I was reasonably pleased with the current Broadway revival of West Side Story when I saw it at the National Theater in Washington, DC. (Read my review.) Not overwhelmed, but engaged. I didn't think director Arthur Laurents had achieved his announced objectives for the show (i.e. make the gang violence credible, make the sexual passion more palpable, and successfully translate much of the show into Spanish).
But I did appreciate the essential quality of the piece, Leonard Bernstein's sensational score, and Jerome Robbins' dynamic choreography, recreated by Joey McKneely. I actually think that Hair is the best revival of the current Broadway season, and fully expect the Tony voters to agree on Sunday night. But now that the CD for the West Side Story revival has come out, I've come to the opinion that West Side Story might just have the single greatest musical score of all time.
Bernstein's music is flawless, deft, and surprising, even after repeated listenings. And Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are remarkable given that he was only twenty seven when he wrote them. There's not a bad number in the bunch. Every song is, in its own way, a masterpiece. Some of Sondheim's lyrics aren't quite character-appropriate (an uneducated Puerto Rican girl in the '50s would never say "it's alarming how charming I feel"), and some of them don't quite fit the music (the phrase "wire-spoke wheel" in "America" is nearly impossible to sing clearly). By the way, these are two criticisms that Sondheim himself has made of his own work. But, on the whole, the score to West Side Story is about as good as it gets. Which is interesting when you contemplate that many people thought the score "weird" and "dissonant" when the show premiered.
Most of the performers translate quite well to the recording, particularly Matt Cavenaugh as Tony, and Karen Olivo as Anita. Both demonstrate the strong vocal abilities that Bernstein's score deserves. Considerably less effective on the recording is Josefina Scaglione as Maria. In the theater, I found her voice sweet but thin, and the recording makes this vocal attenuation more pronounced. It's not a deal-killer, but it is a disappointment. Cody Green as Riff is every bit as indistinct as he was on stage, but Curtis Holbrook as Action manages to create a distinctive characterization that comes across well.
Of course, the elephant in the room for this recording is the Spanish. As you may know, director Arthur Laurents brought in Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) to provide Spanish translations for significant portions of the show, including the "Tonight" quintet, "I Feel Pretty," and "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love." In my review, I decided that I thought this was a mistake, and the recording hasn't changed my opinion. Sure, speaking in foreign languages is a standard practice in opera, but it's alienating in a musical. I found myself tuning out during most of the Spanish, my three years of high-school study insufficient to help me along.
My biggest problem with the Spanish is that Miranda's new lyrics don't match the integrity of the Sondheim originals. I have to say that I was wrong when I said that Miranda's lyrics don't scan. They do scan, for the most part. But they rely rather heavily on elision, specifically the gliding of two vowel sounds together. For example, the beginning of the second stanza of the song "I Feel Pretty," which in the original Sondheim lyric goes "I feel charming, oh so charming," now has the following Spanish lyric:
Hoy me siento encantadora ("Today I feel lovely")
But to make the lyric fit the melody, Miranda has required Scaglione to elide the "-to" of "siento" and the "en-" of "encantadora," which comes off sounding like "hoy me sien-TONE-cantadora." I've sung a few Spanish pieces with various choruses over the years, and I understand that elision is an acceptable practice in Spanish music. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. And Miranda uses it nearly every stanza of the song. Plus, he uses grace notes to cram extra syllables into a line. For example:
Atrayente, atractiva sin par ("Attractive, attractive unparalleled")
This corresponds to "It's alarming how charming I feel," and it needs to be sung with an extra note ("Atrayente ah-tractiva sin par"), or with the first syllable of "atractiva" left out, to fit the meter. From where I sit, that's cheating; write a lyric that actually fits the meter of the line. Sondheim did.
Which brings me to the bonus tracks. Those of you who, like me, prefer the songs with their original Sondheim lyrics have a number of options. On iTunes, you can get "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" in English, as well as a cut called "Jump," which is part of the "Dance at the Gym" suite. The annoying part here is that you can only get the bonus cuts when you buy the entire album. Then, over at Barnes and Noble, you can purchase a BN-only edition of the CD with the English version of "I Feel Pretty," along with instrumental tracks of "Somewhere" and "Tonight." So, to get all the tracks, at the very least you need to buy the entire recording twice. (At least if you want to do things legally. Wink.) As much as I hate to be forced to make an additional purchase, I must confess that I got both the iTunes and Barnes and Noble versions.
Obsessive, out-of-control, show-tune queen? Yeah, I can live with that.