Cher, the mononymous goddess of pop, brought a lot of over-the-top glamor to the small screens of the 70s.
Her work ethic, comedic flair, and unapologetic embrace of camp helped her stand out from the crowd and contributed to the fame she had longed for since childhood when she commandeered her 5th grade classmates for an unofficial, and from the sounds of the, all-female production of Oklahomaand even covered the male roles when the boys refused to participate.
Some twenty years later, she was a household name – a name no longer associated with ex-husband Sonny Bonos, co-host of the popular eponymous variety show, where they sang, hammered their way through silly skits and busted each other’s chops to the delight of live studio audiences.
The 1978 television special Cher…special found her bringing many of the same talents to her side, alongside country star Dolly Parton, rocker Rod Stewart, outspoken glam band The Tubes and the crowd-pleasing array of bouncy, skinless Bobs Mackie designs that defined her look.
More shocking than any of Mackie’s creations or Musical Battle to Save Cher’s Soul, a set piece in which Parton and a gospel choir endeavor to lure the diva from a kinky disco hellscape, is the star’s 12-and-a-half-minute solo version of West Side Storyabove.
This is not just medley. Cher puts the big pot in the small, dons multiple wigs, a facsimile of the chaste white prom dress Natalie Wood wore to the gym dance, and flats (!) to embody Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo and various Jets, sense of irony.
Some of Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning songs have been transposed to a different key to accommodate Cher’s contralto, and when they haven’t, her famous voice is stretched a bit thin.
Vocally, she makes a more convincing Jet than she does the inventive Maria.
(Speaking of which, let’s not forget that it’s ghost singer Marni Nixon, not Wood, as Maria on the 1961 film’s soundtrack…)
Why West Side Story?
Why not Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar? Wouldn’t they be a better thematic fit for the part of the special where Dolly and a chorus of white robes battle the denizens of Satan’s sexy playpen?
1. Variety. That’s what Cher was doing in the 70s.
2. Nostalgia. As Cher remembers On the dance floor: Spinning out on the screen:
I remember dancing around my living room to West Side Story (1961). I would sing all the parts and dance every dance when no one else was around.
That admission helps us reframe the cringe factor. Before you throw the first stone, think: have you never stood in front of a mirror and sung into a hairbrush?
And if you happen to be unfamiliar with West Side Story‘s dramatis personae and plot, don’t turn to Cher for clarification.
Instead, we refer you to Romeo and Juliet, and to a modern context that touches on green screens, gender fluidity, and the color-conscious casting of the 2021 remake, the below episode of Chris Frank’s snarky Bad Music Video Theater.
David Bowie and Cher sing a duet of “Young Americans” and other songs on the 1975 Variety Show
Leonard Bernstein awkwardly turns the screws on tenor Jose Carreras while recording West Side Story (1984)
– Ayun Halliday is chief primatologist for East Village Inky zine and author, most recently by Creative, Not Famous: The Little Potato Manifesto. follow her @AyunHalliday.