Various Artists

The Songs of West Side Story

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In 1992, AIDS Project Los Angeles staged an all-star benefit concert in which contemporary artists performed songs from West Side Story. It was a cute one-shot idea and well-received (especially with such inspired choices as having Little Richard sing "I Feel Pretty"). That should have been the end of it, but several years later, producer David Pack organized this recorded version, and the cute idea has become a multi-artist embarrassment. Pack has enlisted a cast of middle-level stars with the intention of contemporizing the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score. So, naturally, "Gee, Officer Krupke!" becomes a rap song performed by Salt-N-Pepa and others, and "A Boy Like That" is rendered with a new jack/Latin vibe by Selena. At least such tracks are amusing one-time listens, but most of the music has been transferred into facile, faceless L.A. studio pop sung by such practitioners of the style as James Ingram, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Natalie Cole, and Tevin Campbell, and played by session regulars like Greg Phillinganes. It isn't all terrible. Brian Setzer turns in a sizzling "Prologue/Jet Song," indicating that unlike most of the participants, he didn't hear the music for the first time when Pack sent him a tape. A version of "Cool" featuring Patti Austin, Bruce Hornsby, and Branford Marsalis captures the song's feel in a jazz context. But more often, the performances are way off target, sometimes more because of context than talent. Aretha Franklin and Little Richard are themselves at all times, but they bring little or nothing to this music, at least in these arrangements. Phil Collins no doubt loves the music, but he has no business singing it. Of course, the truth is that Leonard Bernstein, a card-carrying eclectic and media maven, would have loved this record. He also would have loved a Merseybeat version in 1966, a disco version in 1976, and a synth pop version in 1986, and this one will sound just as silly in years to come as those would have. Almost as silly as it sounds right now.

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