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WEST SIDE STORY – Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

December 14, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When Stephen Sondheim died aged 91, just a couple of weeks ago, the world of musical theater lost one of its best and most beloved practitioners. Although he was well-known for many of the scores he wrote himself – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, many others – possibly his most beloved work by the general public was the one on which he “only” wrote the lyrics: West Side Story. On it Sondheim collaborated with the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, creating a then-contemporary version of Romeo & Juliet transposed from renaissance-era Italy to 1950s New York, replacing the Montagus and the Capulets with street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. It debuted on stage in 1957, and then was turned into a screen musical in 1961 by co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. That film went on to become one of the most successful and popular Hollywood musicals in history, and eventually won ten Oscars, including Best Picture. And now, 60 years later, we have a new version of the same story, directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg.

What’s interesting about West Side Story as a concept is how relevant is still feels to contemporary audiences. Underneath all the singing and dancing, the story remains one about how difficult it can be for immigrants to assimilate into American society. The new screenplay, by playwright Tony Kushner, nods its head to topical issues such as institutional racism and income inequality, while keeping the central story – the love story between a boy from the Jets and a girl from the Sharks, which threatens to tear their families, their friends, and their community apart – firmly in focus. It’s a clever way of making the story pertinent for today’s cinema-goers, some of whom may find the entire concept of a screen musical passé, or even cheesy, in 2021, because in many ways Spielberg was really on a hiding to nothing by taking on this task in the first place. The original film is so beloved that in the eyes of many it can never be surpassed, and so many of its set pieces are iconic moments of Hollywood legend – the “America” song and dance, for example, with George Chakiris’s razor sharp tap dance steps, and Rita Moreno’s sassy, skirt-flipping sexiness. However, the critical consensus is that Spielberg has not only lived up to the pressure, but has actually surpassed the quality of the original with its staging and emotional content.

Much praise has also been given to its youthful cast, led by Ansel Elgort, who takes over from Richard Beymer as Tony, a former member of the Jets street gang who wants out of the violent life for good, only to be drawn back in when he falls in love with Maria, a recent Puerto Rican immigrant, and the sister of Bernardo, the leader of Shark gang. Newcomer Rachel Zegler takes on the Natalie Wood role as Maria, and the cast is rounded out by Mike Faist as Riff, the leader of the Jets, David Alvarez as Bernardo, and Ariana de Bose as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. There is even an extended cameo for Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar n 1961 playing Anita, and who now plays Valentina, a reworked version of the ‘Doc’ character who owns the drug store where Tony works and where the Jets regularly meet.

The final, and probably most important, element of the film that Spielberg had to tackle is of course the music. With Leonard Bernstein having died in 1990, and with all of the original film’s music team – conductors Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green, orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal – having also long since passed, Stephen Sondheim was the only member of the original creative team still alive when production began, and so Spielberg originally asked his long-time collaborator John Williams to spearhead the new adaptation. However, Williams instead advised Spielberg to hire Gustavo Dudamel and David Newman. Williams reminded Spielberg that David Newman “knows West Side Story better than anybody — he’s done it all over the world,” referring to Newman having conducted the 1961 film live-to-picture nearly 50 times with different orchestras in the US and Europe. Williams also said that he thought Dudamel would conduct it better then he could, having seen him conduct it at the Hollywood Bowl “with such idiomatic flair and knowledge and swagger.”

As such the new film’s score was created by a four-strong team: Dudamel conducting, Newman arranging the orchestra, Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori supervising the vocals, and Matt Sullivan tasked with overall ‘musical production,’ while Williams was given the courtesy title of ‘music consultant’. Interestingly, when it came to the arrangements, Newman made the decision to go back to the original Broadway orchestrations, which used just 27 musicians, rather than Johnny Green’s 1961 version, which used a 72-piece Hollywood orchestra, and which Bernstein reportedly disliked. Similarly, the few pieces of underscore heard in the film were adapted and expanded by Newman from the stage version, and includes some music not heard not in the 1961 film, such as the “Scherzo” that is heard when Maria is lying on her bed, thinking about Tony, after they have ad their illicit encounter on her balcony.

