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A 'West Side' tribute, DIY style

Net downloads let anyone access the best versions of a classic score

It looked like a must-have album: "A Place for Us: A Tribute to 50 Years of West Side Story," featuring Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, Dave Brubeck, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis, among others.

Most of these songs are taken from the Sony and BMG vaults - Columbia and RCA back when many of them were first released. And speaking of vaults, Leonard Bernstein might be rolling in the proverbial grave if they're piping in Brian Stokes Mitchell having a nervous breakdown on "Something's Coming" or Mathis trilling like a wounded blue jay while Streisand soars and swoops from high notes to low on the duet "I Have a Love/One Hand, One Heart." Pretension and overproduction are the order of the day on just about every cut on this album, which came out earlier this month.

But thanks to Internet downloads, you don't have to be a slave to record company glop. Here then is a guide to making your own "West Side Story" tribute album:

First of all, you should have Sony's original Broadway cast album with Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, and Chita Rivera. You could say there's no improving on such perfection, but the instrumental tracks on Deutsche Grammophon's "Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story" are sensational. (The singing, by José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa, ranges from bad to preposterous.)

Tribute albums, though, go beyond the staples, so here are other selections to consider, all available as inexpensive iTunes downloads.

"Prologue" and "Something's Coming," by Stan Kenton. There are a lot of jazz versions of "West Side Story" out there, but the brassiness of Kenton's arrangements, literally and figuratively, come closest to capturing the excitement of the score.

"Maria," by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Stick with jazz for this one. Few singers aside from Kert understand that the best way to Maria's heart is the direct one, without echo chambers and other idiocies. That's more or less the path that Brubeck and his great saxophonist, Paul Desmond, take.

"Tonight," by Ferrante & Teicher. If you're going to overproduce Bernstein, you've got to go the whole hog, which these two early-'60s pianists do with Mahler-meets-Liberace perverse brilliance. Make sure you get the original version from "All-Time Great Movie Themes," not the remade one from "The Ferrante & Teicher Collection."

"The Balcony Scene," by Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin. OK, we're cheating. This is really "Tonight," but you need this vocal version, too. Patinkin's no stranger to hawk-like swoops, but McDonald could make Lindsay Lohan sound good in a duet.

"Cool," by the Bill Charlap Trio. Not even Kenton or Brubeck get the musical's mix of innocence and adrenaline as smartly as Charlap. The whole album, "Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein," is a beauty.

"America," by the Nice. Keith Emerson's '60s organ-playing sounds like an acid flashback. Is that a good thing? The Nice make you think so. It's listed on iTunes as "America (2nd Amendment)."

"One Hand, One Heart," by Dawn Upshaw and Richard Muenz. Listen and learn, Barbra and Johnny, Kiri and José. You don't have to kill a song to melt a heart.

"I Feel Pretty," by Little Richard. Whoever thought of this should get a MacArthur genius grant. Pipe this into Lenny instead of the Sony tribute. Between the high energy and the great spirit, it might bring him back. (It's hard to find on iTunes. Type in the original album title, "The Songs of West Side Story." Little Richard's version is listed under "various artists.")

"Somewhere," by Dawn Upshaw. A great song that has flummoxed everyone from Aretha Franklin to Leontyne Price, but not dame Dawn. She even leaves Audra McDonald in the dust.

"Gee, Officer Krupke," by Salt-N-Pepa, Def Jef, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, the Jerky Boys and Paul Rodriguez. A curiosity, really, but it has its moments. (Also hard to find, it's on the same album as Little Richard's song.) If you hate hip-hop, try the Andre Previn-Shelly Manne version from the "A Place for Us" CD.

"A Boy Like That," by Selena. Also from "The Songs of West Side Story," and as with "I Feel Pretty" and "Krupke," it's listed under "various artists." It's a great Latin dance version thanks as much to Sheila E. as Selena. Incidentally, this was Selena's last recording before she was killed.

Who knows? Maybe there's a place where Lenny and Selena are dancing together to Little Richard.

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