West Side Story
, first produced on Broadway in 1957, is one of the greatest examples of American Music Theatre. It was created by a stellar group: as well as Bernstein as composer Arthur Laurents wrote the book, Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics and the choreography was by Jerome Robbins. The original concept was by Robbins and it was he who directed the original production.
There have been a number of recordings of Bernstein’s score, including the original cast recording, conducted by Max Goberman and the composer’s own 1984 DG recording (review
). Bernstein’s version has come in for a fair amount of criticism down the years, especially for the operatic casting. José Carreras was, to put it mildly, an odd choice as Tony and Kiri te Kanawa was rather too gorgeous a Maria: I’ve always wondered to what extent this casting was imposed on Bernstein by DG’s A&R department. On the other hand I’ve always admired the Anita of Tatiana Troyanos and Kurt Ollmann was good as Riff while the smaller parts were well cast. Bernstein was given a tremendous band, including some superb pit musicians and a few luminaries from the New York Philharmonic. Oddly, Bernstein had never conducted the complete score prior to that recording and the relish - and sheer love – that he brings to the score exerts its own magnetism. So even though I find the two principals – and Carreras in particular – hard to take the composer’s version has its own important position in the discography of West Side Story
Enter Michael Tilson Thomas, a celebrated Bernstein acolyte, conducting a recording compiled from performances given in San Francisco in 2013. His version is broadly comparable with Bernstein’s in that he uses the Broadway scoring though the number of strings has been doubled and none of the players is required to double. The most important difference with the Bernstein recording is that, to judge by the biographies in the documentation, all of the principals have backgrounds that are largely, if not exclusively, in Music Theatre. Boy, does that make a difference! Every singer in this production has a voice that fits his or her role pretty much like a glove.
Cheyenne Jackson is challenged by some of the higher-lying writing in Tony’s part – and in ‘Maria’ he wisely eschews some of the operatic high-flying that Carreras offered. However, his essentially light voice does open up at times and he sounds right for the part. He seems wholly comfortable with the tricky rhythms in ‘Something’s Coming’; they appear to come quite naturally to him whereas anyone who saw the documentary film about the making of the Bernstein recording (review
) will recall that Carreras had great trouble with these pages, almost driving Bernstein to distraction. For me, the clincher in this number is that Jackson puts the lyrics over clearly and effectively. Later on he’s somewhat overshadowed by Alexandra Silber in ‘Only You’ but still the two of them make it into a rapturous duet. Incidentally, Silber and Jackson speak their lines of dialogue in passages such as the Balcony Scene and do so far more effectively and naturally than Nina and Alexander Bernstein on their father’s recording, substituting rather unconvincingly for te Kanawa and Carreras. Overall Jackson is a success.
Even better is Alexandra Silber. Her booklet biography suggests an operatic element in her training though no operatic roles are listed in her credits. Certainly she has the most fully rounded, operatic sounding voice on show here but this aspect of her vocal armoury isn’t overdone. As I indicated, she rather takes the lead in ‘Only You’; it’s a great number and it’s done justice here. She’s even more rewarding in ‘I Feel Pretty’ – here given its full orchestral introduction rather than the truncated intro on the Bernstein set. Here she sounds vivacious and genuinely excited. She has the ideal voice for this number, I think, and she really makes something of Sondheim’s clever lyrics. Silber’s most telling moment, however, comes in ‘A Boy Like That’, her duet with the formidable Anita of Jessica Vosk. Hear what Silber does with the lines ‘You should know better! You were in love, or so you said.’ Her delivery of those lines is the work of a real singer-actor. Then, almost immediately, she tugs at our heartstrings in ‘I Have a Love’. Silber is a helluva Maria.
Jessica Vosk is excellent as Anita. She is full of bitterness and reproach in ‘A Boy Like That’ and makes a strong contribution to the big ensemble finish to Act 1. Earlier on she shows her comic side in ‘America’. I like Tatiana Troyanos in the Bernstein set but I like Miss Vosk at least as much. Kevin Vortmann is a fine Riff, full of bravado and swagger and fully a match for Bernstein’s Kurt Ollmann. There isn’t a weak link in the smaller parts either. Julia Bullock sings ‘Somewhere’ really well, staring off with simple feeling but expanding her voice as the song itself expands. Marilyn Horne made a cameo appearance to sing this number for Bernstein but, great singer though she is, that wasn’t appropriate casting: the choice of Julia Bullock is. It’s worth saying at this point that the diction of all the singers – principals and chorus – is first class.
Riff’s gang of Jets are great. They get the snappy, swaggering confidence of the ‘Jet Song’ just right and the broad humour of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ is superbly brought off. In a tremendous ensemble performance of that latter number, special mention should be made of Justin Keyes (Action) and the piercing falsetto of Chris Meissner (Baby John). The other big comedy number, ‘America’ also goes very well with a racy contribution from Juliana Hansen (Rosalia) acting as the perfect foil to Jessica Vosk’s worldly-wise cynicism. Tilson Thomas adopts a slightly steadier tempo than Bernstein and this has the merit that the witty lyrics register well. Lennie leads a raucous party at this point. He really goes for it in this number and the singers and the band give him all they’ve got. Incidentally, during this number in the Bernstein recording you can hear the strumming guitar in the band quite clearly whereas it’s inaudible in the Tilson Thomas recording. The instrument may be artificially boosted by John McClure and his production team for Bernstein but even so it’s a pity not to hear it on this new recording even if that’s a more true balance.
