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?