Leonard Bernstein
& Stephen Sondheim,
West Side Story
(Columbia, 2004)

If you're a baby boomer of a certain age (cough cough), one of the LPs seeing frequent service on your parents' massive one-piece Mediterranean-styled stereo/radio console (into the chassis of which one could fit 2,000 iPods) was the soundtrack recording of the film version of the Broadway show West Side Story. And if you're one of those aging boomers, you no doubt have that album memorized. The film was a pop-culture watershed, a brilliant and highly successful (10 Oscars) film version of a hit show with music by Leonard Bernstein that ranged between heart-wrenching and coolest of cool, with clever and touching lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins co-directed, with Robbins recreating for the screen his original choreography. The Romeo & Juliet-inspired tale of a pair of lovers caught between two warring teenage gangs in New York City quickly became a cultural icon and has remained so ever since, a touchstone for great movie musicals.

If you've never before heard this soundtrack album, prepare for a treat, and if you grew up with it, as I did, get ready to have your ears rattled. This newly expanded soundtrack has much that you've never heard before, most of it priceless. The all-new items are the Overture, the brief Intermission Music and the Finale and End Credits. Since these are all instrumentals (except for the Finale, which has some spoken dialogue), fans of the multi-layered arrangements by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin (as well as the perceptive conducting by Johnny Green) will find an extra quarter hour of glorious music. The 9:28 "Dance at the Gym" is also presented complete for the first time, with the addition of the "Mambo."

As for dialogue, there's plenty of it here that was missing from the earlier release, most of it leading into songs. It may become somewhat intrusive if you're primarily interested in the music, but since music plays under most of it, I can understand its inclusion. It's ultimately better heard in the context of the film, and I encourage those who like the music to spring for the letterboxed DVD, since the visuals and Robbins's choreography have to be seen to be believed. The union of dance and sound is overwhelming in its power.

The songs are all more than intact, with such hits (now become standards) as "Maria," "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart" and "Somewhere." It's good to see that the singers who dubbed the songs for the stars are fully credited: Marni Nixon sang for Natalie Wood, Jim Bryant for Richard Beymer, Betty Wand for Rita Moreno and Tucker Smith (who also played Ice, a role created for the film) in parts for Russ Tamblyn.

The remastering for this reissue is perfect. The brass and percussion are so crisp they burn the ear, and the voices sound better than ever. Richard Ridge contributes an informative booklet essay, and the CD itself pushes the length envelope at a whopping 78:59, so give yourself plenty of listening time. West Side Story, in the opinion of many (including me), is the greatest screen musical ever made, and this expanded reissue finally gives the soundtrack the treatment it so richly deserves.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 25 September 2004