Tracking West Side Story

Article excerpt

Highlights from 50 years of musical magic

West Side Story opened on Thursday, Sept. 26, 1957. Just three days later the cast and creative team stepped into the 30th Street Studio in Manhattan to record the first commercial release of the Bernstein-Sondheim score. Something was definitely coming and, since those early fall days a half-century ago, it has kept coming in the form of hundreds of releases - cast recordings, jazz renderings, orchestral suites, studio albums, international productions, solo instrumentais and countless vocal interpretations - of what is surely one of the most recorded Broadway musical scores.

Those original sessions, made under the watchful eye and sure hand of producer Goddard lieberson, resulted in OL 5230 - 16 tracks that have been a staple of the Columbia Records catalog. The voices of Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera and company transferred from those initial master tapes to LP and 45 and have evolved with time and technology through eight-track and cassette to CD. (The most recent CD release, remastered and released in 1998, has added nine symphonic dance tracks recorded in 1961, and the expanded liner notes now include an essay by theatre writer Ken Mandelbaum and a brief memoir by Annie lyricist Martin Charnin, who played Big Deal in the original cast.)

From 1956 to 1965, Billboard's Top 200 chart listed 22 musical cast recordings or their filmed interpretations in its annual Top 5 slots. The motion picture soundtrack of West Side Story with its striking red-and-black gatefold sleeve took first place for two consecutive years - with a still-unbroken record of 54 non-consecutive weeks at the top of the list. So popular was this recording, it helped boost sales of the then five-year-old cast recording to fourth place in 1962. Top-lined stars Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer adorn the back cover in a photographic embrace, mouths open in song, but it was the substituted voices of Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant that record buyers were hearing, along with supporting notes on Rita Moreno's tracks for "A Boy Like That" from session singer Betty Wand, who had previously supplied vocals for Leslie Caron in Gigi, and from Marni Nixon, performing double vocal duty for Maria and Anita in "Quintet." The dubbing continued with Russ Tamblyn's Riff being vocally supplanted by fellow Jet Tucker Smith on the "Jet Song" lead vocal, leaving George Chakiris, who previously played Riff in the London production, as the only film principal to keep his singing voice, albeit in a limited fashion on only two songs.

Unusual for the time, the London premiere of West Side Story, which enjoyed a longer run than the combined Broadway premiere and return engagements, did not produce a formal cast recording, even though Chita Rivera and Ken LeRoy were the only principals reprising their Broadway roles. (Neither did the 1980 Broadway revival, which starred a Tony-nominated Debbie Allen and featured then-emerging talents including Brent Barrett, Harolyn Blackwell and Stephen Bogardus.) Instead, London leads Don McKay, who later reprised Tony for the one-month City Center revival in 1964, and Marlys Watters as Maria recorded only an extended-play 45 of their four principal songs. A full British LP studio recording of the show followed, erroneously billed as the "Original English Cast," although it did feature George Chakiris, along with Bruce Trent and Lucille Graham. These sessions have become the bane of West Side Story collectors as they have been regularly licensed, repackaged and reissued in varying configurations of the original 13 tracks. Other English-language cast recordings include a 1993 two-disc release on Jay Records billed as the most complete recording to date and featuring Paul Manuel, Caroline O'Connor and members of the Leicester Haymarket Theatre revival and a 1983 Australian LP with Philip Gould, Rosemary Harris and Nanci Irwin.

Symphony orchestras, solo instrumentalists and record labels have regularly interpreted the show, beginning almost immediately on the heels of the Broadway cast recording. …