I was on one of my periodic raids on a local disc store, having decided after my dissection of Do I Hear a Waltz? that an examination of the other Sondheim/Laurents collaborations might be fun. First, I discovered that Gypsy has not only the Original Cast Recording available on CD, but three major revival recordings as well. Clearly this was gong to take some time to investigate the right way, along with some major pocket change. Then I checked what they had for West Side Story, and discovered that I didn't know the show as well as I thought I did.
To explain, let me say that my parents didn't get out much. Going to see movies or shows just wasn't very high on their list of priorities. All the same, I had more than my fair share of musicals in my life as I grew up. We had dozens of cast recordings and soundtracks in the family record collection, each and every one somehow migrating to my own personal stash. One of the LPs was the soundtrack for West Side Story. That record collection is unfortunately long gone, but my memory of the album remains fairly clear.
Fast forward to that disc emporium. There, with its glorious red-and-black graphic, was the West Side Story soundtrack recording. And there, in the bottom right-hand corner, was a white banner that read "Contains music from the original soundtrack never before available." Apparently, the people at Sony decided to do something right. In re-releasing the soundtrack on CD, they have added some instrumental work, and some of the songs have been expanded with incidental music and dialogue. Of course I bought the CD.
Der Brucer was skeptical about my purchase when I got home. "We've got that already," he told me in his usual growl. I checked our CD collection, and he was almost right. What we had in our collection was the OCR, which for some reason I had ignored until that day. (This is the disc with the black & white cover photo of Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert running hand in hand down a New York street in broad daylight, which is strange because none of the play takes place in broad daylight.) You know me well enough by this time: I couldn't resist comparing the two discs.
Okay, maybe you don't know me that well yet. Still, I thought it was a question worth asking: just what are the differences between the OCR and the soundtrack? And, while we're at it, are the additions to the soundtrack good ones, or are they just added filler?
First, a little background. West Side Story is a retelling of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, reset in New York City during the 1950's. Rival youth gangs replace the rival families of Renaissance Italy; established "Americans" warring with newly arrived Puerto Ricans. The concept is credited to the late Jerome Robbins, genius director and choreographer. Unfortunately, none of Robbin's work is to be found on either of the CDs.
Much of the credit for the shape and sound of the show goes to book-writer Arthur Laurents. He found the way to translate R & J to a modern idiom, and devised the slang used by both of the gangs, totally unlike the slang actually used on the streets of the time yet capturing the essence of that slang in the abstract. Stephen Sondheim was added to the team as lyricist, because while the composer of West Side Story was skillful enough to be able to put words to his own music, they weren't very good words. Sondheim was able to take the street argot Laurents created and fold it into his own in his lyrics, thus making the book and lyrics a seamless whole.
The composer is the real star of both the OCR and the Soundtrack. While Leonard Bernstein may have thought Candide to be his best work for the stage, to my mind his true masterpiece is West Side Story. His use of jazz, modern classical, and popular techniques are unmatched, and result in a score that still pulses with urgency more than four decades later.
The score divides into different types of music relating to the different ideas being expressed. The largest part of the score is the heavily jazz-influenced music of the gangs. It is be-bop by way of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, coarse and angry. This is countered with two interlinked sets of songs of a romantic nature, each set consisting of three songs. The first triad expresses the anticipation and discovery of love by our Romeo equivalent, Tony. The second triad gives voice to the unconditional love of our Juliet, here named Maria. There are also three more numbers that are lighter in nature, acting as comic relief.
A few words on the soundtrack: Johnny Green is listed as the conductor (the uncredited orchestrations, I've been able to find out, are by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal). Green had proven himself adept with Bernstein's music before, and Bernstein trusted Green's judgement and abilities. However, in directing the film, Jerome Robbins and his co-director Robert Wise found that it would take longer to introduce a film audience to the idea of dancing street thugs, which meant adjusting Bernstein's music to the longer time frame. Bernstein was not at all pleased, to the point of screaming at Green when he first heard the new orchestrations. While they made up later, Bernstein never did like the film.
All that having been said, I think it's time for a TRACK BY TRACK. I'm going to stick to the order the songs are given on the OCR, with the exception of a couple of additions by Green on the soundtrack.