All in all, the musical aspect of the film is an absolute triumph. The score parts – 8 cues running for just over 30 minutes, including the 9-minute end credits – are sensational, and sparkle with new life in their crisp modern sound. The “Prologue” of course highlights its iconic call-and-response whistle, and its nervous percussive textures, and gradually grows into an effortlessly cool jazz riff, spiky staccato strings laying off against insouciant clarinets, with a 3-note motif running through the entire piece as the Jets dance and stalk their way through their New York home, claiming their territory. The way the riff builds in intensity as the cue develops is a perfect representation of the antagonism between the Jets and the Sharks; the way Bernstein brings in elements of Latin fusion jazz, and Caribbean percussion ideas, clashing with the more traditional swing, illustrates the conflict through music even further, and it all ends with a feverish flourish.

The three-part “Dance at the Gym” sequence is superb, a gamut of emotions that underscore the scene where Tony and Maria meet and fall in love. The “Blues” part is wonderfully sexy and provocative, and cleverly recalls some of the rhythmic ideas from the “Prologue” to show that the inter-gang rivalry extends here too. The formal “Promenade” is fun but a little out of place, but it is soon displaced by the showstopping “Mambo,” a veritable festival of excitable string runs, rambunctious tom-tom rhythms, and explosions of passionate, edgy brass; the trumpet line that kicks in just after the 2:00 mark is insanely brilliant. The subsequent “Cha-Cha” is a quirky version of the ‘Maria’ song arranged for breathy, reluctant woodwinds, pizzicato strings, and finger-snaps, perfectly capturing the innocent curiosity and playfulness of Tony and Maria’s love-at-first-sight.

The short “Transition to Scherzo/Scherzo” is Newman’s new piece of underscore, and is a charming light jazz track that represents the smile on Maria’s face, the twinkle in her eye, after she has met and fallen in love with Tony. However, all this good humor and gaiety is quickly replaced by the darkness and intensity of “The Rumble,” which of course leads to tragic consequences for members on both sides of the conflict. The jazz rhythms are more brutal, more fevered, more intense, with call-and-response brass textures following the flow of the fight, and staccato hits landing with each punch and parry. There are numerous textural callbacks to the “Prologue” in the cue’s second half, briefly emerging from the raft of sawing strings and bright, punchy brass blasts.

The “Finale” underscores the tragic final scene which, as anyone who knows Romeo and Juliet knows, is destined to end badly for everyone involved. It’s a slow, heartfelt lament for the dead, beautiful and lyrical, but arranged like a string elegy. Hints of melodies from several songs emerge in sequence, with an especially emotional performance of the theme from “One Hand, One Heart” anchoring most of its running time. This then leads into the 9-minute “End Credits” sequence, which presents outstanding orchestral performances of ‘Somewhere,’ ‘Tonight,’ ‘I Feel Pretty,’ ‘America,’ the scherzo, the ‘Mambo,’ and ‘Maria’ in short order. Perhaps my only complaint with the score portion of the soundtrack is the fact that some of the cues – especially the “Meeting Scene” and “The Rumble,” – also include snippets of dialogue and sound effects, which somewhat detracts from the listening experience and hides some of the detail, but these are minor quibbles in what is an otherwise outstanding recording.

As for the songs: well, of course, they are excellent too. Whether Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana de Bose, David Alvarez, and Mike Faist are as good as Jim Bryant, Marni Nixon, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Tucker Smith is a matter of opinion and taste, but no-one can doubt the new cast’s eagerness, Newman’s song arrangements, or Tesori’s vocal depth. Mike Faist performs lead vocals on the “Jet Song” as Riff, adding a huge amount of macho posturing to the staccato stabs of the “Prologue” in a nasal New Yawk drawl. “Something’s Coming” – a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one – unfortunately reveals Ansel Elgort’s voice to be a little thin and reedy, but there is a sense of inevitability in Bernstein’s forward-motion rhythms, and in Tony’s ironically optimistic plans for his future greatness.

