By now a regular at the BBC Proms, bringing his supremely polished band with music from the shows of yesteryear, the first of John Wilson’s 2018 concerts is Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story is set in 1950s’ New York Upper West Side neighbourhood: ethnically charged, two gangs – the Jets (White Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) battle for control of the neighbourhood.
Ten years from conception to its first performance in 1957, the original show was as much of a battle off-stage as the tale it portrayed on it. Conceived by Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the Broadway production, the show was started, shelved, and restarted again. It was modified substantially by Robbins without consulting the others involved, which meant by opening night none of his co-contributors were speaking to him, and Sondheim – not the first choice of lyricist – didn’t even want to write the text in the first place. Despite its rocky start in life, West Side Story has become one of the best-known musicals (also a film) with songs from the show, often in the guise of Bernstein’s own 1961 Symphonic Dances (also orchestrated by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin), a firm favourite in the concert hall.
The JWO, usually rhythmic and stylish, may have met its match in Bernstein’s score, which, in the faster numbers, Wilson took no prisoners when it came to tempo. The soloists, even amplified, at times struggled to be heard over the Orchestra, and while there were some excellent moments at the start of Act One – ‘Tonight’, featuring the incredible Mikaela Bennett as Maria and, by comparison, the slightly less incredible Ross Lekites as Tony, was a moment of absolute beauty – the musical struggled to get going.
In West Side Story, Bernstein probably gives all the best tunes to the female characters; here the lady-leads outshone their male counterparts. ‘America’ is one of the songs that leaps from the pages. Already filled with comic energy, the trio of Anita, Rosalia and Consuelo, together with the vocalists of the students from ArtsEd and Mountview, took it to another level. ‘Cool’ where Riff tells the Jets to not lose their heads was played at a tempo that made you feel anything but cool. The fugue that follows, “possibly the most complex instrumental music heard on Broadway to date” continued at a similar speed – light and airy.
Act Two, though considerably shorter, has its fair share of hits. ‘I Feel Pretty’ brings together Maria and her co-workers, Francisca, Rosalia and Consuelo in the bridal shop where Maria works. ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ – a source of relief after earlier tensions – did not disappoint as Action, Snowboy and the other Jets poke fun at the sergeant. Possibly the highlight of the afternoon was the duet between Anita and Maria – ‘A boy like that/I have a love’. Innocent naivety contrasted with scepticism and anguish as each singer dug deep emotionally.
Where I am usually unashamedly enthusiastic about Wilson’s work on musicals, here I am less so. The show was conceived with dance at its heart, so even though the music and lyrics are undeniably great, this concert version without dance is quite odd. The author of it (unmentioned) might be forgiven this oddness had the ending not been thrust upon the listener without explanation – the scene where Anita goes to the drugstore to tell Tony to wait, but, on being taunted by the Jets, instead tells Tony that Maria is dead, is beautifully portrayed in music but there is no cue to lead the audience. Tony sees Maria then grips his chest (no gun-shot) and dies in her arms.
- Performance 2 (8 p.m.) was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms