West Side Story  Comes to Life on Analog Spark Reissue

One of the greatest Broadway shows ever was also one of the great recordings of the dawning stereo era. Just reissued by Razor & Tie imprint Analog Spark and sourced using the original 3 track analog master tape, the music leaps from the speakers with new found conviction intensity and astonishing transparency.

Broadway shows aren't everyone's cup of musical swill, but if you're going to have one in your collection, musically, this would be the one both for Leonard Bernstein's classic jazz-fueled score and Stephen Sondheim's provocative lyrics. Add a stupendous Fred Plaut engineered recording at Columbia's 30th Street Studios and you have a musical and sonic spectacular.

The original cast recording features Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera and a cast of dozens in this recasting of Romeo and Juliet based on a conception of producer/director/choreographer Jerome Robbins.

The best known songs here include just about all of them. Even if you don't know the show you've probably heard "Something's Coming", "Maria", "Tonight", "America", "I Feel Pretty" and thawed ahead of its time "Gee Officer Krupke" which references marijuana and cross-dressing and indulges in some curse word fudging—all of which was absolutely outrageous in 1957, which is when the show opened.

Stereo records weren't yet being pressed when this was recorded, but producer Goddard Lieberson knew it would soon be possible to press a stereo disc. The recorded production was one of the first, if not the first to use stereo's three-dimensional soundstage to create a soundtrack album that created the sensation of watching the show unfold live.

Reissue producer Mark Piro does it all correctly using Ryan K. Smith to cut directly onto two 33 !/3 lacquers from the 3-track master tape, with plating and pressing at RTI. The Stoughton Press "tip-on" gatefold jacket is beautifully done with stunning black and white session photos filling the inner jacket gatefold.

I have a few originals and remember what a sonic spectacular this was when first issued in stereo a few years after the musical opened. Those originals do not attain the reissue's transparency, stage width and depth and especially the new version's astonishingly wide dynamic range and jet-black backgrounds. Yes, it can be bright if you turn it up too loud or if your system heads in that direction but the brass, strings and percussion ring true and the vocal recording quality is unprocessed and ultra-pure.

Most highly recommended for everything: for music, for lyrics, for breathtaking sound and for packaging.

Available only on the Analog Spark website—along with some other interesting new reissues, we'll be covering soon.

Snorker's picture

you gave this reissue such high praise. I pre-ordered this on their web site last month and I am waiting for it to ship...now with even greater anticipation! I emailed with them and they initially thought it would be available in November, but I think a backlog at RTI pushed it back a bit.

On another note, I grew up loving the movie soundtrack version, but when I finally heard the less overblown Broadway cast recording I was blown away. Apparently, Bernstein was never happy with the film soundtrack (with which he wasn't involved) for that reason.

elliotdrum's picture

The Re-mastered CD from 1998 with the added-
Symphonic Dances bonus tracks is also
fantastic and the sound is excellent!
I would imagine the vinyl might have better

AnalogJ's picture

I'm a big musical theater fan, and many Original Cast albums are recorded well. I'm glad a company is tackling these at the audiophile level.

Of course, the score it's stunning. Sondheim, himself, is embarrassed at a bit of clumsiness of his early attempts at lyrics here, but Bernstein's music is stunning.

rshak47's picture

Just ordered a copy of West Side Story along with Gould's Goldberg Variations in mono.

gMRfk6LMHn's picture

Many years ago when I was really into hi-fi (meaning: I had more money), an acquaintance (whose obsession with hifi was making sure the voice sounded correct) said if I really wanted to hear how good my system was go and buy Fiddler On The Roof (with Zero Mostel, the original Broadway cast version and I did. When I played the sonics bowled me over. I clicked on the link for the Analog Spark website and there it was. If it is anything as good as the review you gave Westside Story it should be stunning.

James, Dublin, Ireland

AnalogJ's picture

They're cutting from the master tapes on Fiddler, which is good. But West Side Story was cut from the original 3-track session tapes, one generation earlier than what they're using for Fiddler. While Ryan Smith, who has done some stellar work recently, will make Fiddler sound really good, how much better than an original, time will tell. Using the 3-track tapes for WSS is special and unique, not to mention the laying down to 2 LPs rather than 1.

