When Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 he had already composed three Broadway shows: On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and Candide (1956).
With the presence of a trio of zanies: Nancy Walker, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, and George Abbott (director) and Jerome Robbins (choreographer) On the Town delivered theatrical magic by spades. So did Wonderful Town succeed, primarily thanks to the presence of Rosalind Russell as the comical Ruth.
Less than a year after the failure of Candide, West Side Story opened on Broadway. There was no formula being reapplied by Bernstein or by a creative team that included director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, book writer Arthur Laurents, and a new kid on the block, Stephen Sondheim as lyricist. The cast was made up of near-unknowns brimming with talent. The show opened to raves from Walter Kerr in the New York Times and a slew of Valentines from just about every critic from the printed press.
One would think that Bernstein would have left well enough alone after a splendid original cast recording was made with Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera in the leads. But the story of music is full of ill-conceived efforts.
Bernstein somehow believed that West Side Story could indeed be considered an opera. In what he and the recording’s producers hoped would be the definitive recording of the work, a cast of Opera stars was assembled to record the work in 1984. Bad idea!
Despite their uptown vocal pedigree or more likely because of the participating stars’ inability to capture the right way to deliver Bernstein’s score with the right mix of raw power and the appropriate sound for their roles, the combination of Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, José Carreras as Tony, Tatiana Troyanos as Anita, Kurt Ollmann as Riff, and Marilyn Horne as the offstage voice who sings “Somewhere” proved to be deadly.
The recording sessions readily available for listening on You Tube, were by and large a disheartening affair, with an impatient, hand-wringing, chain-smoking Bernstein dealing sarcastic quips and snarky comments to many of the participants in the sessions, most of all Carreras, who Bernstein managed to tie into knots with his very own brand of unwarranted sarcasm. Strangely, it is the Spanish tenor who consistently delivers the most beautiful sound in the entire cast.
Kiri Te Kanawa’s full-throated, lyric-spinto sound is better suited to Strauss and Verdi heroines than to the part of a Juliet-like Puerto Rican teenager. Worst of the lot Tatiana Troyanos as Anita comes off as an overbearing termagant sporting a cringe-inducing Puerto Rican accent. Kurt Ollmann as Riff is a non-entity. Even Marilyn Horne’s Somewhere does not begin to obliterate memories of the angelic sound of Reri Grist in the original cast recording.
The road to musical theatre hell is paved with the ego-driven intentions of many in the recording industry. The 1984 recording of West Side Story is one such journey.
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