West Side Stories at the Movies and a Golden Voice of Today

As those who follow musical theater know, Steven Spielberg’s new film of ‘West Side Story’ was recently released. Getting mixed reviews, it has also renewed interest in the first film version, from 1961, directed by Robert Wise when all those remarkable creators, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim were still alive.

Omicron has kept me from seeing the new version in a theater, which judging by the trailer, is the best venue. The droll and insightful Mark Kermode gives it a mostly favorable review, though others have been hard on the film and/or the original material. Adam Mars-Jones cavil does seem plausible as he points out that adding an interracial romance is “a development that drives a coach and horses through the entire plot. If interracial marriage is no big deal then what is there left of West Side Story? Not much.”

I haven’t seen much mention of Bernstein’s own recording of the score made in 1984, and derided at the time for its use of famous opera singers, then considered vanity casting for a vain self-indulgent composer-conductor. The New Republic review of the recording sneered “Upper West Side Story” in its headline. It’s now a classic (at least by my lights), not to replace the Broadway Original Cast Album but to stand beside it as a great composer’s authoritative thoughts on one of the century’s best musicals.

A doc on the making of the recording was put out at the time, and bits and pieces of it turn up on YouTube.

The doc’s most famous sequence is José Carreras struggling to handle the complexities of ‘Something’s Coming.’ But listen to Kiri Te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos singing “A Boy Like That & I Have a Love” for some glorious vocalism. It’s also amazing to watch the composer’s regular producer John McClure do his job. Managing all the moving parts of recording a complicated score is a big lift under any circumstance, with Bernstein it was sometimes herculean, and John was on the receiving end of his fair share snappish Lenny moments, judging by this film. Yet they made some 200 records together.

Speaking of golden age talents like Te Kanawa and Bernstein, for fans of glorious voices I recommend the New Year’s Eve concert presented by the Munich Radio Orchestra with star tenor Javier Camarena. It’s full of old chestnuts (fans of ‘Granada’ and ‘Nessun Dorma’ will not be disappointed) as well as delightful zarzuela numbers, all delivered with honeyed tone, superb diction and high notes that gave me goosebumps. The band and their conductor, Ivan Repušic, acquit themselves beautifully as well.  I don’t know how long BR-Klassik will keep it live, so if operatic tenors are your thing, check it out now.

Tenor Javier Camarena thrills with the Munich Radio Orchestra for New Year’s Eve 2021-22

Matters Musical

There is such a wealth of music online now, but I’ve been taking in Igor Levit’s daily house concert, a graduate course in Beethoven, and marvelous pianism despite less than ideal recording circumstances.

And among many collaborative bits I’ve heard online recently, this performance of the opening of the CPE Bach Magnificat from Salzburg is particular hoot. (As the friend who sent it suggested, PDQ Bach’s spirit was clearly involved as well).

Bernstein’s Candide

Took in Washington National Opera’s Candide, their season closer, and part of the celebration of the centenary of the maestro’s birth.

Been meaning to get down some things to say about it:  the show was the usual mixed bag, and the production’s ineptitude–despite good voices and some strong performances–failed to solve the abundant problems. Is it an opera, an operetta, or a musical? Should the winking parody style of the musical numbers (including Gilbert and Sullivan and Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy) be reflected in the production or underplayed? How do you deal with the picaresque narrative, which jumps continents and timeframes in its catalog of disasters with cinematic rather that stage logic? And most of all what to do about the fact that, at its core, it’s not a drama: it’s a satire that centers on a philosophical issue rather than a character-driven conflict (the key ingredient of almost all successful operas*). The protagonists,  without the directorial attention of a Mary Zimmermann, turn into very thinly drawn puppets. And even her musical comedy version was a bit like a revue (if winningly so).

That said, if anybody could have done a music-theater piece about an idea, perhaps it was Lenny. After all, He did write a violin concerto about a Platonic dialogue. But even he never seemed to be able to pull the threads together on Candide, and although I don’t regret taking in WNO’s as they did right by the intermittently wonderful score, the show never quite lives up to that wonderful fizzy overture, here conducted by the man himself.

Perhaps somebody should do a movie–the material might not fight the form so intensely.

*Strauss’ Capriccio is perhaps another example of an opera based on an idea “words vs. music” but it has better character development, and still has some problems in the theater.

Opera vs. Musicals

Read a great review of conductor John Mauceri’s memoir cum instruction manual, Maestros and their Music. It includes a quote I love, “‘Carmen’, he says, ‘is my favourite musical and Carousel is my favourite opera.’” –Something that has made me go off and buy the book.

