While there are few revivals and even fewer recordings of unsuccessful Broadway musicals, occasionally there can also be few revivals and few recordings of Broadway musicals if they are spectacularly successful to the point that the original production seems definitive. This seems to have been the case with West Side Story, considered a landmark musical in its initial 1957 mounting, which spawned an original Broadway cast album that spent more than three years in the Billboard chart, not only because of that success, but ...
While there are few revivals and even fewer recordings of unsuccessful Broadway musicals, occasionally there can also be few revivals and few recordings of Broadway musicals if they are spectacularly successful to the point that the original production seems definitive. This seems to have been the case with West Side Story, considered a landmark musical in its initial 1957 mounting, which spawned an original Broadway cast album that spent more than three years in the Billboard chart, not only because of that success, but also because of the even more massive success of the 1961 film, which spawned an original soundtrack album that spent more than a year at number one in the Billboard chart, longer than any album in the chart's history. Following the 1957 production, there was a limited engagement summer production at New York's City Center in 1964 that technically constitutes a Broadway revival and an actual regular Broadway revival in 1980; neither of these produced a cast recording. Thus, the 2009 Broadway revival had a chance to approach the show from a fresh perspective, and so does the cast album, which is the first cast album of the show drawn from an actual stage production since 1957. (There have been several studio cast recordings, notably one conducted by composer Leonard Bernstein in 1984.) That fresh perspective is being taken by some old hands, however, those of the members of the creative team who are still alive. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the libretto, is the director, and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics, was also involved. Their impact is not what might have been expected, however. West Side Story was a gritty musical for 1957, and it might have been made even grittier more than half a century later. Instead, it has been toned down somewhat. Bernstein's original orchestrations (done with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) are credited, but so are three arrangers, Sondheim one of them, and the music sounds different. It's not so much the instrumentation or the notes played that produce that difference, it's more the tempi and attack employed by conductor Patrick Vaccariello, another of the new arrangers. Bernstein's music had a jarring angularity the first time around (and many times since); here, it's not so jarring or angular. In fact, it's all smooth and groove-oriented, more about dancing than drama. Similarly, the young performers (including Karen Alivo, who won a Tony Award for her performance five days after this album was released, as Anita) sound more friendly than menacing. It's hard to imagine them getting into knife fights with each other. On the other hand, the creators have opted for a more ethnic approach, notably by translating some of the dialogue and lyrics into Spanish. (Lin-Manuel Miranda of the Broadway musical In the Heights gets credit for translations.) It may not have been realistic to have Puerto Rican youth of 1957 speak and sing in English, but it's not much more realistic to have them do so in Spanish some of the time, largely arbitrarily. (Admittedly there is some sense in having the previously pro-Anglo Anita switch to Spanish after her boyfriend is killed and sing "Un Hombre Así" instead of "A Boy Like That.") But it does allow Sondheim, who has gone on record criticizing his own lyrics to "I Feel Pretty" (he thinks they're too sophisticated for a teenage girl) not to have to hear them on a Broadway stage again. In its first manifestation, West Side Story was a powerful and groundbreaking work for the musical theater. This time around, it's a little lighter and a little more Latin, entertaining but not as significant. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi
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