West Side Story

WSS-OBCOriginal Broadway Cast, 1957 (Columbia/Sony/Masterworks Broadway) 5 Stars (5 / 5) With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (and an uncredited Bernstein), and book by Arthur Laurents, West Side Story is a groundbreaking musical theater work that remains thrillingly vital and is continually revived worldwide, both professionally and by schools and community theaters. The phenomenal score, including the songs “Tonight,” “Maria,” and “Somewhere,” deepens the audience’s emotional involvement in an immortal story of star-crossed lovers, inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and reset among warring American and Puerto Rican gangs in Manhattan circa 1957. Happily, the score is well represented by this recording, which has a theatrical snap and an emotional conviction that more than compensate for whatever it lacks in sheer musical values. Although Carol Lawrence’s soprano thins out in the highest reaches of Maria’s music and Larry Kert’s tenor develops something of a braying quality when he pushes for volume, both performers sound lovely in the more lyrical sections of the score and bring a youthful, unaffected style to their roles. Chita Rivera is a ball of fire as Anita, and Mickey Calin (later Michael Callan) sounds equally sexy as Riff. Reri Grist sings a lovely “Somewhere,” and Marilyn Cooper makes a notable contribution to the “America” number. Nearly an hour’s worth of material was laid down in the studio, making this one of the longest Broadway cast albums of its day, the better to document the superb score as performed by the original company; among the few significant sections missing are the “Blues” and “Promenade” sections of the Dance at the Gym. The bravura playing of the orchestra, conducted by Max Goberman, is captured in excellent early stereo sound. — Michael Portantiere

WSS-movieFilm Soundtrack, 1961 (Columbia/Sony)5 Stars (5 / 5) The ubiquitous movie vocal double Marni Nixon here sings Maria’s music in lieu of the film’s star, Natalie Wood, and her performance points up one of the challenges in casting West Side Story: If you hire singers who can fulfill the musical requirements of this difficult score, they will probably not be entirely convincing as New York street kids. Nixon’s opera-quality lyric soprano is not exactly that of a 16-year-old Nuyorican girl, but her voice is very beautiful in itself, and the matching of her singing to Wood’s speech is very skillfully done in the movie. Jim Bryant, has a sound that is less “legit,” but he does a wonderful job with Tony’s vocals, despite the fact that some of the keys were dropped drastically for the film medium. Sharing Anita’s musical moments, Rita Moreno and dubber Betty Wand both do very well, and there is no disconnect between their voices. An intriguing fact of the recording is that, while Russ Tamblyn sings for himself in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” he is dubbed by fellow cast member Tucker Smith for the “Jet Song.” Since Smith does his own singing in “Cool,” that means he’s actually heard on the soundtrack as two different characters. (To make things even more interesting, Nixon sings Anita’s part in the latter part of the “Quintet,” presumably because it was too high for Wand or Moreno.) Happily, this recording features what are more or less the original theater orchestrations by Bernstein, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal, souped-up for a much larger orchestra conducted by Johnny Green. The “expanded” edition of the soundtrack album includes dialogue and music taken directly from the film. Though it’s great to have this extra material, including a thrilling orchestral performance of the “Mambo,” the sound quality of the added sections is quite different from that of the tracks taken from the original soundtrack album master, and the switching from one to the other is disconcerting. — M.P.

WSS-DGStudio Cast, 1985 (Deutsche Grammophon) No stars; not recommended. A complete disaster, preserved for posterity not only here but also in a gasp-inducing film documentary of the studio sessions. It was a great idea to have Leonard Bernstein conduct a full recording of the West Side Story score, but a horrendous idea to cast all of the major roles with opera singers. José Carreras’s tenor sounds gorgeous here, but his thick Latino accent makes him ridiculous in the role from a dramatic standpoint. This wouldn’t be a problem in terms of enjoying the performance from a purely musical standpoint, but Carreras also seems uncomfortable with the more “pop” elements of the score — for example, the syncopations in “Something’s Coming.” The late, great operatic mezzo Tatiana Troyanos was duly praised for her performances in works by Bizet, Mozart, et al., but she makes for an overripe Anita, while the equally talented baritone Kurt OIlman creates a sound more appropriate for Don Giovanni than for Riff. Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria fares best among the principals, but she still sounds too mature and self-possessed to be credible as a very young, unpolished Puerto Rican girl. Even Bernstein’s conducting is a disappointment; there are wonderful moments, but also some odd tempi. The saving grace of the project is Marilyn Horne’s idiomatically gorgeous and moving rendition of”Somewhere.” — M.P.

