Friday, 17 August 2007

I Feel Pretty And Witty And Gay 17/8

As this week sees the release of a new recording to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story it seems a good time to dip my toes into the world of the Jets and the Sharks. The show is, of course, an updating of William Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet. For Big Brother’s Brian (“So who is this Shakespeare geezer?”) I should point out that Shakespeare is regarded as Britain’s greatest playwright and he is not a film director or anything else for that matter. Although Brian and Charley really weren’t Romeo and Juliet, it could be said that, the rivalry between Charley and Chanelle was quite often on a par with the Montague and Capulet feud! And maybe Carol for the nurse and Seany as Friar Lawrence? Oh my god! Big Brother is taking over my mind, I am supposed to be talking about West Side Story……

Phew, let’s get back to (un) reality! Originally conceived as East Side Story and dealing with the rivalry between the Jews and the Catholics in New York the show brought together a group of musical theatre’s giants. Book writer Arthur Laurents, producer Harold Prince, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins are all now considered Broadway legends. Also joining them, writing the lyrics, was Stephen Sondheim making his professional debut. Of course by the time the time the musical premiered it had been retitled and the Montagues and Capulets had become the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the more waspy “Jets”. West Side Story was one of the first Broadway musicals to focus on teenagers, with the adults being very much minor characters. From the comedy of Gee, Officer Krupke to the energy of Dance At The Gym, via the touching balcony scene, the show presents a rich portrait of teenage life. Indeed, the subject matter was revolutionary for it’s time and, within the plot and Sondheim’s lyrics, touched upon sex, drugs and lots of violence. As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, much of Romeo And Juliet has resonances with modern life. Likewise, West Side Story, with it’s relocating of the story to fifties New York, with it’s rival gangs, remains very topical today in a year that has seen several gang related deaths in the London area.

After the show opened it became the stuff of legend, the contributions of all it’s collaborators being incredibly innovative. For instance would it have had the same impact without Jerome Robbins’ breathtaking dance? I don’t know. Despite the groundbreaking achievements of West Side Story it was not 1957’s biggest hit, that honour (along with most of the years “Tony” awards) went to the more traditional The Music Man. However, a young Chita Rivera was honoured with an award for Best Featured Actress as the original Anita. It was possibly the 1961 film version of “West Side Story” that cemented the musicals place as one of the all time greats. Featuring Natalie Wood, then a big draw, as Maria (although she and most of the other performers were dubbed by other singers) the film was a resounding success. Even today it’s a truly stunning film. It was actually filmed on the streets of New York, on a number of streets due for demolition, and seeing the choreography of Robbins on those streets is particularly effective, really giving the whole movie an authenticity that adds to it’s impact. Incidentally, a few years later New York's Lincoln Centre rose from those avenues that had seen the Sharks and Jets fighting on them previously. So the streets that echoed with the sounds of one of the world's greatest musicals now echo with the best of the performing arts at this prestigious venue.

Of course I haven’t really mentioned the music yet. The demanding score features many songs that have become very well known such as Tonight, Something’s Coming and I Feel Pretty. Other highlights include the musical duel that is America and the anthemic Somewhere. The score has become much loved over the past fifty years and thanks to it’s great vocal demands is often performed by opera singers. It’s for this reason that many of its recordings feature well known, yet miscast, names from the opera. In fact when Bernstein himself conducted a recording of the show he chose Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa to lead the cast. Naturally they sang it beautifully, however they both sounded far too old and Carreras’ heavy Spanish accent made him sound more like a Shark than a Jet! Bernstein’s music also lends itself particularly well to Jazz so when acclaimed jazz musician Dave Grusin recorded an album with many of his contemporaries (and Gloria Estefan) it came as little surprise. However opera performers do seem to dominate new recordings and the fiftieth anniversary recording is no exception. As Maria, the light soprano of Hayley Westenra is very effective and it’s refreshing to hear a performer of the right kind of age in the role. Vittorio Grigolo has a beautiful tenor and sings wonderfully, however he does sound a little too old to play Tony and sounds far too Latin, like Jose Carreras. Even though the score sounds better than ever in this new recording I would relish the opportunity to hear it performed by more theatrical, rather than operatic, singers. Happily, the supporting players do sing the roles more like you would expect to hear them on West End or Broadway stage, in fact our very own Connie Fisher gets to sing the solo Somewhere. Connie does a great job on the track, it’s a very individual take on the iconic number and in places it is very moving.

It’s almost ten years since West Side last played in London but I would hope that it’s a show that will return to the West End at some point in the coming years. Iconic as the original production was, it’s a show that is ripe for re-interpretation and it would be nice to see it done with a new vision… direction, choreography, sets and even orchestrations….after all they were brave enough to try it with Oklahoma!

Now back to what I was saying….Gerry could be considered a bit like Tybalt but……

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad recording of West Side Story from the original Broadway Cast to this brand new one they all have their merits. As well as the versions I have mentioned, several songs were recorded by German tenor Peter Hoffman and his American wife Deborah Sasson on the album “Bernstein On Broadway” which often turn up on Bernstein compilations these days. These are probably my personal favourites. Ten years ago an album called Songs From West Side Story was released with an eclectic group of pop and country stars including Natalie Cole, Trisha Yearwood, Aretha Franklin and even Little Richard. It’s a different and unusual take with differing results which only serves to illustrate the versatility of Bernstein’s work. Around the same time the Pet Shop Boys released a very different version of “Somewhere” too. Of course the movie is fantastic so the film soundtrack is always going to be worthwhile, but you could do a lot worse than buy the new recording. The orchestra sounds fantastic!

In closing
Only you, you’re the only one for me
You are psychologically sick
So smoke on your pipe and put that in

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