The Trouble With Bernstein’s Broadway in the Concert Hall

From left, Brandon Victor Dixon, Christian Dante White and Andy Karl in the Boston Pops concert staging of “On the Town” at Tanglewood.

When I first fell in love with “West Side Story,” as a teenager, I tried to find as many cast recordings as I could. The Broadway original was energetic and earnest; the film soundtrack was lush and familiar. But what a shock it was to find that the worst album out there was the one conducted by Leonard Bernstein himself.

I’m talking, of course, of the famously miscast 1984 Deutsche Grammophon recording starring the tenor José Carreras as Tony — with an ironically thick Spanish accent — and Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria. This operatic interpretation placed vocal beauty above all else, stripping the musical of its theatrical spirit and leaving me cold.

This, I would come to find out, is a somewhat common problem. Bernstein’s symphonic recording of his 1944 musical “On the Town” is much less satisfying than any Broadway cast album. And the 50th anniversary edition of “West Side Story,” released in 2007, again put opera stars in the show’s lead roles. (Vittorio Grigolo, a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, sang the role of Tony with the excessive passion of a Puccini hero.)

Now, as the centennial of Bernstein’s birth has prompted orchestras everywhere to perform his works, ensembles are again reckoning with the tricky art of pulling off Bernstein’s Broadway in the concert hall. And two recent performances, both by the Boston Pops, show how this type of programming can easily make a musical suffer or shine.

In mid-June, I heard the Pops play “West Side Story” in concert at Symphony Hall in Boston. Thankfully, its Tony and Maria were Broadway actors; Ross Lekites was on loan from “Frozen,” and Ali Ewoldt is currently playing Christine Daaé in “The Phantom of the Opera.” But the staging — 90 minutes with only occasional dialogue and choreography — made for an awkward evening that didn’t do justice to the theatricality or musicality of the show.

Operas fare well in concert performances because the drama and music are so intertwined. Musical theater is by nature a team effort, and “West Side Story” had one of the ultimate dream teams: music by Bernstein, choreography by Jerome Robbins, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents. Each component is essential to storytelling, and actors must be nimble enough to perform all of them equally.

Not so in the Pops staging. Gone was most of the dialogue and the Robbins choreography — which, along with costumes, the Pops didn’t have permission to use, even though Robbins’s movement has the narrative power of story ballet. (“One Hand, One Heart,” stripped of context, looked like a literal wedding.) So the performers, left with only the songs, acted unevenly, often with strain. Mr. Lekites was spot on as a naïve and hopeful Tony, and Natalie Cortez brought the same griping energy to her Anita as she did when she sang the role on Broadway. But others seemed lost in their interpretations, like high school students reading a play aloud in English class.

They didn’t receive much help from the orchestra, which similarly struggled to present a unified front. Solo brass blazed with clarity in Bernstein’s big-band passages, but to the detriment of the whole ensemble’s balance in unwieldy scenes like the dance at the gym.

But where the Pops’s “West Side Story” went wrong, its “On the Town” succeeded.

This musical, performed on July 7 at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., received an all-but-full staging directed and choreographed by the Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall, and conducted by Mr. Lockhart. Where “West Side Story” felt perfunctory, this had all the youthful exuberance and dazzle of Bernstein’s early, at times daring collaboration with Robbins and the legendary duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

“On the Town” features some of Bernstein’s best earworms, like “Lonely Town,” “Ya Got Me” and, of course, “New York, New York.” But the score is rich at every turn, blending the rigor of symphonic music with Broadway idioms and vernacular of Latin American style and jazz. The orchestra handled this deftly, animated and evocative in orchestral passages like the “Lonely Town Pas de Deux” and the second act dream ballet, but humbly in the background as it accompanied the actors.

The Pops couldn’t ask for better casting, including Brandon Victor Dixon, fresh off his star-making turn in “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on NBC, as Gabey; Georgina Pazcoguin of New York City Ballet as Ivy, a role she played on Broadway; and the great Andrea Martin as a host of scene-stealing characters. As opposed to the “West Side Story” actors, marooned with no book, these performers were gifted with a complete and coherent concert narration written by Comden and Green.

But how many ensembles have the kind of resources the Pops put into this wonderful “On the Town”? It pushed the limits of a concert staging as far as they could go before becoming a full production, more like an Encores! concert than a night at the symphony.

Bernstein’s centennial has led to re-examining his diverse output beyond Broadway. The New York Philharmonic performed a revelatory cycle of his symphonies last fall; his borderline 12-tone score for Robbins’s “Dybbuk” was a highlight of City Ballet’s spring season; and a new recording of “A Quiet Place,” with a reduced orchestration and truncated libretto, makes a compelling case in favor of Bernstein’s often-disliked final opera. (It comes to Tanglewood in August.)

These may not sell tickets like “West Side Story,” but they are just as deserving of real estate in concert halls.

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