into “Hoy me siento encantadora atrayente, actractiva sin par y ahora ni una Estrella me podra opacar.”
Google Translate reveals that that says “Today I feel charming, attractive, unparalleled, and now not even a star can overshadow me.”
My learned colleague Jose Solis who’s a fellow Drama Desk nominator and a native of Honduras prefers “Today I feel charming, attractive, unmatched and now no star will be able to dull me.”
Never mind Noel Coward. Don’t both sound like someone who would be welcomed into Noam Chomsky’s living room?
Even if Van Hove and/or Sondheim were to have a change of mind and reinstate “I Feel Pretty,” the song would no longer be the second-act opener — because this revival won’t be a second-act per se; Van Hove plans to include no intermission and do the show straight through. We’ll see how that plays out, but the idea of showing that things happen fast in WEST SIDE STORY and that fortunes quickly fall will be better established by the absence of an interval.
There’s a long-held theatrical tenet that the second act of any musical should begin with an up-tempo number. Perhaps that’s why “I Feel Pretty” was chosen for that slot. When the Act One curtain fell, both the Jets and Sharks had lost their leaders from a fatal stabbing.
No, it wasn’t just that. Laurents knew that as Maria sang “I Feel Pretty,” the audience would have the advantage over her thanks to dramatic irony. Everyone in the house knew that Maria’s brother Bernardo had been murdered and that her lover Tony had been the perpetrator; Maria and her coworkers didn’t – not yet. How sad the audience felt for Maria knowing that in very short order she wouldn’t “feel like running and dancing for joy.”
Some audience members may not care one way or the other about “I Feel Pretty” because they’ve not had the chance to see it on stage. If the Oscar-winning film is their only experience with it, we can understand why the song didn’t make as big an impact. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman moved it from the place Laurents had put it.
In the film, it’s sung before “One Hand, One Heart” and “Quintet.” It’s nice there, it’s fun there, but it certainly doesn’t have the impact of the original.
There have been endless debates on whether the positioning of “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” heard in that order on stage, should have been switched for the film. (Of course they should have!) Is the reason we haven’t heard as many discussions on the switch for “I Feel Pretty” because everyone knows that Ernest Lehman made a big mistake?
The film may also be the reason why far fewer people have written to ask how I feel about the other major van Hove and/or Sondheim decision: “‘Somewhere’ Ballet” won’t be in this revival. The reason for less fury, I suspect, is that those who know WEST SIDE STORY from the film never saw the ballet.
Deborah Jowitt in her 2004 biography JEROME ROBBINS: HIS LIFE, HIS THEATER, HIS DANCE surmises that it may have been dropped “because dancing in an idyllic film limbo would strain credulity after the ‘real’ streets and tenement rooms.”
Did that decision infuriate Jerome Robbins, the WEST SIDE STORY auteur who was hired and fired from the film as choreographer and co-director? In fact, did he think of it or at least lobby for it? I’ve never found anything in books and articles that divulge that information. I also sent emails in search of an answer to two of the film’s gang members: Shark George Chakiris and Jet Harvey Evans, both of whom haven’t yet deigned to answer.
Well, at least with “I Feel Pretty,” no matter what Ivo van Hove does or what Stephen Sondheim decides, you can hear it any time you’d like on the various albums made of the score. Even if it isn’t perfect, it is on its own terms, to borrow a couple of words from its lyricist’s concluding line, “pretty wonderful.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.