Here, 57 years after its Broadway premiere, is the definitive recording of the Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) musical West Side Story. It's been a long time coming. There have, of course, been previous recordings of the score, but none without serious shortcomings. The original cast recording, released one month after the show's opening (in 1957, conveys a sense of occasion, but doesn't contain the complete score. The newly re-mastered soundtrack album does contain the entire score, but the added scenes were lifted directly from the movie, and come with annoying snatches of dialogue. Besides, I was never much taken with the soundtrack album. The ensemble numbers (the Jets song, "America," and "Officer Krupke") are very well done, but otherwise the entire production seems too mannerly and manufactured. Johnny Green's lush orchestrations are a bit syrupy, and Marnie Nixon and Jimmy Bryant (the voice-overs for Natalie Wood's Maria and Richard Beymer's Tony) hit all the right notes, but sound emotionally disengaged.
Bernstein's 1984 recording for DG should have
been the gold standard, as it was clearly intended to be. But Lenny was out to
prove that West Side Story was
something more than just a Broadway show, and cast opera singers in the major
roles. Kiri te Kanawa as Maria, Tatiana Troyanas as Anita cope quite well with
the challenge of sounding streetwise, but Jose Carreras as Tony is a disaster
that might well have been avoided had Bernstein only listened to reason. So the
recording is pretty much a mixed bag. Bernstein's conducting is, as you'd
expect, sensational, but there's something off from the very beginning, and
the ship never rights itself. Kenneth Schermerhorn's Nashville recording for
Naxos came as a lively surprise---a committed performance with a young and
spirited cast; but, though it gives me no great pleasure to say so, this new
live recording from San Francisco betters it in every way.
Micheal Tilson Thomas is Bernstein's musical and spiritual heir, and has family roots in the Broadway theater. So it's hardly surprising that he's the one to finally deliver the goods. If West Side Story is less than an opera, it's also more than just another Broadway show, and MTT strikes a perfect balance between the two. He keeps Bernstein's original, lean orchestration, but shapes the music in an entirely symphonic way. Though some of his tempos are just a tad slower than the norm, he uses that added breadth for the sake of atmosphere and expression. In this recording, the orchestra is a major actor, a galvanizing force. MTT establishes just the right mood for each number. The raucous music has never sounded more urgent and violent, or the love music more tender-hearted and otherwordly. Throughout, there's a transparency that lets us hear every loving detail of the score. The percussion, much of it improvised, will knock you out of your seat.
"I wanted to go with people who were singing actors. That's really who West Side Story was written for. And I wanted to take it back in that direction with artists who sounded idiomatic," MTT says in the program notes. And in Alexandra Silber and Cheyenne Jackson that’s exactly what he has, singers who completely inhabit their roles. Silber and Jackson are able to handle the full range of their parts without difficulty, but the voices sound youthful and vulnerable. They are the most convincing pair of ill-fated lovers since Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert. The rest of the cast is every bit as good. In fact there isn’t a weak link in the entire production.
Again, from MTT's program notes: "There's
no question that Bernstein meant West Side
Story to seem spontaneous. His whole approach to music is that he
wanted things to seem as though they weren't written down: they just happened
at the moment." Appropriately enough, this revelatory production makes it seem
as if the music is being performed for the first time--and by so doing, it makes
us forget that we've ever heard it before. The biggest surprise here is the
joyous sense of rediscovery. The live recording communicates the kind of
excitement you can't duplicate in a studio, and all in demonstration-quality
sound. West Side Story has become
part of our cultural DNA, and this is its definitive recording with every note
of the score included. It belongs in every collection, including yours.