AnalogJ's picture

I haven't listened to Fiddler On The Roof in a while. I have a few mixed feelings about the recording/pressing. Sonically, it's not a masterpiece, though it's very good. At times, Zero Mostel is often much larger an image in the soundstage than everyone else. A couple of times, he seems to have maxed out the cutting, flattening out just to the edge of distortion.

There also wasn't an effort to create a consistent soundstage. Sometimes, an engineer will record a cast album to give you the impression that you are there in the audience. Here, there is a lot of extreme left/right. Sometimes the orchestra is deep in the soundstage. Sometimes, the instruments are cut hard left/right.

For "Matchmaker, Matchmaker", 1 daughter is center while the other 2 are hard speaker left and right respectively, with no effort to have them all seem to be on stage left-to-right. For another weird example of recording choices, "Sabbath Prayer" has all of the family hard left in the speaker, with the orchestra center, and the chorus, when they join in, deep in the soundstage.

So the presentation can be odd here, at times. That Analog Spark had the mastering engineer, Ryan Smith, only go back to the stereo tapes (RCA may not have given him access to anything else), there isn't going to be much, if any, of a remedy for that. If they had had access to the original session tapes, perhaps they could have remedied the above issues.

On the other hand, the original RCA Broadway Cast Recording pressing was done during a period when RCA was using their Dynagroove technology, a computer which was supposed to automatically adjust for dynamic passages (I believe that the best way to go is for it be determined by a human, the cutting engineer. Michael can chime in here if he reads this.). The result is that Dynagroove records can sound constrained at times. They are not considered to be the glory years of RCA pressings. Still, you've got the record when the tapes are freshest.

Where Ryan Smith would be able to improve on the original is to be able to A) not be constrained by the use of Dynagroove technology, and B) tailor this to audiophiles, to extend the frequencies if they are there to be extended, and increase dynamics, if they're also there. My experience with his work for Analogue Productions on the classical RCA reissues is that they're sumptuous, richer, and a bit more detailed than originals, but they're also a bit darker, with a bit less air.

To me, getting a copy of West Side Story was a no-brainer (and there are only 6 copies left as of my writing this), as they're doing something drastically different, a huge leap above the original in terms of sonics. Is the Fiddler On The Roof in the same dramatically improved category? My guess it is better, but not by huge leaps and bounds. Unlike, say, pop records such as The Beach Boys which were mastered original for AM radio and inexpensive record players, Broadway cast recordings were assumed to have been listened to by people with more means, and with relatively good hifi systems. The original is already fairly high fidelity, and it's not hampered by 30 minutes of music per side that the original West Side Story cast recording was. On Fiddler, each side is approximately 20 and 22 minutes respectively, quite acceptable for a single LP.

volvic's picture

To deliver to my place in NYC the price is $13 is that a tad high? Or am I just ornery this holiday season.

AnalogJ's picture

That price is probably for Priority Mail. I'd see if they can ship Media Mail. That should be about $5-6.

volvic's picture

Sadly, that was their cheapest offering, I emailed and asked them why so high, never got a response. So decided not to purchase.

AnalogJ's picture

It seems to be a flat amount, no matter how much you order. ~$14 for Media Mail is a lot. So is ~$18 for UPS Ground. There's not much you can do, since they are the only one carrying the product. I ordered the 1955 mono of Glenn Gould's performance of the "Goldberg Varations" to help justify it. I don't own a copy of that work, and the 1955 recording is a legendary performance. It's not Analog Spark's own product, but they're the sole US distributor.

volvic's picture

Besides, have to save to purchase an SME IV for my Thorens TD 124. Enjoy the Gould recording, it is a gem.

Auric G's picture

My ears love 'em, but my wallet can't take another this time of year. lol.

martinjohnbutler's picture

Funny, I almost bought the original LP at Housing Works last week, but it wasn't in playable condition. Even though only $1, I wouldn't buy it. Now I'm glad I didn't. I'm not a fan of musicals, but I think I'd enjoy this record. Now that I know it goes to 11, it's a done deal.
Thanks Michael.

forshac's picture

I find myself preferring the mono OC (for Fiddler as well).

