Exactly a year ago the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) concluded their 2012–2013 season with a series of concert performances of Leonard Bernstein’s most ambitious contribution to the musical theater repertoire, West Side Story. I was not yet a teenager when this show opened on Broadway in September of 1957. By the time its United States tour took it to my home town of Philadelphia, I had crossed that threshold; and it was one of the first shows I saw in a Broadway setting, even if it was in a Philadelphia theater. I did not see the 1961 film until a few years after it opened, when it was screened as part of the film series organized by the Lecture Series Committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
I have taken a biographical approach to this history of this show because of how much it engaged those of us interested in music at the time. Just about every musical group I was involved with in high school had some core of students who had learned much of the music from the original cast recording. If the staged version had little effect on me, sitting in a high balcony from which, in those days, the performers were both barely visible and barely audible, the film overwhelmed me. I was blown away by just about every visual element, including the stunning abstraction behind the opening credits and the sassy modernism of Bernstein’s score, finally reaching me in a context I could appreciate.
However, things changed over the next ten years. The apparently stark realism of Lower Manhattan gang cultures began to fade behind the far starker realism of what was happening in Vietnam. By the early seventies I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania; and one evening a bunch of us arranged to get together in front of a television to watch a commercial-free broadcast of the West Side Story movie. We were all enthusiastic about Public Television making this part of its programming; but, unless I am mistaken, pretty much all of us came away disappointed. What had been innovative was now being pushed further for new purposes, and what was edgy had been blunted.
The result was that I could not help but be skeptical when Michael Tilson Thomas, in his capacity as SFS Music Director, decided to conclude the season with a concert presentation of Bernstein’s complete score. With the release of the recording made from those performances, that skepticism still haunts me. One reason may be that West Side Story lacks the distance of older shows, such as Show Boat, which is currently in the repertoire of the San Francisco Opera, being performed across the street from Davies Symphony Hall, where the recordings of West Side Story performances had been made last year. Another reason may be that the ways in which we now think about both the musical and dramatic elements of musical theater have moved on in such bold directions that West Side Story has been left in the dust. (To today’s audiences, even Hair would sound old-fashioned.)
Nevertheless, I would suggest that there might have been ways in which this recording could have been a more persuasive “time machine.” These have much to do with style. Members of the original cast, including Carol Lawrence as Maria, Chita Rivera as Anita, and Larry Kert as Tony, worked at a time when there was little, if any, electronic enhancement of their voices. If they wanted to be heard throughout the theater, they had to belt it out with the same strength as a singer on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House; and they had to do it for speaking as well as singing. This factor often contributed to the sharp edges in these performers’ vocal styles; and it was that edginess that gave a song its character, even more than the melodies, harmonies, or even off-beat rhythms.
If, as I suggested above, that edginess has been blunted in this new recording, I would attribute at least some of the problem to the head-mounted microphones worn by all the singers. This is most evident in Cheyenne Jackson’s interpretation of Tony. There is a narrowness to the spectral profile of Jackson’s sonorities, and he seems to have a strong emphasis for understated dynamics. Larry Kert’s Tony was too much of a mensch to sing so modestly; and the same was true of Jimmy Bryant, who did the singing for Richard Beymer’s Tony in the film. Even more disappointing was Jessica Vosk, who never managed to achieve the raw visceral qualities evoked by Chita Rivera on stage and Rita Moreno on film.
As a result the real stars of this recording have turned out to be the SFS musicians, playing as an ensemble that is non-standard in terms of both size and instrumentation. Some, like percussionist Raymond Froehlich and trumpeter Mark Inouye, saw this as an opportunity to cut loose with riffs not usually found in the concert hall. Others, like Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, simply knew how to shape their solos to achieve dramatic delicacy.
This then raises what I feel was a major flaw in the production of this recording. After investing so many pages of the 100-page booklet on biographical statements for all of the vocalists, no space was allocated simply to name the musicians and the instruments they were playing (the sort of thing we are used to seeing in the program books we receive at SFS concerts). If anyone contributed significantly to restoring some sense of the relevance of this music to present-day audiences, it was those musicians and their chemistry with MTT. As Arthur Miller once put it, “attention must be paid” to those whose efforts ultimately constituted the greatest impact of this new recording.