Swinging, Soulful B’way Cast Clicks In ‘West Side Story’

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Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber perform 'West Side Story' with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.  (Concert photos by Stefan Cohen)
Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber perform ‘West Side Story’ with Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.
(Concert photos by Stefan Cohen)

Bernstein: West Side Story. Cheyenne Jackson, Alexandra Silber, Jessica Vosk, Kevin Vortmann, Julia Bullock, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor) (SFS Media, two SACDs)

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – Toward the end of his life, Leonard Bernstein was frustrated that he had not been able to write a universally-acknowledged Great American Opera, and he wasn’t consoled in the least that he had written a Great American Musical called West Side Story. (Hershey Felder’s one-man show on Bernstein, Maestro, makes this clear in a poignant scene near the close). That, in tandem with record company wishes, may be the main underlying reason why he chose to cast his own “complete” recording of West Side Story with opera singers; if he couldn’t have his Great American Opera, then by golly, he would convert his best-known musical into something approaching an opera.

SFS West Side cover 350Fortunately, Michael Tilson Thomas, a close Bernstein friend and disciple, doesn’t have that self-imposed burden to deal with. He has gone all the way back to Broadway in his live recording of West Side Story, casting Broadway-style singers instead of operatic voices, and the performance – reportedly the first “complete” one on a concert stage – is better off for it. Now the music is all of a piece, the sound and feeling of 1957 Broadway stretching confidently into new, serious, tragic territory instead of a work at war with itself trying to make up its mind what it is.

Tilson Thomas understands the snap and crackle of jazz just about as well as his mentor did; the San Francisco brass and percussion sections really swing the jazz and groove hard in the Latin dances. His tempos sometimes tend to be a little slower than Lenny’s – particularly in the up-tempo, ethnic-group showcases, “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” – and the instrumental forces are larger than those of a theater pit band, but there is firm enough rhythm supporting them. Actor/singer Cheyenne Jackson gets the hopelessly lovelorn naiveté of Tony right, Alexandra Silber manages a credible Puerto Rican accent as Maria, and both have the vocal chops for the soaring passages; we are spared the reverse ethnic mismatch of Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras on the Bernstein recording.

An exultant Tilson Thomas with the 'West Side Story' cast during bows.
An exultant Tilson Thomas with the ‘West Side Story’ cast and SF Symphony during bows.

The packaging is super-deluxe even by the lavish standards of SFS Media – a cloth-bound book with 104 pages of interviews, photos, bios, a West Side Story timeline, and the complete libretto. In that way, it resembles a recent – and the most desirable – reissue of the Bernstein set (Deutsche Grammophon), which combined the recording and a DVD of the riveting, revealing documentary of the recording sessions into a similar book format (which by a weird coincidence is also 104 pages!). Also, the San Francisco West Side Story includes a bit more of the score than the Bernstein – like a minute of Act II curtain-raising music at the start of “I Feel Pretty” and an elongated “Taunting Scene” with simulated, compressed, scratchy “jukebox” music. These are not significant additions, but something that compulsive WSS completists will go for.

The Bernstein recording is still invaluable for the composer’s insight and undiminished joie de vivre. But this new contender from his disciple is, in some ways, an even more authentic expression of why West Side Story remains a classic.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.