Baby boomers, be warned, you will need to have some tissues handy while so vividly reconnecting, through this documentary, with West Side Story, the work that perhaps best defines the pre-Beatles popular musical era, Broadway style. Exhilarated after recording the take of America, which he calls his favorite song in the score, Leonard Bernstein allows that the score for his West Side Story remains very “fresh” in the way Mozart remains ever fresh, though “no one is in that class.” Nonetheless it is an apt comparison, because Leonard Bernstein, an authenticRead more American genius, was in many ways like Mozart: a supreme master of all forms, an incomparable performer as a conductor and pianist, and a fine writer, charismatic and articulate. Groves calls him “The most famous and successful native-born figure in the history of classical music in the USA.” He was also a phenomenal movie composer and his Broadway musicals equal anything written by the likes of Rodgers, Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, Loesser, or Porter.
No surprise then that Leonard Bernstein, two years before his death, dominates every aspect of this unique, irreplaceable documentary of the recording of West Side Story. Maestro Bernstein variously works on the mixes, reminiscences about the creation of the work, admonishes a player, struggles to help the singers with their diction, and offers encouragement with unbelievable energy and enthusiasm. “Not bad” he says at the end of the sessions.
It’s also quite moving to witness Tatiana Troyanos’s joy in singing the role of Anita (the only fully successful “crossover” among the three operatic artists), as she too died tragically young just five years after the West Side Story recording. This documentary is a must; there isn’t one boring moment in it. In a way, it is superior to the resulting recording, which, unforgivably, is not included on this DVD.
A brief survey of the most important West Side Story recordings might be in order. The recording Bernstein made is unique, offers many pleasures, and will always merit study. Unfortunately, it has a hole in the center in the Tony of José Carreras and the Maria of Kiri Te Kanawa. Try as they might, singing as beautifully and sensitively as they possibly can, they remain stiff opera singers (Bernstein tries to tell Te Kanawa not to roll her “rrrs” too much, to no avail). They are like mighty ocean fish, drowning in a modest fresh water lake. Nevertheless, there are many things to savor in the recording: the sensational playing of the crack pickup orchestra led with incomparable élan by the composer, the earthy Anita of Tatiana Troyanos, the splendid character singing, and the sparkling clear digital sound.
The definitive recording of West Side Story, the Broadway musical, is the cast recording with the heartbreaking Maria of Carol Lawrence, the ardent Tony of Larry Kert, and the unique, star-making Anita of Chita Rivera. The good stereo sound is more than adequate. However, the movie soundtrack recording in the 2003 reissue is electrifying. Richard Beymer is even better than Larry Kert as Tony and Marni Nixon is a masterful Maria. Rita Moreno is hardly less effective than Chita Rivera. But it is the sizzling conducting of Johnny Green, far superior to that of the Broadway pit conductor, Max Goberman, which makes the movie recording so special. Green, composer of many top standards including Body and Soul, delivers a Toscanini-like energy. I can’t think of another movie musical played with this kind of surge. I previously gave a qualified recommendation in Fanfare to the complete recording on Warner Classics of West Side Story with Barbara Bonney and Michael Ball, both very fine in the leads, but the non-Broadway chorus nearly wrecks it. All of these recordings revel in the glory of the miracle that is West Side Story. Listening to them, watching the documentary, it is impossible not to marvel along with Leonard Bernstein at its evergreen “freshness.” Bring on those tissues!