Elgort is better in “Maria,” possibly Bernstein’s most beautiful and sweeping romantic melody. He sings her name like a prayer to the gods, with a sense of child-like wonderment, like he can’t quite believe what is happening to him. The subsequent “Balcony Scene (Tonight)” is a duet between Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Maria, and begins with a sentimental version of her theme for lush strings; Zegler’s voice is gorgeous, light and crystal clear, with just the right amount of Spanish trills on her r’s, and when the melody transitions into “Tonight” you can hear the breathless enthusiasm in their performances, swept along in the throes of young love; the orchestra boils up into raptures along with them.

“America” features lead performances by Ariana de Bose and David Alvarez as boyfriend and girlfriend Anita and Bernardo, singing about the pros on cons of their new home on the ‘island Manhattan’. This song contains some of Sondheim’s most politically pointed lyrics, dressed up as a spectacular dance sequence full of Latin fire and passion, and this version is no different. When Bernardo sings about the racial discrimination he faces on a daily basis, you can hear the bitterness in his voice; when Anita sings about the possibilities she sees now she has left Puerto Rico, her optimism is endearing. It’s funny, too, and built around some killer, insanely catchy melodies. Re-creating one of Hollywood cinema’s all-time iconic scenes must have been daunting for everyone involved, and while the end result may never have the same spark that Rita Moreno and George Chakiris shared, they come close to re-igniting that magic.

The comedy stylings continue in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” an ensemble piece for the Jets and the beleaguered NYPD officer who attempts to keep the peace, and is continually roasted and mocked by the young hoodlums. The lead vocal is by Kevin Csolak as Diesel, but everyone gets a moment to explain how their lives have been affected by the social deprivation around them, in a variety of humorous ways, and to the tune of a series of roustabout circus-like rhythms. This contrasts enormously with the tender intimacy and blossoming romance of “One Hand, One Heart,” which has perhaps always been a little too earnest and falls victim to the movie disease of having characters falling deeply in love after 10 minutes. Nevertheless, there’s a gorgeous lilting line for flutes and strings in the score’s second half, and the way the melody of it, ‘Maria,’ and ‘Tonight’ all seem to blend into one is very clever.

“Cool” revisits the edgy jazz, blues, and swing vibes of the “Prologue” and the “Jet Song,” and is a breathless duet between Tony and Riff as the former tries to calm the latter’s blood-up passions in the lead up to the rumble. It’s full of 50’s hep cat slang – daddy-o, play it cool boy, and so on – and may be a little stylistically dated, but the rhythmic intricacy of the piece is fascinating, as is the interplay between the instruments, tossing little recurring motifs and cells of music around. The subsequent “Tonight Quintet” is a masterpiece of interlocking and overlapping vocals as each of the five leads – Tony, Maria, Riff, Bernardo, and Anita – perform variations on the ‘Tonight’ motif with different emotional intentions, depending on who is singing. The style changes from intense anticipation of the rumble fight – more staccato rhythms, clattering jazz textures – to swooning lyricism and the hope of a romantic future. The way Newman and Tesori weave Bernstein’s styles together, jumping from one to the other and back, ramping up the tension, and then placing them against each other in counterpoint, is just sensational, a technical jigsaw puzzle of musical genius.

Zegler performs “I Feel Pretty” with aplomb, overcoming the slightly old-fashioned tone and lyrics with an old Hollywood sheen. The melody, a combination of classic waltz-time romance and Latino spunk, remains delicious, even though many people have pointed out that the context in which the song is sung is a little odd, coming immediately after the devastating climax of the rumble. This is followed by the heartbreaking “Somewhere,” which in this version of the story has been repurposed as a song for Valentina, and is the spotlight moment for Rita Moreno. The melody is classically rich – it takes phrases from both the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto, and from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – while the lyrics come across as a lament for a love that is destined to end in tragedy. The conclusive “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is an angry diatribe from Anita, whose warning to Maria to stay away from Tony sounds like musical snake venom, especially when accompanied with stabbing viciousness from the brass section. Again, the operatic complexity of the layered vocals is on full display as Maria responds in a completely different melodic way, contrapuntal but somehow compatible. It’s just magnificent.