WSS-JAYLondon Studio Cast, 1993 (JAY, 2CDs) 1 Stars (1 / 5) According to a note in the accompanying booklet, “This recording is inspired by the Leicester Haymarket Theatre production which opened on November 20, 1992.” It’s a complete recording of the score with some nice features but some major flaws. The tempi set by conductor John Owen Edwards are much closer to ideal than those often found in a British performance of an American musical; one exception is “I Feel Pretty,” which is far too slow, Edwards here following the bad example set by composer Leonard Bernstein himself on the Deutsche Grammophon recording reviewed above. The brilliant West Side Story score, in its original orchestrations by Bernstein, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal, is for the most part magnificently played by the National Symphony Orchestra under Edwards’ leadership. Also, the sound quality of the recording is superb, its dynamic range allowing for many exciting musical moments. As for the singers, Tinuke Olafimihan is a lovely Maria, and Caroline O’Connor is very good as Anita despite her tendency to growl a little too often. Another plus is Sally Burgess’ beautiful rendition of “Somewhere.” But Paul Manuel’s voice is so thin that it’s hard to understand how he could ever have been cast as Tony. Another problem is Manuel’s inability to disguise his English accent; the same thing can be said for all of the “Jets” on this recording, and it sure is disconcerting to hear New York street toughs sounding like Brits. (Note: An out-of-print LP of West Side Story that was billed as the original London cast album is mislabled. It’s actually a London studio cast recording and is not recommended.) — M.P.

WSS-Michael-BallLondon Studio Cast, 1993 (Pickwick/Warner Classics) No stars; not recommended. This recording stars Michael Ball and Barbara Bonney as Tony and Maria, LaVerne Williams as Anita, and Christopher Howard as Riff. In a major oversight, the “Somewhere” soloist is not identified; it sounds like it could be Bonney, but who knows? The principals are backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Barry Wordsworth. But if all of that sounds good to you, please think twice. While Ball possesses an exceptional vocal instrument, he apparently has no idea how to use it — at least, not in an American musical. When he sings “Tonight there will be no morning star,” the last word sounds like “staa-huh-EHHHH.” The tastelessness of Ball’s singing is exacerbated by his attempt to sound like a New York teenager; instead, he comes across as a Brit affecting the mannerisms of a Las Vegas lounge singer. The performance of Williams, a mezzo with a cavernous register break, is just as bad; her Anita sounds like something from a comedy sketch about opera singers ruining great musicals. Howard and the other Jets are less objectionable, though their attempts to hide their British accents are more amusing than successful. Bonney is the best of the leads, by far. As for the orchestral cuts on this album, the prologue is lethargic, and each section of the “Dance at the Gym” sequence is either a little too fast or a little too slow. All extant CD copies of this recording would be ready for landfill if the discs and their plastic jewel cases were biodegradable. — M.P.

WSS-NaxosStudio Cast, 2001 (Naxos) 2 Stars (2 / 5) This is billed as a recording of “the original score” of West Side Story, whatever that means. All sections of the “Dance at the Gym” are included, but not the ethereally beautiful setting of “Maria” that accompanies Tony and Maria’s love-at-first-sight scene. The version of “America” heard here is sung by the Sharks and their women, as in the 1961 film, but the lyrics are a mixture of those used in the stage show and the movie. (Apparently, the original concept of the number in the Broadway production was that it would be performed by the Sharks as well as their girls, but during rehearsals, it was changed to feature the women only.) Mike Eldred acquits himself best among the leads; in fact, his ardent, youthful tenor makes him one of the best Tonys on records, despite some mildly intrusive pop mannerisms. Betsi Morrison as Maria is less consistent, sounding rather insipid at times but coming through in the clutch, as in the “Tonight” quintet. Similarly, Michelle Prentice calls to mind a breathy pop singer in the opening phrases of “Somewhere,” but she handles the song’s climaxes well. Robert Dean offers a paradoxical Riff, his burly vocal tone undercut by sibilant esses. As captured in thrilling digital sound, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra sounds great playing the score, even if some of Kenneth Schernerhorn’s conducting is a little sluggish. — M.P.

