First, just wanted to tell you that I'm so pleased to see you back. You have been missed! As I said earlier in this topic, I wasn't familiar with 'West Side Story' until Hayley joined this project. I only knew the song 'Somewhere' for having heard it a certain number of times, including Celtic Woman's version. You would have laughed if you had seen my head when I first saw Hayley's 'I feel pretty'. Since then, I saw the movie and I must admit that the songs are not really my 'cup of tea'. Except some of them, like 'Tonight' and 'One Hand, One Heart'.
West Side Story at 50 From The Times By Neil Fisher July 28, 2007
It wasn’t opera, it wasn’t theatre, but it was a massive hit. Why Bernstien's masterpiece is still worth making a song and dance about
Not many musicals make musical history. Once the template is set – the hoofing, the ballads, the knees-up at the end – you know the score, and instant familiarity beats innovation.
But the 1957 production that unleashed Bernstein’s fizzing West Side Story on an unprepared Broadway audience threw out the old formulas. And it wasn’t just a flashy composer’s triumph: the great strength of West Side Story lay in its totality: a show where all the artistic elements blended to produce something that Broadway audiences genuinely couldn’t classify.
“We didn’t know it was going to be an amazing hit,” says Gerald Freedman, now 80, who worked as an assistant to the director Jerome Robbins on the show before its premiere and has since gone on to revive West Side Story many times. “But we knew it was something special. Something completely out of the ordinary.”
In this respect the major UK celebration of the 50th birthday of West Side Story can tick only so many of the boxes. In a glitzy tribute package, Universal has rerecorded the score, taking advantage of its growing stable of crossover performers, neither strictly pop nor strictly classical. Hayley Westenra, the ethereal-sounding, 19-year-old Kiwi, sings Maria; the swarthy Vittorio Grigolo, an Italian operatic tenor, sings Tony.
The thinking is sound: in a kaleidoscopic score, Bernstein does range magpie-like over musical styles from pop to jazz to opera. And the result doesn’t just require immensely versatile singers, but a pit band that can carry out his exacting demands. Conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on the new recording, Nick Ingman certainly nails it. “Bernstein came from a classical place, not a show place,” he says. “In fact, at the first band call of the opening Broadway show, the orchestra walked out because it was so horrendously difficult.”
But recognising the score’s jazzy intricacy doesn’t mean reclassifying it in a genre deemed more “worthy” – a trap into which Bernstein himself, colossally egoistic to the end, would eventually fall. It’s one thing for Jamie Bernstein (the composer’s daughter) to rhapsodise to me about how “through composed” the score is, “built out of elements that are used all the way through”. It’s quite another, as her father actually did in the 1980s, to remould the thing as a full-blown opera, in a DG recording featuring Kiri Te Kanawa and a preposterously unAmerican José Carreras as Tony. It sold by the shedload, but many were rightly derisive. Handing over the part of Tony to another Latin tenor, as Universal has done with Grigolo, looks worryingly like history repeating itself.
West Side Story worked because it was a team effort – and because the team successfully deflected Bernstein’s highbrow inclinations. It’s true that when the choreographer Jerome Robbins first proposed the idea of a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, relocated to the tenements of Manhattan, and featuring Jewish and Italian immigrants rather than American and Puerto Rican (amusingly, “East Side Story” was the working title) Bernstein at first saw it as an opportunity for “the great American opera”.
He changed his tune once Arthur Laurents, engaged to write the book for the new musical, stepped in. “I want to make one thing clear,” he said. “I’m not writing any [censored] libretto for any goddamned Bernstein opera.” The piece would, he pronounced, be “a musical that tells a tragic story in musical-comedy terms”.
Even here, he was only half right. As a Broadway stage show, West Side Story did follow a few fundamentals of the Gershwin or the Rodgers and Hammerstein mould. But with Robbins’s rigid insistence on building the dance throughout the music and the drama, this was a production that took on the challenge of Laurents’s gritty scenario and met it head-on. “No longer did you just bring on the dancers for set-pieces” says Freedman, “the leading roles also had to do the dancing.” It was an enormous innovation that bound together the two disciplines of dancing and singing for the first time.