The studio orchestra leads us through a medley of the Quintet, Maria, and the Mambo section from the Dance at the Gym. Personally, I find the Overture unnecessary, ear candy that is out of place with this score. Plus the final transition, from the Mambo back to a few bars of the Quintet, is awkward. On the whole, the track is highly skippable.
Soundtrack: Track 2: Prologue
Soundtrack: Track 3: Jet Song
Before he wrote West Side Story, Bernstein wrote two valentines to New York City, On the Town and Wonderful Town. It becomes very clear from the first notes of the Prologue that this show is no valentine. The brass is harsh, the drums tense. Even the first word spoken by a person is a disdainful "Huh!" From there, the music builds to a portrait of a war zone, not romanticized but ugly and increasingly dangerous. On the OCR, this is immediately followed on the same track by the Jet Song, the music continuing with the same edgy, jazzy flavor as Riff (Mickey Calin) tells his gang of his plans to challenge the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (Ken Le Roy) to a fight. Sondheim's lyrics match the rough tones of Bernstein's music, teasing us with not-quite obscene phrases like "spit hits the fan" and "Every last buggin' gang / On the whole buggin' street." He also makes it clear that these kids aren't sweet and friendly, as they declare "We're hanging a sign / Says "visitors forbidden" / And we ain't kiddin'!" If an opening number is supposed to set the tone and style of the show, grabbing the audience's interest and making them want to pay attention, this one does it in spades.
The same amount of time it takes the OCR to get through the Prologue and Jet Song, the soundtrack manages to spend on the Prologue. Eerie whistling and the sounds of traffic fill the first full minute, and the orchestra takes the next thirty seconds to play the first three notes. I'll admit, the slow opening is sinister, but without the film's helicopter shots of the New York skyline, it doesn't make a lot of sense. In addition the orchestrators seem determined to make use of every instrument at their disposal. At one point, we're treated to a chorus of xylophones playing the melody in perfect unison. How, uh, wonderful.
The Jet Song, here with Russ Tamblyn playing Riff, is for the most part the same as on the OCR. The dialogue break between verses is muddled and uneven, however. Worse, the over-orchestration blurs the lyric line.
Soundtrack: Track 4: Something's Coming
I'll be honest, this is one of my favorite show tunes. I'll even sit through Barbra Streisand's version. Why? Because it is so damn good!! Take Bernstein's music, for example, as he bounces from a lilting three-quarter time to two-quarter and back again. Take Sondheim's lyric, as he introduces Tony as a young man willing to challenge fate with good cheer. His list of ways that opportunity can arrive, "With a click, with a shock / Phone'll jingle, door'll knock / Open the latch!" captures youthful optimism with an efficient brevity that can't be matched. As the opening song in the triad about anticipation and discovery, this song gets the show rolling in the right direction.
Larry Kert, as Tony on the OCR, does a remarkable job with this song. His voice is clear and his inflections, including the way he scoops into some of the notes, are outstanding. He really sells this song, and his fadeout of "Maybe tonight" is haunting. His counterpart on the soundtrack, Jim Bryant, doesn't fare so well. He's got a nice enough voice, but he's a bit reedy, and he lacks real conviction. Maybe that's what comes from dubbing the song for Richard Beymer, whose acting wasn't all that hot.
Soundtrack: Track 5: Dance at the Gym
Here, I strongly advise listening to the soundtrack over the OCR. The OCR cuts this sequence down to the Mambo and Pas de deux, and it just isn't the same. The soundtrack, on the other hand, benefits from those guys at Sony going back and putting material back in where it belongs. (Oddly, the parts they added to the soundtrack are the two parts the OCR had kept!)
This music sounds exactly like gym dances never have, and yet Bernstein precisely captures the feeling of a school dance. The track begins with a Blues section, with some of the sounds from the Prologue continuing through; the gang war is still on, we're just doing jitterbug dance-steps while we battle. This is followed by a stiff and clearly out-of-place Promenade, which breaks down into an exciting Mambo. (There is some sonic fuzziness here with the gang members' voices in the background. Nothing is perfect, unfortunately.) As a clarion trumpet soars into the sky, everything fades away into the Pas de deux, the first meeting of Tony and Maria. A delicate instrumental rendition of Tony's next song, the soundtrack benefits from the inclusion of their first dialogue. Reality and the gangs intrude with the final section, the Jump. The "something" that Tony sang of earlier has now arrived.
