Music Album Review: ‘West Side Story – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’ (2021)

(C) 2021 Hollywood Records and 20th Century Studios

West Side Story: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Label: Hollywood Studios

Release Date; December 10, 2021

Formats: Compact disc, vinyl LP record, digital

Genre: Movie soundtrack

Rating: 5 out of 5.

On December 10, 2021 – the same day that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story began its theatrical release – Hollywood Records dropped West Side Story: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack in cooperation with 20th Century Studios and their corporate parent company, Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios. Featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the album was released worldwide in three formats: compact disc, the vinyl LP record, and digital.

The third major album – after the 1957 Original Broadway Cast Recording and the 1961 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, both released by Columbia Records – of musical numbers from the late Jerome Robbins concept of “Romeo and Juliet, but set in 1957 Manhattan with rival teenage gangs,” West Side Story: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack features orchestral performances by the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic – both conducted by Gustavo Dudamel – and vocal performances by cast members, including Mike Faist (Riff), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Ansel Elgort (Tony), Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Anita), and Rita Moreno (Valentina).[1]

According to John Williams’ note in the insert with all the lyrics and credits, Leonard Bernstein said that “Maria is the greatest love song ever written.”

With a duration of one hour and 19 minutes, West Side Story: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack features 21 tracks – including the newly added La Borinqueña (Sharks Version), a Puerto Rican revolutionary song that was officially banned in the United States in 1957, the year in which West Side Story is set –  that follows the sequence of Spielberg’s loving adaptation of the Laurents/Bernstein/Sondheim Broadway musical.

Tracklist

1Prologue
2La Borinquena (Sharks Version)
3Jet Song
4Something’s Coming
5The Dance at the Gym: Blues, Promenade
6The Dance at the Gym: Mambo
7The Dance at the Gym: Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, Jump
8Maria
9Balcony Scene (Tonight)
10Transition To Scherzo / Scherzo
11America
12Gee, Officer Krupke
13One Hand, One Heart
14Cool
15Tonight (Quintet)
16The Rumble
17I Feel Pretty
18Somewhere
19A Boy Like That / I Have A Love
20Finale
21End Credits

Credits

  • Arranged By – David Newman
  • Conductor – Gustavo Dudamel
  • Lyrics by – Stephen Sondheim
  • Music by, Orchestrated by – Leonard Bernstein
  • Music Consultant – John Williams
  • Orchestras– Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, The New York Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Orchestrated by – Irwin Kostal, Sid Ramin

The CD album – I have the Digipack variant – not only comes with a single compact disc with the 21 tracks; it also includes a booklet which features all of the lyrics of the songs, including the Spanish language ones by Lola Rodriguez de Tio for the only song not written by the Bernstein/Sondheim duo, La Borinqueña (Sharks Version).

The booklet’s lyrics not only give listeners a chance to sing along (if they so choose), but they even identify which characters are singing. And in at least one track (The Dance at the Gym: Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, Jump), the booklet (like the audio track on the CD) provides some of writer Tony Kushner’s dialogue from the film for atmosphere and to set up some of the songs.

My Take

I’ve been a fan of West Side Story ever since I heard a “beautiful music” arrangement of Bernstein’s Tonight (one of the two numbers that became “standards” – the other one being Somewhere) on Miami’s WLYF-101.5 FM easy listening station almost 50 years ago. Even as a pre-teen living with my widowed mother in a nice, cozy house in Westchester, I loved the melody of Tonight, even though I had never seen either the stage version or the 1961 film adaptation. I learned the lyrics of that song and many others in high school; in my sophomore year I joined South Miami Senior High School’s men’s ensemble and performed Gee, Officer Krupke as part of a medley we did for the 1981 Spring Concert.

While I was still in high school, I acquired both the 1957 Original Broadway Cast Recording and the 1961 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack; the former on vinyl LP, the latter in audio cassette tape. I actually preferred the 1957 version – it didn’t censor the lyrics of The Jet Song, and I liked the all-girls’ version of America a tad better than I did the coed one from the movie version – so when I made the transition from LPs and cassettes to compact discs in the early 1990s, I replaced the Columbia 1957 Broadway cast one but not the “one with the dubbed singers” one from 1961.

I’m also a devotee of Steven Spielberg’s films; as of this writing, I have all but one of the multiple Academy Award-winning filmmaker’s movies in my Blu-ray collection – the one exception is the out-of-print (OOP) Twilight Zone: The Movie, which includes the Spielberg-directed Kick the Can vignette.