But the creative tension never abated. Brought on to fill out Bernstein’s awkward lyrics, a young Stephen Sondheim did his best to ramp up their irony and tension, though he later reported that some of them (notably I Feel Pretty) “still make my blood curdle”.
The new quartet – Bernstein, Robbins, Laurents and Sondheim – nipped, tucked and argued constantly. During rehearals, there was as much gang warfare as there was on stage. Once, thinking Bernstein wasn’t in the room, Robbins attacked his orchestration, shouting, “Take that Hollywood [censored] out!”, only for the irate composer to storm out to the nearest bar. It can’t have helped that Robbins was conducting affairs with two cast members – one male, one female – during his unprecedented eight weeks of rehearsal.
“Yes, they had differences,” chuckles Freedman, “how much should be sung, how much danced, but it wasn’t ego driven, it was content driven – that was what was wonderful.”
But what comes across most strongly from the reminiscences of both Freedman – and the very first Anita, the Broadway veteran Chita Rivera – is the dominance of Robbins’s vision. Rivera recalls the intensity of Robbins’s direction. “It came from dialogue, it came from the story, it wasn’t ever just steps. Always with Jerry [Robbins], even with no plot, the dance is about something.”
Rivera recalls the hothouse atmosphere that Robbins created in rehearsal. He put a poster up on the cast bulletin board with news of a gang murder near the theatre. “Underneath he wrote: this is your life,” says Rivera. “It was not theatre any more – it was like being hit in the head with a brick.”
What this all meant for the future of West Side Story was problematic. Even by the time of the 1961 film adaptation, which pulled in thousands of new fans, Robbins’s potent brew was being diluted. He himself was fired as director of the film; the end result would later be labelled by Laurents as a “hot fudge sundae kinda film, doing nothing”. It blunted the grit of Laurents’s book, partly by reordering the songs, and partly through the banality of the two lead actors’ performances; their singing was dubbed.
The truth was that unlike any other musical before – and possibly since – this depended as much on the director’s stage images as on Bernstein’s score. When reawakened 50 years on, the result can veer towards the museum piece; in the last major London production, there was carping from critics who wondered why we were getting a “reproduction” production, still credited to Robbins, instead of something refreshed. “But you wouldn’t change Bernstein’s melodies, would you?” asks a sceptical Freedman. “The same is true of the body movement.”
No matter. The West Side Story that remains seems unlikely ever to fade away. Its enduring strength is its blazing, brazen life force. Or, as Rivera says, “It has everything – it makes you laugh, cry and it makes you hope.” It’s a tonic to Bernstein’s own maudlin sentiment, voiced at the end of his life: “You know what makes me really distraught? I am only going to be remembered as the man who wrote West Side Story.” Many would settle for a lot less.
The new recording of West Side Story is out on Aug 13 on UCJ
Classical crossover – not a genre particularly regularly featured on these here New Noise pages, but then West Side Story is not a regular musical. Since its creation in 1957, it's been a staple of amateur school productions and – deny it as they will – you'd be hard pressed to find a vocalist today who, on their way to world rock domination, hadn't grappled with Sondheim's masterful lyrics as a whippersnapper.
This brand new recording celebrates the musical's 50th anniversary and features classical stars Vittorio Grigolo and Hayley Westenra, alongside Connie "sick note" Fisher. And it's a corker. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra's lush and exciting sounds do Bernstein proud while, with themes of immigration, violence and thwarted love, it's as fresh and relevant as ever.
Yeah, suppose some of us DO need to chat with Vittorio. Besides the good looks and charm and personality and the good looks, he is like me (actully nothing like me after that), but we can wish. Would be nice if him and Hayley got together. Seems like it might happen. Don't know.
"If everyone was like Hayley, there would be no need for heaven, we'd already be there."
Here is a negative review from BBC.co.uk. According to them, Hayley was miscast. As one would say, 'grrrr'
ALBUMS Various Artists, West Side Story By Michael Quinn (2007-07-26)
Few musicals straddle the much-contested divide between music theatre and opera as confidently and persuasively as Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a star-making, career-breaking reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
This new recording from the crossover division of Universal Classics marks the 50th anniversary of the work’s debut on Broadway and shies away from the operatic leanings of Bernstein’s compellingly crafted, adrenaline-driven music. Instead, it surfs along on sassily conceived but thinly woven textures, choosing to put its faith in opera-lite Kiwi starlet Hayley Westenra and emerging Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo.