Soundtrack: Track 6: Maria
In Maria the trio of songs about anticipation and discovery gets a more solid footing, as Tony now has a name to go with his anticipation. Bernstein's music has all the sultriness of a summer night, in three-quarter time. If Sondheim gets lost in the repetitions of Maria's name, well, that's the point of the song, isn't it?
Kert outdoes himself with this song. His voice keeps going higher, yet gets clearer with each note. Bryant does nicely, but unless I'm mistaken I think his songs are all pitched down a tone. Pity.
Soundtrack: Track 8: Tonight
The anticipation and discovery triad concludes with Tonight, as Tony is finally joined by Maria, who mirrors Tony's earlier sentiments in Something's Coming as she sings "Today, all day I had the feeling / A miracle would happen / I know now I was right." There is a hint of what is to come, however, as the number ends with a few notes from Somewhere.
The soundtrack adds a substantial amount of dialogue, taking another minute and a half before getting to the song, and adding still more dialogue at the end. Also, the lyric section I just mentioned switches from being Maria's to Tony. Still, I'm far more impressed with the soundtrack than the OCR. Carol Lawrence, as Maria, is forced into singing too high for her register, trying to keep up with Kert. The soundtrack, on the other hand, has one of the best singers Hollywood ever found to play Maria, the ever-comparable Marni Nixon. (Natalie Wood does the spoken parts, of course.)
I say ever-comparable because that is exactly what Marni Nixon did with her career, dubbing and matching her voice in for actresses whose own singing left something to be desired. Thus, Audrey Hepburn "sang" in My Fair Lady, and Deborah Kerr "sang" in The King and I. It wasn't until The Sound of Music that we finally got to see Marni herself, as one of the nuns. She is still working, by the way, and can be heard as the singing voice of Grandmother Fa in Disney's Mulan. (The speaking voice for Grandmother Fa was done by June Foray, who in an interesting reversal got to match her speaking to Marni's singing!)
Soundtrack: Track 7: America
Now here's a case of radical changes being made in a song. The slight change in placement doesn't bother me; that the song was almost completely rewritten does.
On the OCR, Bernardo's girl, Anita (Chita Rivera) and one of the other girls in the gang, Rosalia (Marilyn Cooper) verbally duel over the advantages of living in America over life in San Juan. It is a lively, funny number, full of movement and surprising insight, although because of the stresses in meter some of the best quatrain's impact gets lost: "Immigrant goes to America / Many hellos in America / Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico's in America!"
On the soundtrack, Anita (now played by Rita Moreno, but sung by Betty Wand) spars with Bernardo (George Chakiris), with Bernardo taking the more negative view of life in America. The lyric has been given a near-total rewrite, with lines like "Twelve to a room in America" and "You forget I'm in America." Sadly, the overlay of a battle between the sexes distracts from the song's original intent, the satire and put-down of remembering one's home with too rosy a view. Besides, Chita is so outrageous with her vocal ad-libs on the OCR that she dances/sings circles around Ms. Wand.
(Quick side-note: years later Marilyn Cooper won the Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Musical, in Kander and Ebb's Woman of the Year. She had one song, a duet with Lauren Bacall titled The Grass is Always Greener. Sometimes that's all it takes!)
Soundtrack: Track 15: Cool
More changes, but this time the changes aren't in the song but in the way it is played. On the OCR, Cool is about the Jets, again under Riff's instruction, preparing to challenge the Sharks to a rumble. On the soundtrack, the rumble has already taken place, and the exact same song becomes Ice's (Tucker Smith) instructions on how to deal with the cops now that Riff has been killed. On the OCR, there is an undertone of fun, where on the soundtrack the undertone is dead serious. The stakes are higher, and the song plays at a stronger level.
One thing that fascinates me about this number is how Bernstein's music, while sounding like freshly improvised jazz, is actually very controlled, note for note. Bernstein used jazz as an inspiration for his gang music, but this is not actual jazz. However, when jazzmen try to take his music and improvise upon it, as on the recent Dave Grusin Presents West Side Story CD, the crispness of Bernstein's music gets buried in meaningless muddle. Such efforts aren't worth the waste of time or money. (Better for me to get burned than you.)
