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The Greatest Musical: “I Can’t Live With ‘West Side Story’ Not Being Among the Finalists”

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Tunick: Like a steel trap.

Rich: Because, to go back to your original question, it has the high-spiritedness—God knows it takes you on a tour of vaudeville and burlesque—as well as the profound insight into American character. It shows how strong a book can be. What I found about this show, having first encountered it when I was ten and seeing it at every stage of my life, is that it constantly changes in meaning. And it never becomes less moving. Even in questionable productions. It can even work when it doesn’t have the world’s greatest Mama Rose. I’ve seen it in a dinner theater in Virginia and it worked.

Ephron: Who’s your favorite Rose?

Rich: Well, I didn’t see Merman.

Ephron: I did.

Green: So who’s yours, Nora?

Ephron: Tyne Daly.

Wolfe: Probably the best I’ve seen.

Tunick: She was great.

Green: Better than Merman?

Ephron: Well, because she’s such a great actress.

Rich: Here’s the thing: If you listen to the record of Tyne Daly you get no sense of it, because she really couldn’t sing. But I think she was probably my favorite, too. The only one I would say that was at all a competitor was Lansbury.

Tunick: I first experienced West Side Story and Gypsy in the same way: I heard the albums long before I saw the shows. And when I saw West Side Story it looked pretty much like what I had imagined. But when I saw Gypsy it didn’t look anything like what I had imagined. No song was about what it said it was about; it was always about something else.

Green: Is the storytelling in any of the other musicals we’re considering at the level of Gypsy?

Ephron: Oh, My Fair Lady, definitely. And The King and I. And She Loves Me. And Guys and Dolls. The Music Man has a pretty good book.

Rich: I know of one politically correct school in New York where they felt that boys and girls should have equal roles so they gave Harold Hill a sister – and it still worked.

Tunick: The Music Man is very underrated. It’s sloughed off as being superficial, or corny, or not deep. But I think it is deep.

Rich: I agree. I think it’s a very touching show, and of course the score is great.

Green: Perhaps it’s underrated because it came out in 1957, the same year as West Side Story.

Wolfe: And it won the Tony over West Side Story, so it’s been punished ever since. Of course, West Side Story also has a significantly underrated book. It’s got all that “jabber jabber” bad slang, but the craftsmanship is really quite exceptional. It’s got a screenplay efficiency to it, and incredible emotional potency. And also the thing I love about West Side Story versus Gypsy is that it’s not connected to showbiz in any way. It breaks free and captures a velocity and an intensity and an energy of this city in a way I don’t think any other show has ever been able to. I think the book of Gypsy is much more sophisticated, but that sophistication exists in West Side Story, too, in a different way.

Green: Both books, of course, are by Arthur Laurents.

Rich: Like West Side Story, Sweeney Todd is a story that is not connected to show business and is really wonderfully told.

Ephron: There’s almost nothing on this list that doesn’t have a good book. I don’t happen to like the book for South Pacific but even the ones that weren’t originally thought to be so strong are strong, like Chicago.

Rich: Follies is a show I love, but I still think that it’s never quite overcome the book. You never quite believe in those two couples. Of course, Follies is a work that remains in flux. There continue to be slightly different versions of it. Same with Cabaret . The Cabaret that’s done now is not the Cabaret that opened in 1966.

Green: Frank, you were one of the ones who had Cabaret on your original list. Having played Cliff at Welsh Valley Junior High School, I can tell you there are book problems!

Rich: But it’s such a powerful show—particularly the original production—in terms of taking the arsenal of the musical and using it to create this whole world that’s in decay.

Ephron: Well, the movie did a lot for Cabaret . One of the few musicals that became better on screen.

Rich: The only one.

Green: In a way, that leads us to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oklahoma! didn’t quite make the semifinal list; can we eliminate any of the three that did: The King and I, South Pacific, or Carousel? It’s interesting how radically different they are from one another and yet how hard it is to distinguish among them for these purposes.


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