WSS-GrigoloStudio Cast,  2007 (Decca Broadway) 3 Stars (3 / 5) The shining star of this recording is the Italian operatic tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who gives a gorgeously sung, heartfelt, idiomatically persuasive performance as Tony.  In all honestly, Grigolo’s Italian accent is nearly as thick as José Carreras’s Spanish one,  but somehow this lack of verisimilitude in the character doesn’t rankle here — partly because Grigolo sounds captivatingly youthful despite the maturity of his “legit” sound, and he seems much more at home with the score on a stylistic level.  Also, he’s smart and sensitive enough to sing softly and lyrically when called for (as in “One Hand, One Heart”) without ever sounding like he’s crooning or condescending to the music. In contrast, the very “white” sound of Hayley Westenra’s voice in the role of Maria is not balanced by the quality of her singing, which is also pallid in terms of sound and emotion. Especially in her higher register, she sounds so wispy that one can only wonder why she was tapped for this assignment, regardless of whatever name value she may have possessed at the time. Melanie Marshall doesn’t successfully solve the belt-or-head-voice issues presented by Anita’s music, and Connie Fisher sings the achingly beautiful “Somewhere” with too much of a pop-song approach. But Will Martin is one of the best Riffs on record, a couple of obviously Brit pronunciations aside; and the Jets sound convincingly American, including Loren Geeting as Action, who does a fine job with the comedy of “Gee, Officer Krupke.”  Nick Ingman conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with snap in some sections of the score, too slowly in others. But Grigolo’s performance makes this is a must-have recording despite its flaws and earns it a higher star rating than it would have received otherwise.  — M.P.

WSS-Broadway revivalBroadway Cast, 2009 (Masterworks Broadway) No stars; not recommended. Here, for what it’s worth, is an audio memento of a misguided 2009 Broadway revival of  West Side Story.  While the production itself was primarily damaged by the willfully odd direction of the show’s book writer, Arthur Laurents, the cast album is more specifically undone by the musical direction and conducting of Patrick Vaccariello. His reading of the score begins with a loose performance of the orchestral “Prologue,” and things don’t get much better thereafter; “The Rumble” is conducted stolidly, and Vaccariello’s tempos for many of the vocal numbers are sluggish. As for the singers, the female leads come across best: Josefina Scaglione’s sweet yet strong soprano is right for Maria, and Tony Award winner Karen Olivo is alternately sexy, funny, and ferocious as Anita. Matt Cavenaugh sings prettily if somewhat nasally as Tony, but he takes many liberties with musical phrasing and note values, and his delivery of the spoken dialogue included on the recording is extremely stiff. Cavenaugh also stumbles in his far-from-credible New York accent — as does Cody Green, whose intentional mispronunciation of the “r” consonant makes his Riff sound like he requires the services of a speech therapist. When this production opened, much was made of the decision to have Lin-Manuel Miranda (composer/lyricist of Broadway’s In the Heights and, later, Hamilton) translate some of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics to be sung in Spanish by the Puerto Rican characters, in order to emphasize the clash of cultures that bears significantly on the show’s plot. This might have seemed like a good idea in theory, but in practice, it didn’t work — certainly not in those sections of the “Quintet” version of “Tonight” when the Jets and Sharks, respectively, sing in English and Spanish at the same time. (Most of the Spanish lyrics were eliminated from this production as the run continued, but not before they were recorded on the cast album.) All of these flaws, plus the unwise choices to have a boy soprano sing “Somewhere” and to throw a silly vocal competition into “I Feel Pretty” (sung in Spanish as “Me Siento Hermosa”), make this a highly problematic addition to the West Side Story discography, so much so that it’s not recommended for listening despite its few pluses. — M.P.

WSS-SFSan Francisco Symphony Concert Cast, 2014 (S.F. Symphony, 2CDs) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Here is an honorable new, limited-edition recording of West Side Story that nevertheless reveals once again how difficult it is to cast performers who are vocally perfect for the leading roles — even in a case like this, where the presentation was in concert form. Alexandra Silber is generally very fine as Maria, even if she occasionally distorts note values and phrases too freely. As Tony, Cheyenne Jackson displays an innately beautiful voice and excellent musical theater instincts, but he has a distracting habit of very obviously manipulating or “placing” his voice differently for various passages of the score; sometimes he sounds a little throaty, sometimes a little nasal, other times just great. Kevin Vortmann, who has shone in more vocally legit roles, isn’t quite right for Riff, and when the Jets and Sharks are singing as a group, they sound more like a large-size concert chorus of trained voices (which they are) than a small band of street toughs. But Jessica Vosk is definitely among the top-tier Anitas, and Julia Bullock sings “Somewhere” gorgeously. The score is presented note-complete and is well conducted overall by Michael Tilson Thomas, even if he sometimes indulges in the classical music conductors’ penchant for too-slow tempos in WSS. (For two examples, hear “I Have a Love” and the opening section of “America.”) Quite a bit of dialogue is included as well, some lines delivered more persuasively than others. The state-of-the-art sound of the recording is spectacular. — M.P.