West Side Story

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West Side Story
Painting by Alex Katsenelson

This is a continuation of my journey into musicals (previous musicals).

West Side Story is a modern (1950s) version of Romeo and Juliet, set in New York. Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) composed the music and Stephen Sondheim (1930–2021) contributed lyrics. Sadly, Sondheim passed away a few weeks before the 2021 movie release, though I have read that he got to see it. 

West Side Story and my family go way back. When my kids were little, I sang “Maria” to them – it was the only song I knew by heart and that my very limited vocal range allowed me to sing. The 1961 version of West Side Story received 10 Academy Awards, and my kids and I have watched excerpts from it probably a hundred times. The new movie was the first time my daughters saw West Side Story from start to finish – my wife always fast-forwarded past the violent parts. At the end of the movie no Katsenelson in the audience had a dry eye. During “Maria,” Hannah touched my shoulder and give me the look “This is our song.” My heart melted (it is still melting as I write this).

However, my favorite West Side Story recording and video is not Spielberg’s or those of the 1961 movie or theater production, but a documentary of a 1984 recording session with Leonard Bernstein conducting. West Side Story was originally created for the theater, so in the musical we watch on stage or the silver screen the performers have to be able to both sing and dance and look the part. It is very difficult to find performers who are great at all three. 

This 1984 production of the musical was not theatrically staged. It solely focused on recording the best soundtrack possible, thus it is as close to a perfect audio performance as you can get. Also, two opera legends performed the main parts: Spanish tenor Jose Carreras sang Tony, and New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa sang Maria. 

I have to confess that the true reason I love watching this documentary is Leonard Bernstein. And it goes beyond the fact that seeing a composer recreate his own music as a conductor is a very rare experience. Leonard Bernstein, who was known to fellow musicians simply as Lenny, was not just another conductor; he was one of the best conductors who has ever lived. But still, the main reason I am attracted to watching this behind-the-scenes documentary is that it shows you a Bernstein that you don’t see on stage – an emotional, volatile, charismatic, kind, funny, and at times even moody creative genius for whom every performer would take a bullet, but more importantly, will squeeze every ounce of their soul into the music they produce.

You can watch the full documentary here:

Here are some of my favorites excerpts from the documentary and other performances:

“Maria”:

“One Hand, One Heart”:

My kids and I have watched this “Maria” from the 1961 movie hundreds of times:

“Maria” from the 1990 Three Tenors concert:

“Tonight”:

“Somewhere”:

“A Boy Like That” – this song really grew on me as I got older:

Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett:

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