The Best WEST SIDE STORY Recording

There are so many recordings of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’s classic musical West Side Story on the market: cast recordings, the soundtrack, studio recordings and pop cover versions. Fifty years on, the one that remains head and shoulders above the rest – the definitive recording – is the Original Broadway Cast Recording.

The major plus of the OBCR is the original Broadway cast: as an ensemble, they’re great. They’re raw and passionate; everything you need from a recording of the show. Carol Lawrence (Maria), Larry Kert (Tony) and Chita Rivera (Anita) interpret the roles far better on than any of the other recordings and I really enjoy the way that the score is played by the orchestra. It’s not complete, but that’s a small price to pay for what is really one of the great cast recordings, documenting a seminal moment in musical theatre history.

The Film Soundtrack is fine in that it’s a record of the film, but I do find the performances lacking in something. There’s a kind of generic blandness, particularly in the vocals for Tony. I feel like the vocal could be for any romantic lead in any musical – there’s nothing particularly “Tony” about it, no defining characteristics that make you remember the character. I also have my own issues about dubbing performers – yes I know it was the standard modus operandi in the good old days of the Hollywood musical, but I still don’t like it – so that is also a factor in my opinion of this recording. One plus-point, I guess, is having the revised lyrics of “America” in it’s boy on girl competition song format.

The Complete Studio Recording from JAY/TER has really has only one good thing to recommend it – Caroline O’Connor as Anita. However, her performance is so energized and committed that she seems over the top in comparison with her comatose colleagues. Not one I’d recommend – but it is complete, so for some it might be a nice supplement to the OBCR.

Now we get to the Operatic Recording conducted by Bernstein is miscast. Star quality aside – the cast sounds far too old, and the delivery is too “sung” and not acted enough. There’s no spirit or passion, which are the two things that can really ignite a good production of the show and which should characterize any good recording of the score.

2009 sees the addition of the Broadway Revival Cast Album to the ranks. While this can’t – for the same reason that it makes a great addition to a cast recording collection – supplant the OBCR, the concept for the production, where the Sharks speak and sing in Spanish, is one that has transformed the material and which certainly makes for interesting listening. The performances are solid throughout and are second only to those on the original cast album.

So, the verdict? OBCR – hands down. There’s simply nothing quite as good.

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1 Response to The Best WEST SIDE STORY Recording

  1. Randy Baer says:

    Have to agree. Much as I admire Bernstein, his notion that Opera singer would somehow be preferable, is counter to the whole concept of the show. Not only were Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, Michael Callan, et al., fresh-voiced youngsters in 1957, they were also driven by the taskmaster Jerome Robbins to believably inhabit the drama of the piece… it is, after all, based on “Romeo and Juliet”, and Robbins even segregated the Jets and Sharks during rehearsals to successfully create the deadly rivalry between the two “houses”, that is gangs. So, Dame Kiri tries hard to varying degrees of success (she was far improved as Eliza in Bernstein mentee John Mauceri’s recording of “My Fair Lady” with Jeremy Irons, who, unfortunately was no match for Rex Harrison. The late lamented Troyanos has her moments as Anita, but Carreras is so wrong from the first moment, and never recovers. But, the primary culprit here is the composer/conductor himself who, as in many of his later DGG recordings, delivers a thoroughly enervated performance which all but buries the amazing originality of the original score. Max Goberman, of course, was the perfect conductor of the OCR, as Goddard Lieberson was his usual fine self as producer. The de facto creator of the modern cast recording, the father of Peter Lieberson, and father-in-law of Lorraine Hunt, was only ever equaled by his protege Thomas Z. Shepherd. Watch the great Pennebaker documentary on the recording of Sondheim’s company, if you think this stuff is easy, especially since a single Sunday was usually allotted to these albums. BTW, the soundtrack of WSS really doesn’t even deserve mention. Not only were several of the lyrics rewritten to conform to the censorship of the day, but, even the great Marni Nixon couldn’t really compensate for the flaws in the project, including the reorchestrations by Irwin Kostal so hated by Bernstein. It should be interesting how the soundtrack for the Spielberg remake to be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel fares.

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