Naturally, when I heard in 2019 that Spielberg’s dream of directing a full-blown movie musical had come to fruition and that the musical in question was West Side Story, I was excited and wanted to see it in theater. But my hopes of doing that were crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced Disney-owned 20th Century Studios to put West Side Story on hold for a year, then by the disinterest of the other adults in the house about seeing it in a theater even though we all had our vaccines.[2]

Knowing that I was not going to see Spielberg’s West Side Story in its intended cinema venue, I pre-ordered the Hollywood Records soundtrack on compact disc; as a nice bonus, Amazon added a free “Autorip” digital copy that I listen to on my Amazon Music app.

I love the Latin rhythms of Bernstein & Sondheim’s America.

Even though arranger David Newman – who is an Academy Award-nominated film composer and the son of legendary film composer Alfred Newman (he’s the dude who composed the iconic 20th Century Fox Fanfare with Cinemascope Extension) – mirrored Steven Spielberg’s fidelity to the 1957 stage production, the music – like the film itself – has brilliant flashes of originality in its presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s score and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the latter of which was still alive when Spielberg was making West Side Story and thus was able to rewrite the lyrics to America for the second time In the musical’s 54-year-long history.[3]

This is perhaps the most complex musical number in West Side Story.

Obviously, since both the 1957 stage version and the 1961 film adaptation are enshrined in the pantheon of American musical theater as classics, Spielberg’s reimagined version does not stray too far from either one. Of course, neither does the music – either the instrumental numbers played by the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras, or the songs performed by the cast of the movie.

In West Side Story: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, all of the familiar numbers – from the jazz-infused Prologue to the somewhat somber End Credits – sound like a fine-tuned fusion of the ’57 and ’61 versions, yet the arrangements by Newman and the energetic conducting by Venezuelan-born conductor (and musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) Gustavo Dudamel sound fresh, new, and vibrant.

I don’t claim to be objective about either Spielberg’s film or this Original Motion Picture Soundtrack; West Side Story is, in my opinion, one of the best movies that the man known as “America’s filmmaker” has made in his long and storied career. It’s also one of the best musical films I’ve ever watched – plus all of the actors do their own singing, something that is not true of the 1961 version.

And even though Spielberg’s most constant musical collaborator, John Williams, was not on hand to adapt and conduct the music for the 2021 version of West Side Story, he was the project’s Music Consultant, which bookends the Maestro’s storied career because he was one of the session piano players in the orchestra when the 1961 West Side Story’s score was recorded in Hollywood.

Knowing how well Williams injects the musical traditions of other cultures into his film scores – such as the Eastern European Jewish sensibilities heard in both Fiddler on the Roof and Schindler’s List, or traditional Irish songs as he does in Ron Howard’s Far and Away), I imagine that he advised Newman to make sure that the music associated with West Side Story’s Puerto Rican/Nuyorican characters sounded Latin and that the songs associated with the “American” Jets had a jazzy American sound.

After all, Williams earned his first Academy Award 50 years ago for adapting Jerry Bock’s original Broadway score for Fiddler on the Roof. It’s safe to say that he might have written a few notes to arranger Newman along the way that said, “Remember, give America and Mambo a Latin flavor.”

In any case, as my late mother – who also loved the 1961 West Side Story – would have said, the Dudamel-led, Newman-arranged music for the 2021 film es de pelicula. I heartily give West Side Story: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack a solid five-star recommendation.


[1] Rita Moreno, of course, played Anita in the Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins 1961 film and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as a result.  In the 2021 West Side Story, Moreno plays the Nuyorican widow of Doc, the American drugstore owner and Tony’s employer. She also served as West Side Story’s executive producer.

[2] Maybe this disappointment in not seeing West Side Story triggered my impulse to get not one but three different packaging variants of the 4K UHD Blu-ray set. As I write this, I have received my Target Art Edition and Best Buy Limited Edition Steelbook sets; now I’m waiting for the more conventionally packaged Ultimate Collector’s Edition set from Amazon.

[3] The first time that Sondheim fiddled with America was, of course, when The Mirisch Company and United Artists made the 1961 version. When the original 1957 stage production premiered on Broadway, many Puerto Ricans protested about the negative depiction of their island as being ugly, violent, and with a bunch of ignorant stereotypes. Sondheim rewrote the lyrics and changed the song so that it would be performed by both the men and women of the Sharks.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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