Soundtrack: Track 11: One Hand, One Heart
If Something's Coming is one of my favorite show tunes, One Hand, One Heart is quite the opposite. There is nothing special about the lyric, and the music is so stiff that the word I think best describes it is "thud". Both the OCR and soundtrack play the song in this deathly fashion, and not even the best efforts of Kert or Nixon can breathe life into it. (There is a version sung by Tevin Campbell, on David Pack's "The Songs of West Side Story", where he manages to breathe some life into it by playing more freely with the waltz time, but that isn't the disc we're dealing with here.)
This song begins the second triad, as Maria works her way towards her expression of unconditional love. The other two songs will make up for what this song lacks.
Soundtrack: Track 12: Quintet
Somebody's been tampering with the lyrics on the soundtrack again, this time taming them down. Anita, instead of singing "Don't matter if he's tired / As long as he's hot" sings "As long as he's near." Poor Anita and Bernardo, reduced from having a savage time together to just cuddling. Gone too are Riff and Tony's repetition of the gang motto, "Womb to tomb / Sperm to worm", because nice guys don't talk like that.
COME ON! The reduction of the ferocity the OCR contains down to Hollywood's more polite version is pathetic. Lines are switched from one singer, or group, to another. The words themselves are watered down. Then, to add insult to injury, the tempo is bumped up, like pushing the pacing is going to improve the song!
Don't anyone believe it. The OCR version of the song gets everything right. The heat of the summer, the blind anger of the gangs, Anita's own blindness to the danger ahead, all spinning on Bernstein's gang war music and countered by Tony and Maria's reprise of Tonight, makes for one of the most daring collages attempted on stage. Unfortunately, the use of this kind of collage never works on film, because all of the elements need to be in view at the same time, and that is something film in its realism cannot pull off.
Bernstein's gang war music comes to its peak with The Rumble, one of the angriest pieces of music ever put on stage. This is no longer jazz; this is full-out modern classical, again very strongly resembling Rite of Spring. It erupts with full, vicious rage, as the battle between the gangs turns deadly, first killing Riff, then Bernardo. Act One ends with the wail of a siren, and desolation.
Here again, the OCR is so much better than the Soundtrack, which is too careful and safe in comparison. The OCR includes the shouts and snarls of the gangs over the music, taunting each other until everything explodes and everyone gets hurt. The hushed desolation at the end of the track is haunting.
Soundtrack: Track 10, I Feel Pretty
This is the second of the three comic relief numbers I mentioned earlier. On the OCR, it begins Act Two on a gay note that is immediately broken when Maria is told that Bernardo is dead at the hands of Tony. The placement is better on the Soundtrack, as Maria prepares to meet Tony at the dress shop, prior to their singing One Hand, One Heart. (On that "Songs of West Side Story" CD I mentioned earlier, Little Richard has fun slaughtering the melody while giving its gaiety a new, modern meaning.) In any case, it is a witty song.
Perhaps too witty? That's what Sondheim has said. He's gone on record about how an uneducated girl from Puerto Rico would not use such complex interior rhymes. And he's absolutely right. But, if I may point out something else, neither would she be singing this song in English! She and her friends would be using the language they are most accustomed to, which would be Spanish. Only, of course, most of the audience wouldn't understand a word they were singing, so I suppose this one concession must be made. But, if we're allowing her to sing in English, then why not allow her to be as witty in English as she would be in her native tongue?
In any case, Marni Nixon remains the better singer, especially with such bright material.
Soundtrack: Track 14: Somewhere
Not even Marni can rescue the soundtrack's interpretation of this song. The second of Maria's three love songs, in the film it is played with Tony and Maria overcome with grief, with little hope for their future. As a result, Bryant and Nixon are reduced to mournful bleating. It is just terrible.
While the OCR track starts with some of the worst lyric writing in the show (Somewhere there must be a place we can feel we're free / Somewhere there's got to be some place for you and for me Let's face it, that's not good writing), Somewhere is one of this disc's standouts. The entire ballet sequence is presented, from Tony and Maria's imagined escape from the tenements, through Reri Grist's singing of the ballad, the breakdown of the dream as the gang music intrudes, and ending with Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence repeating the last part of the song. Their Tony and Maria still have hope, and the final effect is dramatic and wonderful.