Bernstein himself maintained that the most difficult aspect of this seminal work was casting, and so it proves here. As Maria, Westenra sings with sweet innocence and passably pleasing musicality, but her tendency to hug the top end of her voice imbues everything with a helium-filled, wobble-afflicted fluting sound that feels more Hampstead than Hell’s Kitchen.
Rapport with her fellow star-crossed lover, Vittorio Grigolo’s Tony, is conspicuous only by its sorry absence. Grigolo has heartthrob looks and sings with puppy-dog charm but not always with great diction, the echoes of José Carreras unfortunately calling to mind the near-disaster of Bernstein’s own monumentally miscast recording of the work in 1984.
Melanie Marshall’s rather clumsily approximated Anita seems as miscast as Westenra
[/color], while Connie Fisher’s cavernously-recorded cameo in what should have been a show-stealing rendition of “Somewhere” is curiously unsatisfying. Just as disappointing is the job lot ensemble that make the hardened street-gang chorus sound decidedly camp.
Bernstein’s staggeringly inventive music is played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with conviction, if never quite the full palette of colours, and occasionally lacks the necessary punch and pizzazz. Even so, the material still shines through, and reminds you that in a good recording (try John Owen Edwards’ complete version on That’s Entertainment Records) this is certainly a work that is worth celebrating and getting to know, albeit, perhaps, not with this recording. [/size][/quote]
Thanks for the kind words, Stephany. I have missed being here. It seems as though everyone is still enjoying Hayley's concerts over there in the UK!
Oh, Stephany....you should see me try to sing, "I Feel Pretty." I'm sure Hayley does a much better job at it than I do! Not to mention how she relates to it a bit more than I can...lol. But yes, I think I would have liked to seen your face. Here you are so used to Celtic Woman, then along comes Hayley and a new genre of music....THEN "I Feel Pretty." Where, oh where will dear Ms. Hayley take us next? Btw, I hope you enjoyed your "Brother Bear" viewing the other day! Good movie.
Did anyone ever decide if this CD will be released in the US? And about those negative reviews....just give 'em time....Hayley will win them over eventually! I bet good ol' Michael Quinn goes home every night touched by the voice of dear Ms. Westenra; and after closing his doors and blinds, turns on his very own signed copy of "Treasure" and "West Side Story" and loudly sings along! All this negativity has to be a mere cover-up. But thanks for getting us both negative and positive reviews of WSS, Stephany. It's good to hear everyone's comments, though many do not explain why Ms. Westenra is not a good fit, etc.
Eric (Who almost agrees with Mr. Quinn -- she should have been director!)
The loveliest, sweetest flower that bloomed in paradise, and the first that died, has rarely blossomed since on mortal soil. It is so frail, so delicate, a thing, it is gone if it but look upon itself; and she who ventures to esteem it hers proves by that single thought she has it not. Humility - Fry
Below is a long article about 'West Side Story' from The Mail on Sunday. Victor Grigolo? Now that's a new one Stephany
WEST SIDE GLORY 29 July 2007 The Mail on Sunday (c) 2007 Associated Newspapers. All rights reserved
Half a century on, Frank Barrett revisits the fascinating, gritty New York district which inspired the mould-shattering musical
New York's Winter Garden is - surprisingly - one of just four Broadway theatres actually to be found on Broadway. This is where Al Jolson made his debut as a minstrel, Streisand made her name (in the musical Funny Girl) and Lloyd Webber's Cats played for a record-breaking 18 years.
But, for many, the theatre's greatest moment came 50 years ago this September - the opening night of West Side Story. With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, stunning choreography by Jerry Robbins and a story, based on Romeo and Juliet, by Arthur Laurents, the show broke the mould of boy-meets-girl productions.
However tuneful, the songs - Maria, I Feel Pretty, America, Somewhere, Tonight - presented an unflinching view of racial strife in Fifties Manhattan where, each year, 75,000 Puerto Ricans arrived from their Spanish-speaking, US-controlled homeland. Some went to the West Side but most lived in the crowded tenements on the Upper East Side, turning a part of Harlem into Spanish Harlem.
