BERNSTEIN:  West Side Story (The Original Score)
Mike Eldred (Tony); Betsi Morrison (Maria); Michael San Giovanni (Bernardo); Marianne Cooke (Anita); Robert Dean (Riff); Nashville Symphony Orch/Kenneth Schermerhorn, cond.
NAXOS 8.559126 (B) (DDD) TT: 75:16

First thoughts. As a callow teen when the movie West Side Story came out, I remarked to a girl I was trying hard to impress that I found it as sugary as a gingerbread house. As far as the girl was concerned, I sunk my own boat, but at least I went down firing my own guns. I never particularly cared for "Romeo and Juliet" stories, although I loved the Shakespeare play. I guess I missed in all those adaptations Shakespeare's underlying political toughness. To me, the Shakespeare play was never really about star-crossed lovers, but about the consequences of social breakdown. Even so, parts of Bernstein score—the "edgy" parts like the "Prologue," "Cool," "Rumble," and "Officer Krupke"—appealed to me right away, to the extent that I bought the piano/vocal score with my own money. As I grew up, Bernstein's music for the sentimental parts of the score—"Somewhere," "One Hand, One Heart," "Tonight," "I Feel Pretty," and finally even the treacly "Maria," all superbly-crafted (even inspired) melodies—finally won me over. Resistance, as they say, is futile. Furthermore, over the years, I've gotten a kick out the memories of Tchaikovsky and Wagner in Bernstein's melodies. For example, one hears Tristan in the opening to "Somewhere" and Swan Lake in the same song (at "Hold my hand and we're halfway there"). Extra secrets of the score.

I now own four CDs of this show: the Original Broadway Cast album, the movie soundtrack, Bernstein's "opera" version on DGG, and this one. Of the four, I like the Broadway version best. Bernstein's version hit me at first as Yet Another Lenny Exercise in Self-Indulgence, with Jose Carreras as the "Irish" Tony tripping over English in every measure. But that was counter to what I wanted—ie, a stab at realistic drama. Once I accepted what Bernstein himself wanted— gorgeous voices singing gorgeous music—it became a wonderful album, though I still prefer Max Goberman's leaner, meaner reading on Sony. Indeed, it stands as one of the rare instances where someone other than Bernstein beats out the composer in his own work. Goberman puts the score closer to the ambiance of Kazan's On the Waterfront, for which, of course, Bernstein wrote the music. The movie soundtrack collects dust. It just seems "off" somehow, as did the movie itself, mainly through poor casting. Robert Wise, a very good director, is still no Kazan. Indeed, West Side Story is the musical Kazan should have directed.

If you've got even two of the first three recordings, why do you need this one? In brief, the CD contains music you won't find anywhere else. The liner notes by premiere orchestrator Sid Ramin confuse me a bit. Here's what I surmise. Bernstein delivered a score to Ramin and Irwin Kostal (the co-orchestrators) with indications of instruments and long discussions about each number. During rehearsal and tryout, Jerome Robbins, the choreographer and director, wanted cuts, out-and-out rewrites, and orchestration changes. The result differed from the original score and orchestration, which this CD seeks to restore. The CD also includes little transitions not in the Original Cast album and (I haven't checked this) possibly not even in Bernstein's "opera" version. I find the differences fascinating and instructive. The album answers the question of how a composer tightens a score, for in almost every case, the final version packs more punch. The "Prologue," for example, begins minus its familiar opening tritonal fanfare, which sets up so much of the show's thematic contact. The electrifying "Mambo" differs in its original form than in the stage version, although I'm glad to have it in both forms. Ramin and Kostal outdid themselves in a virtuoso part for percussion.

As far as dramatic impact goes, Schermerhorn's reading leans more toward Goberman than toward Bernstein. It emphasizes the gritty, and the Nashville players surpass the Broadway pit band (or whoever actually recorded the first album), perhaps because they've had decades to let the music seep into their bones. Rhythms pack a wallop, at the expense of a sweetness of sound, which I, for one, don't really miss. As I say, I gravitate more to the muscle in the score than the sweets. In general, the singers act well when they sing, less well than they speak. After all, Tony was originally played by Larry Kert, Anita by Chita Rivera (nobody else on record comes close to her output of sexual volts without going over the top), and Riff by Michael Callin, so the Nashville cast competes against some fairly stiff competition. The Nashville punks have nothing on their Broadway counterparts, who really did seem to come from the streets of New York. The Nashville Jets (it even sounds wrong; Jets belong in New York) sound like they're trying to imagine what New York must be like. Mike Eldred's Tony is fine, except that occasionally his tone gets too nasal. On the other hand, Betsi Morrison's Maria improves on Carol Lawrence's both vocally and dramatically. Lawrence always came across to me as a bit of a drip, self-consciously and manipulatively waif-like. Morrison shows you the openness and strength of the character.

If a bit off-beat, the Schermerhorn recording is good enough to become part of the Bernstein canon. The sound is preternaturally clear.

S.G.S. (January 2002)