Soundtrack: Track 9: Gee, Officer Krupke
With the last of the comic relief songs, we're back to that switch in position that put Cool late in the film, while it appears in the middle of the first act on stage. Here, we have a highly comic number appearing late in the stage version, and fairly early in the film. The context of when the song is performed changes the performance. When Krupke, which is essentially a list song, appears late in the show, it is on the context of two of the Jets prepping the rest of the gang on how to handle being questioned by the cops. This is a much harsher situation than that faced by the gang in the film, where Krupke has just been harassing the gang and they blow off steam with their sarcastic song.
This is a comic song, and it needs comic placement. Just as Cool benefits in the film from the subtext of dealing with death, this song benefits from not having that subtext. As a result, it plays better in the film version.
Soundtrack: Track 16: A Boy Like That/I Have a Love
In A Boy Like That, the gang war themes get their fullest lyric expression, as Anita argues against Maria's love for Tony with surprising clarity, her prejudice couched in terms of absolute reason. Maria's counter-argument, I Have a Love, disdains logic, and is a heartfelt plea for the power of the positive emotion of love. It is with this concluding song about love that we see the full arc towards emotional growth that Maria and Tony have undergone through the show. In contrast, while the gang war music continues to be powerful, it ultimately lacks any growth. Maria's argument, for unconditional love of individuals over the hatreds of groups, proves too powerful for Anita to resist, winning her over.
It is a duet that requires two strong singers, and while Chita Rivera is up to the job, Carol Lawrence is not. She hits the notes, but her pronunciation of the lyric is unclear. While I was expecting a perfect effort by Marni Nixon, I was pleased to find Betty Wand to be her equal. (Also, the soundtrack's total stereo separation of Wand and Nixon when heard through a headset is interesting, with Wand's Anita arguing in one ear and Nixon's Maria arguing in the other.)
There is one thing missing from both discs. Maria has won over Anita the hard way, indeed the only way prejudice can be won over, one by one. Prejudice thrives in groups, however, and groups are very hard to defeat. In the next scene, in Doc's drugstore, Anita is faced with the prejudice of the Jets, who attack and nearly rape her. Their prejudice defeats her new emancipation, and she reverts to her own old prejudices. Much of this is portrayed in dance. However, the music for this final dance is not included on either the OCR or the soundtrack. I consider this to be a serious omission.
Soundtrack: Track 17: Finale
The Finale is new to the soundtrack. On the original LP, Somewhere was shifted to the end, but it now has been returned to where it belongs, between the Rumble and Cool. Unfortunately, what exists on the soundtrack isn't terribly well thought out. Some of the dialogue is there, but Maria's big speech is cut down to the single line "Don't you touch him!" It is not very satisfying.
In contrast, the Finale for the OCR has the entire cast singing a section of Somewhere, which leads to the orchestral funeral music, which slowly fades out. It is a little strange to hear Larry Kert so clearly as part of the chorus, since he's supposed to be dead at this point, but the track does bring the disc to a satisfying conclusion.
I understand the need for end credit music for a film. I just have to question the choice of what to include, and it's presentation. The film has one of the most somber endings for a musical, which justifies the first number to be reprised, Somewhere. A more up-beat arrangement of Tonight follows this, but then, almost as if the end of the film is to be completely forgotten we swing into a lighthearted rendition of I Feel Pretty, complete with tambourine accents! Things become somber again as the music for Maria is played once more, with ominous bass notes included to remind us that this was, after all, a serious film. Talk about trying to have one's cake and eating it!
For myself, there's something I noticed while reviewing these two discs. Sondheim's lyrics don't sound the same here as they did for Do I Hear a Waltz? In the other show, there was a cynicism and blandness. Here they are sharp, sometimes biting, at other times romantic. My curiosity is beginning to bubble again: could his lyrics for Gypsy be as vastly different from these two shows are these shows are from each other?
Looks like I'm going to be busy once more.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
Explore the rest of the Finishing the Chat Community Forum