I am in complete agreement with Carousel as a favorite opera (Carmen has always been more ‘meh’ for me, but as a musical it certainly is less of a bore). As examples to prove both points, here is the “If I Loved You” scene from Carousel (with appropriate Broadway and opera royalty respectively in Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn).

This is as beautifully crafted as any Verdi  scene and aria and gets me every time.

In contrast, Carmen almost never moves me. (My fault I fear.) But the odd, problematic, yet compulsively watchable film adaptation,Carmen Jones works as a musical in some sense that opera doesn’t. Both can’t dodge a certain campy excess, but the movie, despite its faults, doesn’t over stay its welcome like the opera, and has wit and spirit (something that most productions of the opera, at least the ones I have seen, sadly lack).

The thing they have in common? Oscar Hammerstein II.

Words and Music: Sondheim on Lyrics

The Guardian has a nice feature called “How we made…” quick interviews of creators of cultural milestones.  Here is a bit from the West Side Story one, Stephen Sondheim on the lyrics he wrote for Leonard Bernstein’s songs.

When we worked together, Lenny would sketch out something that was purple prose not poetry. It screamed: “Look at me! I’m being poetic!” I’d learned from Oscar Hammerstein, my mentor, that the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself. Poetry makes, generally, very poor lyrics unless you’re dealing with a certain kind of show. It’s too allusive, that’s not what you want. When Lenny failed, he failed big. He was always jumping off the top of the ladder. When you’re young, you want to take chances but you get discouraged by failure. I learned, as a composer, to be less square – that you don’t always have to write in four-bar phrases.


I have some quibbles with the “the whole point is to underwrite” assertion, but the mix of text and music is no mean art, and achieving that elusive balance is rare, particularly when you weigh the narrative, dramatic, and formal elements. But it  is achieved often in West Side Story. (Here’s Something’s Coming…)

Here is the excerpt from Romeo and Juliet that inspires this…Romeo and pals have been discussing going to the Capulets’ ball.


Supper is done, and we shall come too late.


I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.

(Something’s Coming indeed.)

Another example of Sondheim’s dazzling ability with lyrics: Someone in a Tree from Pacific Overtures, reportedly one of Sondheim’s favorite songs. Certainly one of mine.

It’s the fragment, not the day.
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone,
Only cups of tea
And history
And someone in a tree.

Best Musicals: A Contentious Argument

Of making lists there is no end. Recently, I encountered a list of the 100 best musicals by Chris Caggiano (he of the now shuttered, but still pretty great, Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals blog).

Here’s his list (a little dated).


Top 3: Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and Sweeney Todd (with which I do not largely disagree except on the order, Eliza Doolittle is first for me, followed by the Demon barber, and “Just Where Would You Be…?”comes third. There is also a certain Bernstein musical that I would put before all three.

In general I agree with Chris (while noting that it doesn’t take into consideration the last decade).

Another crowdsourced list puts Les Miz tops.  Followed by Phantom and Wicked.

That these would never be in my top 50 probably reflects age more than any more reasonable criterion. Unlike the other two, Wicked at least is great fun.

But really, when there is this to compare it to:

Is there anything more to say?

Fred, Ginger, and Frank

When it’s all too much–a mode I fall into more and more, & alas not without reason, I happen on something like this, which offers a glimmer of hope.

Somehow makes me think of a line by the poet Frank O’Hara,

“I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

You can’t imagine Fred and Ginger regretting life.


30 Days of Music Tidbits: Day 18, Industrial Musicals

Despite knowing all of West Side Story and My Fair Lady by heart as well as living and dying by Sondheim. I had never heard of the phenomenon of the “industrial musical.” Turns out during the mid-20th-century heyday of the art form, companies commissioned musical theater creators to do custom shows for their sales meetings etc.

There is a new book about this odd phenomena and it looks pretty wonderful. From a blurb on their website:

industrial musicals

Through the rare souvenir record albums presented in EVERYTHING’S COMING UP PROFITS, an alternate show-biz universe emerges: a universe in which musical theater can be about selling silicone products, or typewriters, or insurance, or bathtubs. Some of these improbable shows were hilariously lame. Some were pretty good. And some were flat-out fantastic.


I guess the practice didn’t die out completely. In 2006, there was a musical at the Wal-Mart share holder meeting. I bet Equity artists were NOT invited.

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