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Classical 101

'West Side Story' Composer Leonard Bernstein Conducted Score Years After Film

Library of Congress
Leonard Bernstein sits in the audience at the Aug. 12, 1957, opening of West Side Story at the National Theater in Washington, DC.

For the 1961 movie West Side Story, composer Leonard Bernstein was not the conductor. 

So when, in the '80s, he had the chance to make a recording of the score, it must have felt like Christmas. Bernstein could handpick singers who could really sing his music — and not have to worry about acting or dancing.

Find the recording: ArkivMusic | Amazon 

From the start, the project came under fire for some of the casting decisions which, granted, would have been ludicrous in a staged version.

He chose opera singers for the major roles — unsurprisingly because the music in West Side Story is hard, musically and vocally.

We can see that difficulty in some of the awkward documentary footage shot during the recording sessions (below). Some of the world's best singers struggle to get it right.

But we also get to see the energy and connection Bernstein had with his musicians. Under Bernstein's baton, the orchestra was electric.

Both Kiri Te Kanawa, as Maria, and Jose Carreras, as Tony, sang beautifully (although the Spanish-born Carreras admitted that playing the all-American role of Tony was a stretch for him).

As in the classic film version, though, it's Anita who really steals the show in this recording. Tatiana Troyanos gives a searing performance of "A Boy Like That" that really stays with you.

Check out the documentary, in which Troyanos tells of growing up on the West Side of New York City:


Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday on Aug. 25, 2018, Classical 101 is celebrating A Bernstein Summer on air and online.

Classical 101 Program Director Cheryl Dring moved to Columbus in 2016, having worked in public radio since college. With stops in Austin, Madison, Dayton, Sacramento, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport, Louisiana, she has seen much of the country through the lens of public radio and local arts.