West Side Story: The original is still the best

West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast)I watched the broadcast last night of the 2009 Tony Awards, and there were several scenes performed from the current Broadway revival of Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece West Side Story, in a new concept production staged by Arthur Laurents in which the Puerto Rican characters speak (and sing) in Spanish, and the Anglos speak in English.  It’s gotten a great deal of press, not least for the performances of the young Argentine actress Josefina Scaglione as Maria (she was nominated for a Tony as Best Leading Actress in a Musical), and,  especially, Karen Olivo as Anita, who won the Tony for Best Featured Actress in  a Musical.

This evening just for kicks I went back to the original Broadway cast album of 1957, with Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence and Chita Rivera.  It is now released with a recording by Bernstein himself with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, so between the cast album and the orchestral work you have most of the significant music from the show.

What strikes me, after so many years, the freshness and brilliance of the score. Yes, Bernstein and his collaborators were liberal do-gooders with an eye toward social justice.  But Kert, Lawrence and Rivera are still the tops, after how countless revivals and God alone knows how many community theater productions.  The show is just indestructible.  If Bernstein had done nothing else in his career, West Side Story would have sealed his fame.

I was also pleased last night to see the special lifetime achievement Tony award given to Jerry Herman, composer and lyricist for such timeless hits as Hello Dolly, Mame, Mack and Mabel, and others. They showed clips of some of the original production of Hello, Dolly, which I remember vividly from seeing the show in the mid-60’s in Des Moines, Iowa, with my family, in a traveling company starring Carol Channing. Gower Champion’s flowing choreography for “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” was perfection.

And, while we’re doing the Tony wrap-up, Neil Patrick Harris was cute as always as the host, and it was good to have Angela Lansbury win yet another Tony for her current performance in Blithe Spirit.  The original musical Mame is the essence of a Real Star.

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