BERNSTEIN West Side Story • Patrick Vaccariello, cond; Matt Cavenaugh (Tony); Josefina Scaglione (Maria); Karen Olivo (Anita); Ad hoc O & Ch • SONY 752391 (65:13 Text and Translation)
Can West Side Story have been with us for over half a century?Read more The year 1957 equals “contemporary” for a piece of classical music but it is ancient history for a musical. To celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary, a Broadway revival opened this year, directed by the original book writer, 91-yr-old Arthur Laurents. This disc is the cast album of that production.
Laurents stressed in an interview that he was not interested in nostalgia: he wanted the drama to remain relevant. To that end, some tinkering has taken place. The most obvious change concerns the language: “I Feel Pretty,” “A Boy like That,” and the Sharks’ contribution to the “Tonight” quintet are sung in Spanish. (Spanish lyrics are by Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer of In the Heights.) There are firm dramatic grounds for this choice. In particular, having the gangs sing in two languages in the Quintet—in unison at one point—serves to underline the depth of the cultural divide that is the basis of the conflict. An impassioned private moment, such as the duet “A Boy like That,” gains immediacy from the use of the characters’ native language; Anita’s criticism of Maria’s liaison with Tony is a lot blunter in the vernacular! Having Tony whisper his dying words to Maria in Spanish is either theatrically savvy or beyond belief, depending on your point of view. Stephen Sondheim gave his blessing to the changes; he never liked his lyric for “I Feel Pretty” anyway.
If you are coming cold to West Side Story via this CD, the bilingual performance might be a stumbling block. The words are provided in the booklet, but not a literal translation of the Spanish, merely the Sondheim lyrics they replaced. Otherwise, the booklet contains no notes or bios and frustratingly few production shots—surely an opportunity lost. (As an aside, there have been a number of recordings of Broadway musicals in Spanish. The Mexican cast album of Man of La Mancha is a revelation, thanks to the wonderful Nati Mistral, and the original Spanish cast recording of My Fair Lady is notable for one “P. Domingo” in a minor supporting role.)
Laurents has dispensed with the original ending, where the gangs unite to carry Tony’s body in a spontaneous funeral procession. He asks, “What kind of cop in his right mind would let the kids take the body away?” I must admit this doesn’t bother me unduly. The show is heightened realism all the way through. After an artistically choreographed murder, a breach of police protocol is perfectly acceptable and, more important, by losing it, we lose Bernstein’s canonic reprise of the “Somewhere” theme. Fortunately, there has been no tinkering with the original orchestrations by Bernstein, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal: they are here in all their visceral authenticity, strongly played and beautifully recorded.
Another plus is the fact that the singers are part of a staged production, not a random assembly in the studio. The further distanced we become from the composer’s 1985 DG recording with Te Kanawa, Carreras, and Troyanos, the more misguided it seems. Bernstein was trying to convince himself and everyone else that West Side Story was the great American opera he had always intended to write—but it is not an opera, and in spite of the star lineup, the full operatic treatment stifles it. Carreras’s Spanish-accented Tony is much more confusing than the new release’s bilingualism.
Scaglione and Cavanaugh, the leads in the 2009 production, have the right kind of Broadway voices and both are impressive at the top of their range. Cavanaugh takes the “Carreras alternative” high B? in “Maria” with no sense of effort, only exultation. Argentina-born Scaglione is even better: her top never thins out, but neither does it assume a diva’s vibrato. Olivo, who won a Tony Award for her Anita, has the earthiness and tenderness in her voice that the role requires without matching the gutsy rawness of Chita Rivera in the 1957 cast.
And there’s the rub: this CD is up against one of the great Broadway cast albums. Perhaps it was always going to be impossible to reignite the spark of those sessions, or to recapture the freshness and excitement. This disc comes close, but fails in a few key areas. Tempos, for one thing, are more measured. Conductor Vaccariello settles into a groove effectively and stays there—a godsend for dancers—but in doing so, he misses the urgency of “Something’s Coming” and “The Rumble.” In “Jet Song,” the ensemble over-articulates; the line “Here come the Jets like a bat out of hell” is pointed with a clarity that would melt Henry Higgins’s heart. No bats outa hell here, but the world of the ghetto evaporates. Also, while Cavanaugh sings rings around the original Tony (Larry Kert), he fusses over detail. “Something’s Coming” sounds like a thoughtfully crafted interpretation rather than an outburst of pure feeling, “Maria” even more so. (By contrast, “One Hand, One Heart” is touchingly natural.)
I am not convinced by Laurents’s use of a child for the offstage solo in “Somewhere.” I guess there is a precedent in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and Nicholas Barasch negotiates it well, but you need to go back to Reri Grist on the 1957 recording to get a sense of sympathetic understanding achieved through experience. The innocence of children “showing us the truth” is something of a sentimental cliché. In reality, kids are self-absorbed and incapable of seeing the big picture.
If the recording of the original production did not exist or was flawed in some crucial way, this new disc would be the top recommendation. The bilingual lyrics are more than just a gimmick, while the performers are talented and totally committed. It knocks out any remaining competition, including the operatic version and the blandly sung, poorly balanced movie soundtrack. Dedicated collectors will still want them all.