Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Play It Again: West Side Story's "Something's Coming"

Play It Again:
West Side Story's "Somewhere"

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This week’s entry considers five recordings of the classic “Something’s Coming” from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story. The first of several rather introspective songs for Tony, it foreshadows the world-changing events, good and bad, that will befall him in the next couple of days. A true collaborative effort, Sondheim’s lyrics borrow heavily from book writer Arthur Laurents’ descriptive sketches for the scene, while Bernstein’s setting of the trippy 3/4 opening section was in turn suggested to him by Sondheim.

These five versions are mostly identical in terms of music and lyrics, with only the last few measures attesting to some subtle tinkering over the course of 64 years. They do, however, differ markedly in orchestration and in each vocalist’s approach to the song. I ended up awarding a tie for my top choice here, as the original boasts an almost miraculous vocal delivery, while the first film soundtrack features a merely great performance backed by top-notch sound and orchestration. With one surprising exception, all of them are sublime listening experiences.

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities. 

- YouTube

Tony: Larry Kert

*SINGING: I’m not one for thinking that the original is always the best, but Kert’s otherworldly vocals set an extremely high bar for this song. His tightly controlled delivery, with joyful outbursts barely restrained by the character’s cerebral tendencies, puts the listener right into Tony’s head space. It’s certainly a performance for the ages.

ORCHESTRA: The original orchestration is surprisingly spare compared to later entries, with its simple percussive brass, woodwind touches, and dynamic string section. 

SOUND: One of producer Goddard Lieberson’s masterly 1950s recordings, the sound is extremely clear and atmospheric. The balance is tilted a bit towards the vocalist for my taste, but most orchestral details are still distinct.

MISCELLANEOUS: This original version has a rather mysterious ending, with a single repetition of “maybe tonight” ending on a level note with no real musical conclusion to the song. 


Tony: Jimmy Bryant

SINGING: Bryant’s approach is similar to Kert’s, and the results are almost as satisfying. He takes the melody a step lower than his predecessor (and most of his successors), and he transitions a little less smoothly between calm and unbridled joy, but he still manages to deliver masterful vocals with a natural simplicity befitting the character.

*ORCHESTRA: The orchestration builds organically on the original, adding a few extra layers of detail and a noticeably fuller string section that playfully jostles with Bryant’s vocals. Uniquely, this version of the song ends with a lovely extended woodwind flourish that really earns this one the star. 

*SOUND: This is an extremely clear recording, with the brass prominent but not obtrusive, and a good balance in general between singer and orchestra.

*MISCELLANEOUS: This one features the best ending, with the repetition of the last line culminating in one final ascending “tonight,” chillingly anticipating Tony’s duet with Maria. The above-mentioned woodwind melody that brings the track to a close is subtle but satisfyingly conclusive. 

- YouTube

Tony: José Carreras

SINGING: Carreras can obviously sing the notes perfectly, but he’s not a great actor, and this interpretation lacks the range and nuance of the others. There’s a bit of an issue with diction, too, especially in some of the more quickly delivered lyrics. Opera singers have been hugely successful in certain musical theater roles, but this is just not a good match of performer and character.

ORCHESTRA: This recording introduces a notably busier orchestration, which is basically retained in subsequent versions. In particular, the brass section is much more aggressive, inserting little outbursts that reflect the Jets’ characteristic dissonant themes. It’s not that I find this inappropriate or intrusive, but I prefer the more limited elaboration of the earlier film soundtrack.

SOUND: Generally fine, but slightly muddy in some of the louder parts, with singing and orchestra blending together.

MISCELLANEOUS: The ending is similar to the original recording. Given that Bernstein conceived of and conducted this version, it’s a surprising misfire for me overall. 

- YouTube

Tony: Matt Cavenaugh

SINGING: Cavenaugh’s approach is decidedly different from the others, rather actorly and tinged with more modern-sounding pop touches. It’s a legitimate choice that I am certain worked well on stage, but his voice occasionally sounds a bit too nasal and the vibrato too aggressive for my taste.

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration is very similar to the studio version just discussed.

SOUND: Generally excellent with good balance, perhaps a bit less detailed than a couple of the other versions.

MISCELLANEOUS: The ending features the repetition of “maybe tonight” with the ascending final note, this time with a dramatic brassy button to bring the song to a close.

- YouTube

Tony: Ansel Elgort

SINGING: Elgort’s approach marks a return to the sensibility of the earlier stage and film versions; his voice has a simple retro feel to it that fits the character like a glove. He sings the song in a much lower key than the others, and of course he can’t match a Larry Kert in terms of vocal purity, but he makes up for it with an abundance of charisma and personality. 

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration is similar to the other latter-day versions, with very active brass and percussion, but sounds slightly more restrained here, perhaps due to the huge size of the ambient orchestra.

*SOUND: Like the earlier movie soundtrack, the sound of this one is pretty much perfect. Great attention was obviously paid to making every word and every note completely distinct.

MISCELLANEOUS: The ending combines the now-standard high note on the final “tonight” with the inconclusive fade-out of the original recording.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...