Shark attack: Why the 50th anniversary recording of West Side Story is a travesty

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Not everyone raved about West Side Story when it opened in New York City on 26 September 1957. But Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune hit the nail on the head when he wrote: "The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning." And in London a year later, the fallout was even greater.

Tony's prophetic song, "Something's Coming", had delivered. Public familiarity with Leonard Bernstein's sensational score was growing. Every night, Chita Rivera stopped the show dead with "America". In London, they almost failed to restart it again. "Gee, Oficer Krupke" did likewise. Encore upon encore. Meanwhile, the big ballads – "Tonight", "Maria", and "Somewhere" – were gracing the airwaves.

But most of all, people were talking about the dancing. Jerome Robbins' choreography did something that no musical had ever done before: it truly drove the drama. The show was meant to open, to quote Bernstein, with a "militantly aggressive" chorus, "Mix". But the text was dropped and the footwork did the talking. And it was finger-clicking good.

Fifty years on, West Side Story is the show that everybody wishes they had written. Two of the collaborators – Arthur Laurents (book) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) – were new to the Broadway musical. It was a volatile mix of talents, but they shared and shared alike. To a point.

Bernstein always regarded West Side Story as his baby. And he was fiercely protective of it. During the Washington try-outs, the programme read "Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim". Eventually, Sondheim did get his sole credit and Bernstein offered to make the financial adjustments, too. Sondheim insisted it was the credit that mattered – although financial recompense might have eased the embarrassment he later felt for lines like "tonight the world was just an address...".

For Bernstein, West Side Story was "a tragic musical comedy" – a neat way of turning the generic term for the American musical on its head. But by 1984, around the time Deutsche Grammophon proposed its disastrously wrong-headed recording with Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras, Bernstein was calling West Side Story "an opera". Doubtless his closest confidantes had persuaded him it was only a short step from "operatic" to "opera". And what price terminology if you could persuade opera's two biggest names of the day to star in it?

After all, the score boasted a set-piece entitled "Quintet", and Bernstein had considered turning Maria's climactic speech over Tony's lifeless body into a kind of Pucciniesque "mad scene". Wiser counsels prevailed, and he made the difficult decision not to set the text at all, but to leave Laurents' devastating words to floor the audience.

So how and why did the DG project get off the ground? Well, Bernstein's own insecurities played a part. At that time, none of his concert works had garnered the respect of West Side Story. To his peers,West Side was still "just" a musical, albeit a legendary one. What's more, through-sung musicals were on the rise, when calling something "an opera" was somehow thought to elevate its status. West Side Story didn't need elevating. But Bernstein was persuaded otherwise.

The whole sorry enterprise was filmed in all its gruesome detail. It made riveting viewing and sold tens of thousands of CDs. It was, to say the least, as stylistically inappropriate as it was commercially shrewd. Even Bernstein's white-hot pick-up band sounded like someone had put a metronome on them.

Now, in celebration of the show's 50th anniversary, the best that the record industry can come up with is another poorly cast, commercially driven recording, which UCJ Music says was authorised by the Bernstein Foundation. If that is supposed to represent some kind of endorsement, one wonders if it was offered before hearing the finished product. This time, Tony and Maria come from the pop end of operatic crossover. There's Hayley Westenra, whose little-girl-lost voice is so "white" as to deny Maria any of her feisty Latina spirit, and Vittorio Grigolo, singing prettily enough but sounding like he's on an exchange visit from Milan. Oh, and I nearly forgot, the reality-TV casting star, Connie Fisher, sweetly making "Somewhere" sound like a place you go to die of boredom.

What is particularly shocking about this latest incarnation of the show is that it conveys no sense of context, no feeling that these songs and dances are part of a living, breathing, dramatic entity. When you listen to the original cast recording, there is so much at stake in the performances. You feel that you can see and hear them in the scenes leading up to each song. They belong. But then, for the best Broadway and West End performers, engaging with the words comes well before adding the music. That isn't the case with operatic voices – whether full-blown or half-baked, legitimate or crossover.

Bernstein hoped – and, indeed, told me the year before he died – that out of the American musical would grow a kind of American opera. Maybe this is where confusions have arisen. "Opera" is such a grand, emotive, word. It sounds "important" and Bernstein did so want to be doing important work. Actually, he was – he just didn't know it. His four Broadway shows are every bit as significant as the raft of other works that now regularly play in venues the world over.

He did later write "an American opera". It sprang from his chamber opera, Trouble in Tahiti, and grew into A Quiet Place. You might say it was his first giant step towards a theatrical future unknown. But it was a tough nut to crack – the music Bernstein thought he should be writing, not the music he wanted to write – and has never found a public.

The opposite is true of West Side Story, of course, but I've yet to see a great revival of it. One was planned for Broadway this year, but ran into problems arising from the sanctity of book and choreography. Another, by all accounts, spanking revival has been touring Europe for a while and may touch down at Sadler's Wells next year. But otherwise, zilch.

Granted, the work's considerable technical difficulties make it hard to get right in the theatre. But the challenge – to say nothing of the rewards – is there for the taking. And surely a spanking new recording, sensibly cast and dynamically executed, is not too much to ask?

The Hayley Westenra recording of West Side Story is out now on UCJ

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