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West Side Story: 50th Anniversary

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

FIFTY years old and still going strong – that’s West Side Story, a musical that broke new ground when it was launched on an unsuspecting public back in 1957.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story relocates to New York where the tension between two rival gangs – the all American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – erupts into violence with tragic consequences for Tony and Maria, the young lovers from opposing sides.

As well as innovative dance routines and songs that wear their hearts on their sleeves, West Side Story tackles the thorny issue of racism, thereby making it as pertinent today as it has always been – quite apart, of course, from the current dangerous knife culture.

Now and to celebrate its 50th anniversary, comes a new ‘glitzy’ recording of this evergreen musical, featuring two of the biggest and youngest stars of classical cross-over in the world – Vittorio Grigolo as Tony and Hayley Westenra as Maria. Other stars include Connie Fisher, Will Martin (as Riff, leader of the Jets) and Melanie Marshall (as Anita, Maria’s brother’s girlfriend).

As you would expect, this is a classy recording and captures all the excitement and pathos of the original. And here I’m referring to the original soundtrack recording of the 1961 motion picture which, to me, will always be the definitive one – perhaps because it was my introduction to West Side Story.

There’s absolutely no doubt Westenra has a beautiful voice but it is sophisticated, something Maria definitely isn’t. She is, in fact, a simple girl from Puerto Rico, albeit a very pretty one, and in Westenra’s voice I feel something of her naivete is lost. Grigolo too is wonderful to listen to – but should all American Tony have an accent?

Speaking of which, what has happened to Bernado? His contribution to America (that “better get rid of your accent”) had females everywhere lusting after him. Bernado was, of course, George Chakiris! Here, America is sung just by Anita and the Puerto Rican girls, as indeed it was in the original stage version when Chita Rivera played Anita, and as a result loses some of its bite . A pity….

Which leaves Connie Fisher who has only the one song, the haunting Somewhere, in which to prove herself. She does, of course, although her inclusion as ‘A girl’ is puzzling as the number belongs entirely to Tony and Maria. Could it be Fisher’s new-found fame, justified though it is, was just too tempting a lure?

For all that, this is a beautiful recording, one that fans of Bernstein’s highly acclaimed musical will love. It’s also a fitting tribute to a work that has stood the test of time and is as popular today as it was 50 years ago.

Track listing:

  1. Prologue
  2. Jet Song
  3. Something’s Coming
  4. Blues
  5. Promenade
  6. Mambo
  7. Cha-Cha
  8. Jump
  9. Maria
  10. Balcony Scene (Tonight)
  11. America
  12. Cool
  13. One Hand, One Heart
  14. Tonight (Ensemble)
  15. I Feel Pretty
  16. Somewhere
  17. Gee, Officer Krupke
  18. A Boy Like That
  19. I Have a Love
  20. Finale