WEST SIDE STORY’S SOUNDTRACK RETURNS TO VINYL By Peter Filichia
Mem’ries are lighting the corners of my mind.
I’ve been returning to way-back-when thanks to the vinyl copy of the famed and legendary soundtrack of WEST SIDE STORY.
Simple aging has taken its toll on the original copy I’ve had since the Kennedy Administration. My gatefold cover has lost its fire-engine-red luster. Its edges have been worn away to unglamorous cardboard from years of pulling it out and shoving it back in between copies of WALKING HAPPY and WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?
Yes, much time has passed since I got my copy from The Columbia Record Club, which never held meetings and introduced you to no fellow members. But you could get five albums for $1.97 as well as what the company called “modest shipping and handling charges.”
(They didn’t turn out to be so modest when the bill arrived.)
All you had to do was buy five albums more in a year’s time.
(And at exorbitant prices.)
But after I spotted the ad in a magazine, I decided to worry about that later. “Send no money now!” was very inviting, although “Act Now! This special offer may never be repeated!” was ominous. I responded to that as if I were a just-enlisted private who’d been given an order from a five-star general.
I did have the freedom to choose which division out of four to which I cared to belong: “Classical,” “Listening and Dancing,” “Jazz” and, last but hardly least, “Broadway, Movies, Television, and Musical Comedies.”
Guess which one I selected.
(There was no category for rock – not yet. But that would change once Baby Boomers – the generation that began in 1946 – reached sixteen or seventeen, started working and thus could afford albums.)
Although delivery seemed to take longer than April in Fairbanks, my brown paper package (albeit not tied up in strings) finally arrived behind our storm door. There, nestled against the WEST SIDE STORY soundtrack were the original cast albums of SOUTH PACIFIC, MY FAIR LADY, GYPSY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
Heaven on earth – but WEST SIDE STORY was the one I played the most. Leonard Bernstein’s music was so exciting (“Quintet”), beautiful (“Maria”) and even funny (“Gee, Officer Krupke”). Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics were clever in rhyme (“punk’ll / uncle”) and profound (“Make this endless day endless night.” Even as a teen, I knew what it was like to wait all day for something I was looking forward to and when it finally arrived, seem like it ended much too fast – such as seeing a Broadway musical).
And yet, on Friday, with the hot-off-the-press reissue in my hot little hands, I trashed that first soundtrack. Oh, I first removed the three rubber-cemented tickets stubs from my trio of visits to the film at the now-long-ago-razed Gary Theatre in Boston. The tickets were the lofty kind, like genuine Broadway tickets of the day, for WEST SIDE STORY was a “hard-ticket attraction,” as such major motion pictures were then called that demanded that you sit in a certain seat. Wish that at least one ticket-taker hadn’t torn so severely and ripped away the price; I can now only wonder how much I paid for my two trips to the mezzanine (D 20 right; E 7 center) and one in the balcony (D 13 left).
For what would be the last time, I took the original record from its protective if flimsy plastic sleeve that Columbia preferred to the paper ones routinely issued by other labels. Audiophiles have routinely stated that they’ve played certain records so many times that they needed to replace them, and yes, my WEST SIDE STORY – probably still the record that I’ve played the most – looks pretty careworn. The number of skid marks on the label near the hole shows how many, many times I slid it across the spindle.
I was hardly alone in appreciating this soundtrack. WEST SIDE STORY is (and perhaps always will be) the album that has lasted the greatest number of weeks in Billboard’s Number One spot.
Fifty-four weeks! Yes! From May 12, 1962 through May 25, 1963, the WEST SIDE STORY soundtrack in stereo was in first place for all but fourteen days. An album by Ray Charles snuck in after twelve weeks, but STORY returned to the top seven days later and remained there for twenty-nine straight weeks. It eventually paused to let a Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd jazz samba album to have its day – er, week – before it returned to reign for the next thirteen.
The front cover of the reissue is precisely the same, dominated by that three-word title, one word atop the other, in black and bold military-like lettering. It’s become the go-to artwork of the majority of subsequent stage productions. Usually those who produce any musical in stock and amateur playhouses put the Broadway logo on their playbills and ads. But for WEST SIDE STORY, the film’s artwork has been the most employed for decades.
The eleven black-and-white photographs on the original inside jacket have given way to six color ones. Nearby are not only Hollis Alpert’s 1961 liner notes but also new ones from Broadway World favorite Richard Ridge.
Observations from the two writers reveal one fun nugget. Alpert stated that early on “Jerome Robbins was asked to step in as co-director of the film.” Yes, but what he doesn’t tell us is that he was eventually asked to step out. Ridge does.
Alpert wrote that “some gang members were employed to keep curious onlookers out of camera range.” True, but George Chakiris, who won an Oscar as Bernardo, told me when we did a benefit for CHARGE Syndrome that these actual gang members were also hired to be their bodyguards; otherwise, some genuine street gangs might think that these actors were actual thugs intent on invading their turf.
Most of the back cover remains the same, with the stunning color ten-by-twelve-inch color photograph of Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) in the “Tonight” scene. But no longer positioned above them is “Available on regular” – meaning “monaural,” which had the same sound coming out of each speaker. That format passed into oblivion in 1968. Although the WEST SIDE STORY soundtrack performed far less spectacularly in non-stereo, it did manage to hit Number One on Billboard for nine weeks between May 5, 1962 and April 27, 1963.
I’m now relishing the sound on the reissue and not enduring the clicks and pops to which I had become accustomed after hundreds of spins. It is vinyl-spectacular, warm as can be, yet stirring as well. Jim Bryant, Marni Nixon and Betty Wand all sound wonderful as Tony, Maria and Anita.
You’d never know that they were involved from the original liner notes, but the reissue admits they dubbed Beymer, Wood and Rita Moreno by placing their names under the song titles. A notation does mention that Tucker Smith only spelled for Russ Tamblyn (Riff) “in parts.” The original jacket proclaimed that Tamblyn “appears courtesy of MGM Records,” so he must have had a decent enough voice, but one apparently not judged good enough for all of WEST SIDE STORY. (MGM ceased recording in 1982, so this remark isn’t on the reissue.)
Also on vinyl for the first time are the bonus tracks that the 2004 edition of the CD offered: “Overture,” “Intermission Music,” “Finale” and “End Credits” are the instrumental selections; Tony and Maria’s “Somewhere,” although far briefer than the rendition heard on Broadway, is included as well. Yes, they make the album longer, but when you’re talking WEST SIDE STORY, that’s one of the best bonuses you can get.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’ll be contributing to the new magazine Encore Monthly starting in January.