For months now, since I first read about the plans for the Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner remake of West Side Story, I’ve been musing on how the heavy hand of political correctness may well crush this most sumptuously subtle of musicals. And now, as an overture, the singer Sierra Boggess, after being judged too pallid for the role of the Puerto Rican heroine Maria (played unforgettably in the 1961 film by the Russian immigrant actress Natalie Wood) has not just given up the role at the imminent BBC Proms after social-media cry-bullying – ‘Step back. This is not your story to tell’ – but has recanted in a positively Orwellian fashion:
‘It is crucial to not perpetuate the miscasting of this show. I apologise for not coming to this realisation sooner and as an artist, I must ask myself how I can best serve the world, and in this case my choice is clearer than ever: To step aside and allow an opportunity to correct a wrong that has been done for years with this show in particular. I have therefore withdrawn myself from this concert and I look forward to continuing to be a voice for change in our community and our world.’
What has become of us, that even the MUSICAL is prey to Thought Policing? Most clever, weird people of my age (ancient) and social origin (working-class) have a set of artistic touchstones which first made them realise that life was rich and strange and didn’t necessarily do what it said on the little boxes – ‘Made out of ticky-tacky/And they all look just the same’ as the sneery old song had it.
Like bolshy bloodhounds bred to chase an idiosyncratic blend of glamour and grimness, we were attracted to a thoroughly predictable cultural canon of louche landmarks. Andy Warhol films; we’d never actually seen one, but we knew we’d love them, especially the one which showed nothing but the Empire State Building for eight hours – even though we were paradoxically prone to bleating that every last thing our parents suggested was ‘BOR-ING!’. That Velvet Underground record with the banana on the cover; how I sulked for Somerset when my father developed a liking for ‘Sunday Morning’ and took to playing it, yes, every Sunday morning – ‘IT’S ABOUT DRUGS!’ I would scream in hormonal frustration before banging the inevitable door. Hollywood Babylon; I was extremely disappointed when as a 17-year-old minding the New Musical Express office when everyone was out on some muse-biz lig or other the book’s author Kenneth Anger rocked up and proceeded to engage me in polite conversation about the English weather for half an hour – Invocation Of My Demon Brother, my eye!
And finally, somewhat mysteriously, musicals – specifically, those big, blousy, overblown beauties which came from Broadway via Hollywood in the middle decades of the twentieth century, starting with Gold Diggers Of 1933 (which at the time was considered just a bit of high-kicking fluff but in 2003 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’) and probably ending with The Sound Of Music in 1965. But the best bits came in the middle – Carousel, South Pacific and West Side Story.
Why do wilfully jaded people go overboard for such overblown emotion? It’s obviously a way for us to process our unsettling feelings – like Eurovision, but epic. Camp is surely thwarted longing – by overblowing emotions, we put them at arms length, and thus make a fist of handling them. And nowhere is this more evident than in the lyrics Stephen Sondheim wrote for West Side Story in 1961 while still in his twenties; what he described as ‘The outsider feeling – somebody who people want to both kiss and kill – occurred quite early in my life’ was clearly his hidden homosexuality come to magnificent fruition. A Boy Like That, Something’s Coming, Somewhere…it’s hard to imagine that intelligence and sentiment will ever unite in quite the same way again.
But identity politics being the new hula-hoop halo, no outsider will ever be called upon to both stifle their nature and employ their full creativity again. Which is why I felt such dread on hearing that Spielberg is preparing a new version of West Side Story, featuring the original music but adapted by Kushner, the author of Angels In America, a seven-hour play about being gay. As I write this, I’m reading about the imminent production of The Inheritance, yet another seven-hour play about being gay; is it just me, or is it that to any but the most boring, badly-read, narrow-minded bourgeoise, being gay in the Free West is surely no more daring these days than being left-handed? No one but the most Neanderthal of heterosexuals believes that where they put their genitalia makes them intrinsically glorious.
Identity politics is decaffeinated apartheid, and in the decline of the musical – most recently in the surrender of Sierra Boggess – we see this; not the most threatening but perhaps the most joyless expression of the cringe of a culture. As the great John Cooper Clarke once said ‘Repression is the mother of the metaphor’: political correctness is, as Mark Twain said of its begetter comparison, ‘the death of joy.’ As we trudge out of the dimmed mezzanine, we may think of this.