New West Side Story recording will be
more Broadway than opera
Many fans of West Side Story remember the excitement they felt when it was announced that Leonard Bernstein would record the full score of the show for release as a digital double album to be available on both LP records and compact disc. Some, however, were sorely disappointed when they heard the result: The orchestra sounded just as good as they had hoped, but the singers were clearly operatic instead of having the Broadway musical sound. Nearly thirty years later, fans are getting a chance to hear the charts used in Bernstein's 1985 recording sessions sung by Broadway-style vocalists.
During the summer of 2013, Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, gave those charts their first performance before live audiences in a series of concerts. Joining the orchestra and chorus was a cast of singers who not only had the vocal chops to do the score justice but the musical theater background to deliver the lyrics as if from the stage of a Broadway theater. Tilson Thomas, grandson of Yiddish theater stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, brought his musical theater heritage to the podium just as he had with performances of Gershwin musicals in the late 1980s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Most of the cast had non-operatic credentials. The difference between styles became clear early in the concert, when Cheyenne Jackson as Tony began to bounce to the rhythm of "Something's Coming" to which his voice picked up a syncopation as he sang "It may come cannonballing down through the sky / Gleam in its eye / Bright as a rose." Unlike opera performer José Carreras, who sang it on Bernstein's recording with his thick Spanish accent which seemed closer to a Puerto Rican Shark than a member of the Jets, Jackson sounded distinctly American, and he had a tendency at times to slide into a note in a theatrical manner rather than hitting each one right on pitch. Jackson's approach felt so much more appropriate for the role, which might not be surprising given his experience heading the casts of Broadway musicals, including his incandescent work in the 2009 revival of Finian's Rainbow. Alexandra Silber's Maria was closer to operatic in tone, but still with a satisfyingly theatrical enunciation.
Known as an incredibly integrated musical in which music, lyrics, book and dance are each essential to the telling of the story, the challenge here was to present a concert featuring only the music and lyrics. Some of Arthur Laurents's dialogue is used, but only that which was underscored. None of the dances were recreated, leaving the flow of the story to the memories that most members of the audience brought into the hall. Mostly that worked well, with two exceptions.
There was a break in the concentration of the audience when soprano Julia Bullock walked on to sing "Somewhere." Some in the audience didn't recall (or never knew) that the song is a dream-scene sung by a disembodied voice, not a character. Bullock was appearing on stage for the first and only time. Without so much as light cue to signal the shift from gritty New York City reality to glowing paradise that must exist "Somewhere," many in the audience were temporarily pulled out of the piece. Bullock delivered it beautifully, however, and soon enough the excitement of "Gee, Officer Krupke" pulled everyone back into the story.
The ending similarly suffered from the absence of Laurents' text. Bernstein is quoted in David Patrick Sterns' notes for the 1985 recording as saying he'd attempted many times to set Maria's final "How many bullets are left?" speech as her biggest aria. In the end, however, Bernstein said, "The music stops and we talk it." This leaves the score building up to, but not musicalizing, the denouement.
Still, the thrills that preceded Bernstein's final hanging tones of "Somewhere" caused an enthralled audience to leap to a lengthy and heartfelt standing ovation and left me eagerly awaiting the new, live recording that the symphony will release in the spring of 2014 on its own in-house label, SFS Media. [TSR]