The Saturday List: The Best WEST SIDE STORY on Record

There are many recordings of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’s classic musical West Side Story on the market: several cast recordings and two soundtracks as well as countless studio recordings and cover versions. More than six decades since the show’s 1957 debut, this is irrefutably one of the great musical theatre scores. To mark the release of Steven Spielberg’s new film and its accompanying motion picture soundtrack, Musical Cyberspace is revisiting a favourite topic: just which recording of West Side Story is ‘the gold-medal kid with the heavyweight crown?

5. Tie: 1985 and 1993 Studio Cast Recordings

Here are two recordings for the price of one, mainly for the completists. The earlier operatic recording of West Side Story includes all the instrumental bits and pieces while the later studio recording based on the Leicester Haymarket Theatre’s production has valuable snippets of dialogue that place the numbers in context. Conducted by Leonard Bernstein himself, the 1985 recording is – star quality aside – miscast. The cast sounds far too old and the delivery is sung with little emphasis on interpretation, let alone acting. There’s no spirit or passion, which are the two things that ignite a good production of the show and which should characterise any good recording of the score. The 1985 recording has only one thing to recommend beyond being complete: Caroline O’Connor as Anita. However, her performance is so energized and committed that she seems over the top in comparison with her mysteriously comatose colleagues.

4. The 1961 Film Soundtrack

The 1961 soundtrack is fine in that it’s a record of the hugely popular film, but the performances generally lack something that makes them truly distinctive. There’s a kind of generic blandness, particularly in Jimmy Bryant’s vocals for Tony and Marni Nixon’s singing as Maria. Bryant could be delivering a vocal for any romantic lead in any musical – there’s nothing particularly “Tony” about it, no defining characteristics that make you remember the character – while Nixon hits the notes and that’s that. While dubbing performers was the standard modus operandi in the good old days of the Hollywood musical, the approach hurt this version of West Side Story in a way that is evident in the lack of colour in the vocals and the “bigger is better” approach to the orchestrations. On the plus side, the recording includes the revised lyrics of “America” in its boy-girl competition song format, an approach that only really made sense once the number was opened up even further in the more recent film adaptation.

3. The 2009 Broadway Revival Cast Recording

While this Broadway revival cast recording of West Side Story can’t – for the same reason that it makes a great addition to a cast recording collection – supplant the original cast recording, the idea of having Sharks largely speak and sing in Spanish was one that transformed the material and which certainly makes for interesting listening. The idea that language can be a weapon as powerful as sticks, rocks, poles, cans, bricks, bats, clubs, chains, bottles, knives and even guns drove this interpretation of the show and offered audiences a new way of connecting with the material. That the approach alienated so many people that the lyrics for “Siento Hermosa” and “Un Hombre Así” were changed back to English during the run only underlined the show’s main conceit. The everyday things that divide us lay the foundations for profound conflict and devastatingly, the world hasn’t changed enough since West Side Story first bowed in the 1950s. In terms of performances, this recording is solid throughout and it is an important one for fans of the show to have.

2. The 1957 Original Broadway Cast Recording

The major plus of the original recording of West Side Story is the original Broadway cast: as an ensemble, they’re just 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) offer memorable interpretations of their roles and the orchestra provides a reading of the score that is sensitive and spirited. One thing that sets this recording apart from many of the others is the colourful supporting cast and ensemble. There’s an immediate vitality to numbers like “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Cool” that is simply missing in many other albums. 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. As far as theatrical cast recordings of the show go, it’s still head and shoulders above the rest.

1. The 2021 Film Soundtrack 

There’s an incredible level of polish in the motion picture soundtrack of the newer film adaptation of West Side Story and some standout performances to recommend it. David Newman and Gustavo Dudamel are the perfect guardians for Leonard Bernstein’s score, the layers of which continue to be simultaneously delightful and deeply moving. The definitive moment of this recording – and the film itself in some ways, – arrives in 1961 film alumnus Rita Moreno’s delivery of “Somewhere,” which is pure magic. Rachel Ziegler emerges as a definitive Maria, while Ansell Elgort offers fine interpretations of Tony’s songs, including a recontextualised “Cool” opposite Mike Faist’s mafioso kingpin-in-waiting reading of Riff. Ariana DeBose gives us another fabulous Anita for the books, although it’s a pity that the film didn’t use Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Spanish lyrics from the 2009 revival to further underscore the character’s journey in her relationship with America, as woven into the screenplay by Tony Kushner. Even so, this recording of West Side Story emerges as the one that is just right for right now – and in all likelihood, for some time to come too.

So there you have it. It’s taken almost seven decades for a new recording that can rumble with the Broadway cast recording. All things told, there’s very little to set place one ahead of the other and it is great to have two such excellent albums of the score. What’s your favourite recording of West Side Story? Head to the comments below and let us know what you think?

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5 Responses to The Saturday List: The Best WEST SIDE STORY on Record

  1. Randy Baer says:

    Have to agree. Much as I admire Bernstein, his notion that opera singers 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. 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 that all but buries the amazing originality of the original score. Max Goberman, of course, was the perfect conductor of the OCR and 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 equalled 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. By the way, the soundtrack of West Side Story 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.

  2. Hans says:

    Have you heard the recording by the San Fransisco Symphony and Cheyenne Jackson? That is my favourite recording of the show. It only lacks the movie version of America to be perfect, in my opinion. I think the voices are the perfect combination of well trained and youthful.

    My other favourite recording is the one by Nashville Synphony Orchestra, issued by Naxos, but I also think that the new soundtrack is sepctacular.

    • David Fick says:

      Hi Hans! I’m familiar with the Naxos recording, but I’ve never given the SFO recording a spin. I’ll add it to my list. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Donna Sturla says:

    The song “Somewhere” is probably my favorite of all Broadway songs and I was so disappointed in the way it was sung in the movie by Steven Spielberg. I was waiting for the big beautiful voice voice that Reri Geist had on Broadway and then we get the small, soft voice of an older woman. I love Rita Moreno but I don’t think she should have song that song. I was disappointed. I would have been even happier to have Maria sing that song in the movie.

    • David Fick says:

      Hi Donna! Thanks for your comment. Personally, I really loved that moment in the film. I think that it is interesting how the way that “Somewhere” sits in the material has shifted from the show to the 1961 film to the new one, and I think all three work well in their own context. We agree, though, on the fact that Reri Geist has a super voice. I really love that original cast recording!

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