[92] Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim – West Side Story

9 Jan

My wife and I saw the most recent Broadway revival of West Side Story while she was heavily pregnant with our daughter.  The way she kicked during the show, we thought for a moment we might have to name her Maria . . .

Original Broadway Cast

Original Broadway Cast

It was at this performance that I reached an understanding that was a long time coming:  I do not like the Romeo and Juliet story.

Even a hugely talented cast and a favorite actress like Karen Olivo could not change that simple fact, and looking closer the feeling was not a new one.

I didn’t enjoy studying the play (despite devouring everything I could learn about Anthony and Cleopatra or Macbeth in High School), I’ve never seen a version of the original on stage or screen that I’ve enjoyed, and the various adaptations have always left me cold.

I’ll say that the wonderful Dire Straights song (covered beautifully by The Indigo Girls) is the exception that proves the rule.

For some reason, I always blamed the actors or director or concept, the container rather than the contents.  But on that day I  finally realized that I just think it’s a bad story.  When I mentioned this recently to a coworker, she accused me of not being a romantic.

Clearly she is new and doesn’t know me very well.

I believe it is more romantic to live for love than to die for it.  There is a reason that Queen’s “One Year Of Love” was for a while my very favorite song.

But, what is past is prologue.  How do I feel today listening to two geniuses put Shakespeare and translate him to cool modern music and too smart lyrics?  Can I put the story on hold and just focus on the composition?

Oh, yes.

Bernstein as usual skirts the line between classical and popular, writing great emotional ballads and sharp punchy dance numbers, somehow both timeless and still contemporary.  Quite a trick.

And Sondheim introduces here some of the lyrical wordplay that would pepper his entire career.  It is no secret that I adore Sondheim – Company is my favorite Musical so I am sad that Tom Moon has omitted it from his list – and his way with words sometimes spoils me for other lyricists.  It is a nice problem to have.

There are so many highlights – the driving rhythms of “Something’s Coming”, the sweet simplicity of “Maria”, the machine gun wit of “America”, the necessary levity of “Gee, Officer Krupke” – that whenever I am playing the album people stop, and smile, and say, “West Side Story?”

Unlike my experience of some of the Opera I have explored over the last couple of years, it seems that removing these songs from their natural, theatrical setting has enhanced them for me, allowing me to ignore the hated plot and enjoy each piece as an individual story song.

Besides, how could I even consider failing to recommend a recording which contains the following rhyme?

I like the island Manhattan /
Smoke in your pipe and put that in.

Next Week:  Chuck Berry – The Anthology

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 92 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? Yes. (13 of 92 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (74 of 92 = 80%)

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