All of which brings me, logically, to the conducting. As I mentioned earlier, Tilson Thomas uses the almost-complete Broadway score: a few passages, such as scene changes involving repetition of music already heard, have been omitted but as MTT says in the booklet, what’s presented here is ‘the whole dramatic picture of the piece’. I haven’t re-listened to the whole Bernstein recording; rather I’ve made spot comparisons, so I can’t say how much difference there is in the musical texts presented in the two recordings. I’m pretty certain that such differences as there may be are pretty minimal. I noted that MTT plays a more extended introduction to ‘I Feel Pretty’ which is better than Bernstein’s foreshortened version. Also, towards the end of Act II the Jukebox episode plays for longer in this newer version. It’s also more convincingly done: all DG offer is a snatch of ‘Mambo’ heard from a distance whereas in this performance we hear more music and it sounds like an authentic record, crackles and all.
Tilson Thomas leads a larger band than was given to Lennie. He’s doubled the number of strings but, happily, this doesn’t result in a more lush sound. On the contrary, there are times, such as the introduction to ‘I Feel Pretty’, when the increased body of strings makes a positive effect. On several occasions I noted approvingly that there was a nice solid bass foundation provided by the cellos and double basses. MTT was performing in a larger acoustic – the Davies Symphony Hall – than the studio in which Bernstein made his recording so I’m sure the orchestral expansion was the right decision. Though the bulk of MTT’s players are drawn from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra this doesn’t result in an excessively cultured sound. In fact, as the conductor points out in the booklet, US orchestral musicians are expected to play in a wide variety of styles – wider than their colleagues in many other countries – and do so. As a result, we hear some fabulously acute playing. The woodwinds are always incisive – sample the deft precision in ‘Jump’ – while the brass are bright and punchy. Bernstein had a sensational first trumpeter – his playing towards the end of ‘Mambo’ wasn’t hot so much as scalding – but his San Franciscan rival can blow a pretty mean horn too and is not put in the shade. As for the SFS percussion section, well, they have a field day. Their blistering playing drives ‘Mambo’ along thrillingly and throughout the score their contribution is superb. It helps that the section is very crisply recorded – the tom-toms are marvellously caught in the ‘Prologue’.
Tilson Thomas conducts superbly – this music must be in his very bones. Once or twice I thought that compared to his old mentor his tempi seemed a little on the steady side – ‘America’ is the most obvious example; he’s not quite as fast and furious as Lennie is in ‘Mambo’; and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ is faster and even feistier in the Bernstein set – but for the most part I found his handling of the score was idiomatic and convincing. He gets the romantic, lyrical side of the music – ‘Maria’, ‘Only You’ - very well and he and his singers bring off ‘One Hand, One Heart’ touchingly without veering over into sentimentality. He’s also excellent in the dramatic, driving episodes. So, for example, ‘The Rumble’ is biting and dynamic, the band splendidly incisive, and he generates real tension in the powerful fugue that is ‘Cool’ – mind you, Bernstein is just as memorable there.
The recorded sound is up-front and punchy. Perhaps it’s a little close but that’s not inappropriate for this score. As is clear from the booklet illustrations, the cast were placed behind the band on a slightly raised stage. The balance between band and singers is good though in the spoken dialogue the voices seemed a little close-up. Bernstein has a more obviously studio-made sound. If I say that the DG sound is a bit brasher I don’t mean that negatively: it suits the score – and Bernstein’s way with it.
The San Francisco set is lavishly presented. The discs are housed in a hardback book-style case which also contains copious illustrations. As well as the libretto there are notes in the form of a conversation between Tilson Thomas and author Larry Rothe – who has written an engrossing history of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Music for a City, Music for the World
. There’s also an illustrated West Side Story
timeline and an excellent essay about the show by James M Keller. In every way, therefore, this release oozes class.
I’ve been bowled over by this recording and listening to it for review purposes has been a huge pleasure – and, despite the miscasting of some roles it’s also been a delight to go back to the Bernstein recording for the purposes of comparison. Supported by a fine cast and an excellent chorus and orchestra Michael Tilson Thomas has done his mentor proud here. With no casting issues I think this release now sweeps the board though Bernstein’s own recording should not be forgotten any more than the original cast recording should be.
West Side Story
is one of a select handful of shows – along with Show Boat
, South Pacific
and Les Misérables
– that stand out from all the others as being truly
great. This new recording is one that confirms its stature. It’s a recording that, I think, does for West Side Story
what John McGlinn’s fantastic 1987 recording of Show Boat
) did for that classic show.
Previous review: Harvey Steiman