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another west side story


When you get the newly released Original Cast Album of WEST SIDE STORY on vinyl (available exclusively at Barnes & Noble), pretend you’re getting this recording in 1957 as tens of thousands did.

The packaging on the new issue has the same front jacket showing Larry Kert as Tony and Carol Lawrence as Maria running down West 56th Street close to Ninth Avenue. (Doubt it? Take a look at what’s painted on the trash can.)

On the back cover you’ll get the same liner notes, word-for-word, that George Dale wrote for the original jacket. But because this is now a two-record set – technology has improved the sound to the point where a second disc is required – this is now a double-cover gatefold album which, when opened, reveals eight four-by-five-and-a-half inch pictures (including a few of twenty-seven-year-old lyricist Stephen Sondheim).

Let’s assume that in 1957 you’re a standard issue musical theater lover whose record collection already sports THE PAJAMA GAME, MY FAIR LADY and BELLS ARE RINGING. So what would you think when you heard this recording’s first notes? Your previous cast albums had started with Overtures that proudly displayed what management felt were the score’s best songs. These were the ones they hoped would be hits or even, as the years wore on, genuine standards.

You’d hear no such Overture on WEST SIDE STORY (despite the fact that “Maria” and “Tonight” would eventually become well-known and much-recorded songs). Instead, you might have noticed on the label as you placed the record on the spindle that you’d first hear a Prologue.

(The only previous cast album that had had a “Prologue” was REGINA – and that was an opera.)

You’d first hear ominous-sounding bleats of brass that would give way to finger snaps. The music would be interrupted by a curt “Hah!” and “Beat it!” as well as plenty of other verbal ejaculations, suggesting genuine conflict between groups that you’d come to know as the “All-American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.

What a shock, for Overtures on your other cast albums were devoid of any human utterances. Sure, every musical must have conflict, but none had ever offered discord before even a note was sung.

However, while you were sitting in front of your Hi-Fi – which is probably what you’d have in those days when stereo was in its infancy – you’d have to be impressed with this very arresting Leonard Bernstein music that had been splendidly orchestrated by both Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin. Drums were often heard in Overtures, but here the Prologue would unexpectedly deliver bongos.

Soon after, even people who didn’t know WEST SIDE STORY from SOUTH PACIFIC would become familiar with this music from the Prologue, for it became background music for a commercial for Ban Roll-On.

(Yes, a deodorant. How fitting, for this music certainly doesn’t stink.)

As a 1957 cast album listener, you’d never experienced as much sheer lyric-less music as you’d get here. Record producer Goddard Lieberson obviously respected Bernstein’s pedigree, not only as the composer of ON THE TOWN, PETER PAN, WONDERFUL TOWN and CANDIDE, but also as the music director of New York Philharmonic. Not many cast albums had included ballet music, but the “Somewhere Ballet” is here.

Here you’d have an advantage over those who waited to buy a recording of WEST SIDE STORY in 1961 when the soundtrack from the movie was issued. Despite the great acclaim that the Oscar-winning film and its best-selling soundtrack would get, the “Somewhere Ballet” was totally dropped from the film.

If you had heard prior to purchasing the album that WEST SIDE STORY included a no-holes-barred knife-fight in which two young men died, you might assume that it wouldn’t be set to music. But “The Rumble” would prove you wrong.

There’s a greater-than-usual amount of dance music, too. What’s found in “Cool” is oxymoronic, for it’s pretty hot stuff. You’d revel in the supercharged dance music for “The Dance at the Gym” and “America.”

The latter song would be most changed when Hollywood came calling. The cast album has Rosalia, a young Puerto Rican, expressing her disappointment in the United States while her female friends disagree with her. The film would have the Sharks arguing with these same women – including Rosalia – who proclaimed their appreciation for their adopted country.

The film’s “America” has often been deemed stronger, but the reason Broadway didn’t have a war between the sexes was a logistical one: The Sharks and The Jets needed to change out of their “good clothes” that they’d worn to The Dance at the Gym into their ordinary duds for the next scene’s confrontation in Doc’s drugstore. That took time; the film had the luxury of being freed from that constraint.

On this album, Rosalia mostly butts heads with Anita, so the result would have been your first listen to two future Tony-winners: Rosalia was Marilyn Cooper, who’d have to wait twenty-four years before winning her award for WOMAN OF THE YEAR (for one of the greatest eleven o’clock duets of all time: “The Grass Is Always Greener”). Anita was Chita Rivera, who, you may be surprised to hear, had to wait even longer: twenty-seven years would pass before she finally won (on her fifth try) for THE RINK.

In this third cast album of the fourteen she’d eventually do, Rivera shows she was already adept at delivering a side-of-the-mouth perky but sarcastic quip. (“I know a boat you can get on.”) That she wasn’t even Tony-nominated was at best an oversight and at worst a snub; after all, this is the role for which Rita Moreno won an Oscar.

As a 1957 listener, you’d be startled by some of Sondheim’s lyrics. “Gee, Office Krupke” had a profanity (“bastard”) and an abbreviation for one (“S.O.B”). “Quintet” has a salty sequence in which Anita prepares for a late-night rendezvous with Shark leader Bernardo.

Let’s go to the soundtrack first to stress what a great lyric Sondheim originally lost. The film has Anita sing “He’ll walk in hot and tired – poor dear! Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s here.” That’s not bad, to be sure, but compare it to what Rivera sings: “He’ll walk in hot and tired; so what? Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s hot.” That’s terrific because you get two different meanings of hot – one that comes from an oppressive outside temperature and one that represents unbridled lust.

And yet, you’ll find on this cast album that “Krupke” mentions marijuana – a word that was retained in the film. Hollywood back then didn’t mind admitting that its characters did drugs, but they didn’t want to suggest that they had sex.

One other feature you’d take for granted when listening to an original cast album: you know that the performers singing are the same ones who sang on stage. (The film cannot claim the same.) Kert is a wistful Tony, and Lawrence provides Maria with a beautiful soprano.

Before the recording concludes, return to 2021 so you can appreciate the fact that although WEST SIDE STORY is now in its sixty-fourth year, Bernstein’s music still doesn’t sound old. That’s a remarkable achievement for a score that’s enjoyed every known recording format that the decades have yielded: a long-playing vinyl record, four-track tape, eight-track tape, cassette, compact disc and now two long-playing vinyl records.

We don’t know how people will be accessing music in 2057, but they may well be listening to WEST SIDE STORY even then.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.