Michael: I know you have better things to do, but..... Have you compared this new 11/11(!) release to an original mono?

Alternatively, is there a mono re-release that's superior to the original?

Michael Fremer's picture
Have not heard it, nor have I ever seen it!
Mikel77's picture

I have a copy of the mono-it's a white label promo-given to radio stations (as there were no stereo radio stations then)These WL Mono were usually pressed hot for playback on car radios-but i much prefer the dazzling stereo where the musical breathes-i simply can't wait for this on 2 discs

AnalogJ's picture

The Fiddler original stereo mix is a bit weird. It's not consistent. I talk about it in another post on this thread.

brucej4's picture

FYI, Columbia's first stereo recording session for a Broadway show was for "Bells Are Ringing" in December 1956.

"My Fair Lady" opened earlier in 1956 and missed being recorded in stereo by a few months, so Columbia later recorded the London cast (which included Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison) in stereo.

AnalogJ's picture

I have original pressings of both original cast recordings of My Fair Lady. The first one is fresh and full of energy. The later stereo sounds a bit like they were sleepwalking through it in comparison.

AnalogJ's picture

I was just on the Analog Spark website. On the West Side Story page, it indicated only 8 copies left. I snagged one. That leaves 7, as of 9pm on Monday in the eastern U.S.

AnalogJ's picture

Wow. They could sell out before the thing is even released!

AnalogJ's picture

As of 4pm EST on Tuesday, there's only 1 left of the WSS pressings. Who's going to get it?

Mikel77's picture

and they don't even tell us when more will come in-would be interested to know how many they actually pressed-at this point i'd be losing interest in this if its prolonged any longer

Snorker's picture

I can't believe this was recorded in 1957. This is one of the cleanest, most realistic-sounding recordings I've ever heard. If you want to show off your analog playback system, this is it. It has an unbelievably three-dimensional sound stage. If you like West Side Story (and vinyl) you must own this record. Michael's review is spot-on.

alanrosen's picture

Michael is definitely right on this one. Beside the incredible performance, dead silent background, incredible soundstage. It's as realistic a recording as I've heard. Worth every penny -even the ridiculously high shipping fee!

DavidFell's picture

But it took long enough. Although I selected USPS 2-day priority shipping on January 5, AnalogSpark didn't ship it until January 13. And then the USPS took another 8 days, sending it to the wrong town and nearly returning it to Analog Spark. But now WSS and My Fair Lady have arrived. I have listening to do.

Shipping should be cheaper.

AnalogJ's picture

Michael got this largely right. Certainly this reissue gives this recording more room to breath. There's depth and weight here. And of course, the music is fabulous, a collaboration between Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

But Columbia's Masterworks, their classical division, tended to produce recordings with high end stridency. It's a reason that Columbia classical recordings, even with the NY Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, are not a favorite with audiophiles.

Strings, brass, and even the top end of certain male voices can sound a little bit harsh here, particularly with louder passages. In my opinion, THE best recordings open up and bloom when turned up. This one will just sound too bright and you'll end up turning it down.

Still, if you love this album, it's very much worth getting in this limited edition. At times, the engineers did really try to recreate a soundstage. At other times, there's a bit of left/right speaker thing going.
In spite of that, I'll say that I agree that this is one of the great stereo musical theater recordings of the early stereo era.

On the other hand, there are plenty of great mono ones. The Original Broadway Cast of My Fair Lady (not the later stereo one, a different later production, though both with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison) sounds spectacular and fresh. I have a 1st press. The later stereo one, in comparison, sounds a bit tired in comparison.

isaacrivera's picture
audiotom's picture

I have this original Broadway version - I believe it is the stereo. Very nice and several other lp performances

Also there is a Brubeck Does Bernstein that is worth chasing down

audiotom's picture

the Oscar Peterson rerelease is nice too

Kirby's picture

I have 7 of their releases including this one and they all sound awesome, highly recommended. At least 3 more on my wish list. Great product at a great price.