Considering that West Side Story is now 65 years old, it’s inevitable that some will find the tone and style of the piece old fashioned. Contemporary audiences often find the singing and dancing of a classic Hollywood musical to be a little ridiculous – no-one bursts into song like that – while also finding the heightened emotions and declarations of undying love to be unrealistic. Well, of course they are. It’s fantasy. It’s escapism. It’s a release from the struggle of real life. That’s the point. So, if you can put that out of your mind and accept the reality of this world, then the power and poignancy of West Side Story remains. There’s a reason that this story, this music, these lyrics, and these dance sequences have retained their power for more than half a century, and I hope and pray that modern cinemagoers embrace what Spielberg is trying to do here.

For me, West Side Story has always been a masterpiece, and this new version just confirms it further. There is one weak link in the chain – Ansel Elgort – but everything else is top notch. David Newman’s arrangements of Leonard Bernstein’s music are rich and bold and flamboyant, and the modern sound quality allows it all to come roaring to life for the 21st century listener. Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting is dramatic and dynamic, and he brings out the best in the ensembles of both the New York Philharmonic and the LA Philharmonic orchestras, who split the COVID-affected recording duties between them. Jeanine Tesori coaxes outstanding performances out of Rachel Zegler, Ariana de Bose, and David Alvarez especially, and together they pay appropriate homage to Stephen Sondheim’s intelligent, complex, socially aware, memorable lyrics.

The last time the Academy gave out an Oscar for ‘Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score’ was 1984 when Prince won for Purple Rain. I believe the category still officially exists, but it hasn’t been activated since then because there usually aren’t enough original musicals or adaptations to make it a viable category. While I understand that it is highly unlikely for a variety of reasons, I hope that it comes back this year because West Side Story is absolutely terrific. It would be a fitting honor for the late Stephen Sondheim, and would give David Newman (and the others) a long-overdue recognition than for his work in film. If this was an original work in 2021, it would likely have been contending for Score of the Year honors, and may even have won; as it is, it remains one of the best screen musicals in the history of Hollywood, and to hear it presented in this way was a glorious, nostalgic throwback.

Buy the West Side Story soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (5:54)
  • La Borinqueña – Sharks Version (written by Félix Astol Artés and Manuel Fernández Juncos, lead performance by David Alvarez) (1:06)
  • Jet Song (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performance by Mike Faist) (2:11)
  • Something’s Coming (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performance by Ansel Elgort) (2:30)
  • The Dance at the Gym: Blues, Promenade (2:11)
  • The Dance at the Gym: Mambo (3:19)
  • The Dance at the Gym: Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, Jump (3:28)
  • Maria (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performance by Ansel Elgort) (3:05)
  • Balcony Scene (Tonight) (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performances by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler) (5:24)
  • Transition to Scherzo/Scherzo (2:14)
  • America (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performances by Ariana de Bose and David Alvarez) (4:57)
  • Gee, Officer Krupke (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performance by Jets Ensemble) (4:20)
  • One Hand, One Heart (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performances by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler) (3:45)
  • Cool (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performances by Ansel Elgort and Mike Faist) (4:03)
  • Tonight Quintet (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performances by Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana de Bose, David Alvarez, and Mike Faist) (3:28)
  • The Rumble (3:10)
  • I Feel Pretty (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performance by Rachel Zegler) (2:58)
  • Somewhere (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performance by Rita Moreno) (3:10)
  • A Boy Like That/I Have a Love (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, lead performances by Rachel Zegler and Ariana de Bose) (5:25)
  • Finale (3:36)
  • End Credits (9:03)

Running Time: 79 minutes 28 seconds

Hollywood Records (2021)

Music composed by Leonard Bernstein. Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Arranged by David Newman. Original orchestrations by Leonard Bernstein, Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin. Contemporary orchestrations by Doug Besterman, Michael Starobin and Garth Sunderland. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt and Joe E. Rand. Album produced by Matt Sullivan, David Newman and Jeanine Tesori.

  1. David Walker
    May 13, 2022 at 5:47 am

    Your negative comments about Ansel Elgort are completely wrong. His voice is quite amazing and combines with Rachel Zegler’s perfectly. In “One Hand, One Heart”, for example, his higher registers are absolutely gorgeous, no less in quality than anything any of the other cast members gave in their quite incredible performances.

    • May 13, 2022 at 9:45 am

      I mean, they aren’t “wrong,” because it’s an opinion about taste. I’m happy you enjoyed the whole thing, though.

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