West Side Story

Original Broadway Cast Recording

Decca Broadway, 2007

REVIEW BY: Elizabeth Crowder


Being a musical aficionado of sorts (I grew up on Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Cinderella,) I was thrilled to have the chance to listen to the new recording of West Side Story. Though I initially believed that this was a new Broadway cast recording, it is actually an independent revival album created to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of this well-loved musical. The classic Romeo And Juliet parallel story with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein is still alive and well, as this new recording proves, though some changes were made for this album.

As far as casting goes, it has to be difficult to create a musical without that crucial stage piece involved.  Because of this, the creators had more flexibility in the vocalists they chose.  I think the most intriguing choice was twenty-year-old Hayley Westenra in the role of the Puerto Rican Maria, who falls for Tony the American. Westenra's voice reminds me so strongly of Emmy Rossum (from the movie version of The Phantom Of The Opera) that I was shocked it was a New Zealander who is known for her work in "Celtic Women." Vittorio Grigolo, an Italian opera singer, is Tony the Jet who falls for the beautiful Maria and literally fights for the ability to be with her.

Tradition holds that I am partial to the sound of Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood (or rather, Marni Nixon, who did the vocals for Maria in the 1961 movie version) singing "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart." Westenra and Grigolo are impressive as a pair, though, rivaling Nixon and Beymer in skill and vocal execution. The problem is that my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 West Side Story is a tale of the streets of New York with their gang violence amidst star-crossed lovers trying to defy the odds. This backdrop is not a place for such operatic style, especially in songs such as "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "Jet Song" where the street urchins are so much more refined on this album than they should be in an actual play version.

Westenra is the shining star, bringing such clear and easy vocals to her work in "Balcony Scene (Tonight)" and "I Have A Love" that she easily overshadows the highfalutin sounds of Grigolo.  I love his voice, but this is just not the right mode for someone of his caliber to be performing. He belongs in Il Divo singing in an amphitheatre in Rome, not on an album pretending to be a juvenile delinquent from the 60s. I was also disappointed by "America," the song that becomes a raucous party in the original and seems as though it takes place in a nice tea party on this new version. This is where losing the acting portion creates a disconnect with West Side Story. So many parts of this album are entwined with their place in the story, so that missing piece is difficult to reconcile.

Connie Fisher, who is currently playing Maria in the London Palladium revival of "The Sound Of Music," brings us my favorite song on this album. "Somewhere" is typically sung by Maria and Tony, but this time they chose to make this by "A Girl" in the track listing. As an anonymous third party seeing all that is happening, she sings of finding a place of peace and harmony with such honesty and haunting clarity. Fisher sounds like Westenra, so it took me a minute to realize this was a different singer, but brings such a strong focus to the story. Another song from West Side Story that I have always loved singing and listening to is "I Feel Pretty," and Westenra does not disappoint as she brings that liveliness of a girl in love to the music.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gives their talent to this album as well, making each song sound exactly as Bernstein would have wanted.  "Cool," "Something's Coming" and all of the dance numbers are full and keep their original charm. This is an album for a true lover of musicals, though I feel the movie version is a better starting place for anyone unaccustomed to all the West Side Story has to offer.

Rating: B-

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West Side Story is my All Time favorite film. I'd love to see good Broadway production of it. I'll buy this CD, with those songs it's a sure bet.

© 2008 Elizabeth Crowder and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Decca Broadway, and is used for informational purposes only.