Musical Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

Original Broadway Cast

In all of Western music, the most extreme interval is the tritone. Spanning six half-steps, it instantly engenders a feeling of tension—it’s unsettled, transitory, restless. Music students sometimes have trouble hearing it, or at least they did until this smart retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opened in 1957. The melody of “Maria,” one of its most enduring songs, begins with a striving tritone that resolves upward. The phrase so neatly captures the power of this interval, it’s been used in theory classes to help students remember its unique sonority.

After assimilating those first few notes of the “Maria” theme, don’t be surprised if you start hearing tritone inventions throughout this magnificent score. Composer Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) splashes the interval across the incidental music, gives it to the brass as an upturned unanswered question, buries it inside the orchestrations for other tunes. A simple melodic kernel, it’s perfect for the rapid transitions of this boisterous tale of a turf battle among youth gangs in 1950s New York City.

In retelling Shakespeare, lyricist Stephen Sondheim doesn’t get bogged down in the details of the conflict. The white and Puerto Rican gangs do what gangs do: They fight over a piece of street. (Ironically, the location is the neighborhood that was torn down to make room for Lincoln Center.) Sondheim concentrates on the emotional undercurrents, and his tunes coalesce into a deeply moving portrait of kids who find romance and rivalry intertwined.

Tony (a reluctant member of the “American” gang known as the Jets) and Maria (whose brother is the leader of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks) meet at a dance, and are thoroughly smitten with each other. For obvious reasons they have to be secretive about the affair, and in one deviation from the Shakespeare plot, Maria doesn’t die at the end but threatens to kill herself in front of everybody, so aggrieved is she over the gang warfare death of Tony. (Bernstein cited that scene, which is spoken and not sung, to refute the common notion that West Side Story is an opera.)

This original cast album, which features sparkly performances from Larry Kert (Tony) and Carol Lawrence (Maria), deserves some credit for making West Side Story into a cultural icon. The musical wasn’t a massive hit right away—it closed after a respectable 732 performances, and then immediately hit the road. After that, the album took off, creating demand for a return Broadway engagement and, eventually, the 1961 film. The version that is currently available features the original Broadway cast, crisp remastering, and a selection of bonus tracks. They’re interesting, but hardly necessary after the likes of “Tonight, Tonight,” “Maria,” and “Something’s Coming,” some of the most expansive, powerful tunes ever heard on Broadway.

GENRE: Musicals. RELEASED: 1957, Columbia. (Reissued 1998.)
KEY TRACKS: “Maria,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Something’s Coming,” “Gee Officer Krupke.”
ANOTHER INTERPRETATION: Operatic version with Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras.

A Little Night Music

Steven Sondheim

Original Broadway Cast

Early in A Little Night Music, his tale of foolish romance in the Swedish countryside, Stephen Sondheim establishes three major characters with three distinct songs. “Now” introduces Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer whose girl bride is still a virgin after eleven months of marriage. “Later” shares the thoughts of Henrik, Fredrik’s son, who’s in divinity school but in love with his stepmother. “Soon” begins with the bride, Anne, responding to Fredrik’s advances. Before long, the three themes intersect in a burst of carefully coordinated counterpoint. As the thoughts of these smart, perhaps too smart, people vie for prominence, their impulses converge in a hormonally charged and tastefully buttoned-down cacophony.

And that’s just the opening gambit. Though it’s got knotty moments, much of this musical, which draws its title from Mozart and some inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1957), is lighter and more immediately accessible than most Sondheim—without sacrificing the composer’s arch wit or his knack for enchanting spiral-staircase melodies. Much of the music is written in 3/4 time, and yet never dissolves into a waltzapalooza. On some tunes, Sondheim offers traces of tempo in the distance; others have no organizing pulse at all. He tosses out lots of different rhythms and devices, and somehow avoids the mannered air of so much theater music.

A Little Night Music is home to some of Sondheim’s wittiest lyrics. Fredrik, wondering when the “right” moment might be, observes: “Now, as the sweet imbecilities tumble so lavishly onto her lap, there are two possibilities: A, I could ravish her, or B, I could nap.” It also contains his one big hit. “Send In the Clowns,” sung here by Glynis Johns, is that rare perfectly formed jewel—a showstopping solo that pulls listeners through hurt, disappointment, malaise, anger, and obsession with disarming ease. Johns sings the stately theme with a matron’s stoicism; she uses the weathered imperfection of her voice to underscore the message, knowing that those imperfections (the singing she can’t quite manage) make the music devastating. “Send In the Clowns” freezes time for just a little while, long enough for Sondheim to catch some truth about the corrosive nature of regret, but not so long that his characters tire of the waltz.

GENRE: Musicals.
RELEASED: 1973, Columbia.
KEY TRACKS: “Now,” “Later,” “Soon,” “The Glamorous Life,” “A Weekend in the Country,” “Send In the Clowns.”