ON THE RECORD: West Side Story Live with Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber and Bernstein Takes Us On the Town

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25 Aug 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column visits the San Francisco Symphony's West Side Story with Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber and the 1963 London cast album of On the Town.


Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Sept. 26, 1957, and almost immediately worked its way to classic status. The show was recorded by Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records in what was then the new stereophonic process, and the original cast album — featuring Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence and Chita Rivera — remains the primary recording of the score. (This seems to have been Broadway's first stereo cast recording, quickly followed by The Music Man. The 1956 musicals Bells Are Ringing and Candide were recorded in both mono and stereo, but the stereo versions weren't released until 1958 and 1963, respectively. 

Other recordings of the score have come along, most notably Bernstein's own high-powered studio cast album of 1984. What could and perhaps should have been an authoritative version turned out to be several steps down from the original. Star casting catering to the crossover trade, with José Carreras as Tony and Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, depleted the theatricality of the songs; and the orchestra — self-conducted by the composer — lacked the brilliance of the original. (The same thing happened with what was intended to be an improved-and-finished version of Candide, conducted by Bernstein in 1989 but released after his death in 1990.) As has been seen elsewhere, a seventyish author's changes to work that he created in his prime are not necessarily definitive improvements.

Michael Tilson Thomas — a protégé and friend of the composer, with close links to Bernstein's work and family — has brought us a new, complete West Side Story [SFSmedia]. This was performed in concert by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall in 2013 with an expanded orchestra and a full cast. Here, finally: an expert, modern-day recording of the score, overseen and authorized by the Bernstein estate, to supplement the excellent but technologically (relatively) primitive original from 50-odd years ago.

(This is heralded as "the first-ever concert performance of Leonard Bernstein's complete score," whatever that is supposed to signify. Numerous songs and dances from West Side Story have been performed in concert, of course. This recording includes such items as the Taunting Scene, which I don't expect is ever performed anywhere other than in a staged production; but you won't hear other sections, like the incidental music under dialogue that stretches between "Cool" and "One Hand, One Heart.")

The resulting San Francisco West Side Story is quite good, yes. The orchestra is strong, mostly, and often exciting (although the percussion section occasionally stands out, and not in a helpful manner). The 1957 album has a significantly smaller orchestra, of 28 or so; but that was the original Broadway orchestra, recorded just three days after the New York opening. There is an excitement and tension that comes across on the original recording with vibrant authenticity, which we don't get from the San Francisco recording.


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