It was the East Side that was the original inspiration for the show - the first idea Laurents and Robbins had in 1949 was to tell the tale of a young Italian-American who falls for a young, Jewish Holocaust survivor. The working title was East Side Story.
But when, years later, fights began to break out on the West Side between gangs of Puerto Rican and Polish-American boys, the idea was quickly revived as West Side Story.
Accustomed to more wholesome family musical fare, such as South Pacific and My Fair Lady, it was perhaps not surprising that the Broadway critics were taken aback by the jarring modernity of West Side Story.
Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, for example, described the music of the opening scene as 'shrill' and the dancing as 'harsh and sinister'.
But after Tony and Maria's 'tender and affecting' balcony scene on the fire escape of 'a dreary tenement', he concluded that: 'West Side Story is an incandescent piece of work that finds odd bits of beauty amid the rubbish of the streets.'
To mark the 50th anniversary of the show's first performance, record company Universal has issued a new recording of West Side Story featuring New Zealand singer Hayley Westenra and Italian tenor Victor Grigolo.
'For me the musical conjures up all the drama and excitement of New York,' says Hayley. 'It was controversial, it captured a piece of history, how people felt at the time.'
A flavour of the controversy over inter-racial romance at this time can be provided by the surprised disapproval which greeted the marriage of pop singer Buddy Holly - a Baptist from Lubbock, Texas - to Maria Elena Santiago, a Catholic girl from Puerto Rico.
Fifty years on, however, West Side Story still packs a few surprises.
It continues to remain controversial. Puerto Rican activists frequently protest at performances, arguing that West Side Story stereotypes and demeans Puerto Ricans.
Once a popular show for high-school performances, it is now largely avoided by the educational establishment.
People are fearful of accusations of political incorrectness - even though it is regularly restated that the point of West Side Story is that love between a white man and a Puerto Rican woman can break down racial hatred.
Certainly times have changed since such love was considered a thing of scandal. For a tourist to New York, however, what surprises most is the way that the West Side of New York has been transformed since the Fifties. For the wealthy who lived in grand apartments on the East Side of Central Park, the West Side was traditionally something of a no-go area.
West of mid-town, for example, was Hell's Kitchen, a festering slum of poverty and vice, at which wealthy Manhattanites would have shuddered on their way to board opulent transatlantic liners.
HESE days, as you might expect, the area is now undergoing rapid gentrification. The lower West Side was always dirty and dangerous but the upper West Side was originally, from its development at the end of the 19th Century, a place of bohemian chic.
The streets which, by the Fifties, were being roamed by gangs of hoodlums, had only years before been the haunt of showbiz legends such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin (who wrote Rhapsody In Blue on a battered upright piano in his Riverside apartment overlooking the Hudson). Ingrid Bergman and Igor Stravinsky were among the regular guests who stayed at the wonderful Art Deco hotel Essex House, now the Jumeirah Essex House and, more recently, a favourite of rock band Oasis.
The Dakota building on Central Park West was once visited by Tchaikovsky and was where Lennon lived and where he was shot dead in 1980.
There really was more than just a touch of the Wild West about the West Side. John Martin, for example, the original ticket-taker in the subway station at Broadway and West 103rd, had a unique claim to fame: he was the only survivor of the Custer massacre at Little Big Horn.
By the beginning of the Sixties, when Hollywood arrived to shoot the first scenes of its version of West Side Story, the area was changing fast.
The chosen area was West 61st Street near the junction with Amsterdam as several apartment blocks had been earmarked for demolition (the site was quickly redeveloped as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts).
As you look up West 61st to Amsterdam, you have to use your imagination a little to recreate the opening scenes where the Jets confront the Sharks (the basketball court was actually located a couple of miles away on East 110th Street).
In truth, the Puerto Rican community was located much further north than 61st Street: east of 86th Street and beyond to the north.
Yet even around West 66th Street, now loomed over by the glass twin towers of the Mandarin Oriental, very strange things have happened.
It was here that film star Rudolph Valentino was laid out in the Frank Campbell Funeral Church after his untimely death from perotinitis in August 1926 - 80,000 adoring women fans arrived to pay their respects turning the event into a celebrity circus of a sort that became more familiar as the century grew older.
New York's West Side, it seems, has a million stories: the tale of the Sharks and the Jets is just one of them. [/size][/quote]