The Hollywood Bowl became, as it occasionally does, a big cinema Friday night. Fifty years after "West Side Story" was first shown at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre down the road, the film had a new "premiere." This time the orchestral score was digitally removed from the sound track and replaced by a live orchestra.
David Newman conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic skillfully and excitingly. An avid crowd of nearly 10,000 applauded the dance sequences, which were newly thrilling. The loudest cheers, though, were heard when Leonard Bernstein’s name was shown, in graffiti scrawl, on the end credits.
Would the composer have winced or been secretly pleased? Populist though he was and a media maven, he had little to do with Hollywood or its Bowl. He accepted only one invitation to score a film, “On the Waterfront,” in 1954, in part because he had been blacklisted and needed the work. He created what has become, in its concert version, a repertory work. At Oscar time, the film won eight Academy Awards but the composer was snubbed.
Bernstein didn’t involve himself with the filming of “West Side Story” -- which was directed by Robert Wise and the irascible Jerome Robbins (who choreographed the dances but was ultimately kicked off the set) -- and could be privately dismissive of its “Hollywood-ization.”
He conducted rarely at the Bowl, although a 1955 appearance led to Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, conceiving the idea of using gangs in “West Side Story.” And in 1982, Bernstein conducted a transcendental performance of the “West Side Story” Symphonic Dances at the Bowl with the L.A. Philharmonic (which they recorded).
Seeing the film (which will be repeated Saturday night) at the Bowl with a live orchestra is an intriguingly odd experience. A large screen suspended over the shell was not quite large enough to do full justice to a movie shot in Panavision 70. It had to be letterboxed but the new HD transfer looked great. Eight small monitors were on the lip of the stage for the folks in the most expensive seats (who basically had the experience of watching the film on television). The side video screens were also employed, which meant from my vantage at the rear of the boxes, I could see it on 11 different-sized screens.
The original soundtrack sounded boomy and unnatural, spoken and sung voices had different characteristics, and mixing in the live orchestra, which was also amplified, was an ongoing balancing act. And Newman’s job was not to interpret but to follow, which he did convincingly. He is an enthusiastic, jazzy conductor, and he was able to produce quite a bit of excitement along the way.
But in many ways this new artificiality was all to the good. The old artificiality of “West Side Story” is as an immersive cinematic experience, what with the Sharks and Jets dancing on city streets ("gangs of ballerinas" was the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s description). At the Bowl, however, these dances became a hybrid between live performance and film, and were not just beautiful but surprisingly believable.
The film’s tiresomely sentimental scenes, especially during “Tonight” on the balcony, felt ever more fake when seen in context of a live performance setting, but even that was a sort of improvement. It became easier for the viewer to separate good music from bad cinema.
Ultimately, this “live” performance was intended less as a new kind of performance art than as a new kind of packaging, which has become big Bernstein business since his death in 1990. MGM treated the Bowl’s “West Side Story” as a promotion tool for its upcoming Blu-ray release of the movie and its cable TV operations.
Still, the Bowl’s “West Side Story” is a step in the right direction. Bernstein ultimately learned to hate the recording studio and the studio system. In his later years, he insisted that all his recordings and videos be documents of live performances.
So why not now go further with “West Side Story” as a performance film? Neither Natalie Wood (Maria) nor Richard Beymer (Tony) did their own singing on screen. Next time let there be live singers for the musical numbers. And go ahead, mess with the film’s orchestral score, which was produced, if with Bernstein oversight, by other hands. It, too, need not be sacrosanct.
A stage work is meant to be interpreted. Might not the same be possible for an imperfect but sometimes inspired film version of a musical?
The Phil tangles with Sharks and Jets
An orchestra playing along to the film of 'West Side Story' -- sounds simple, yes? In a word, no.
In town conducting at the Hollywood Bowl in 1955, composer Leonard Bernstein took a break to visit with playwright Arthur Laurents at the Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool. The two men sat at the edge of the pool, discussing not just their assorted projects but also that morning's headlines about juvenile delinquent gangs.
The way Laurents put it in his memoir "Original Story By," that poolside conversation jump-started "West Side Story," one of the most accomplished musicals of all time. Both men were already intrigued by choreographer Jerome Robbins' idea to rethink Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as a contemporary musical, and the collaborators soon scrapped Catholic and Jewish protagonists for a tale of rival urban gangs.
"West Side Story's" Jets and Sharks burst onto Broadway in 1957, then onto the big screen in 1961. Robbins and Robert Wise directed Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as the doomed lovers, and the film won 10 Academy Awards, including best picture. A supporting cast led by Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn sang, danced and fought its way across New York's Upper West Side to Bernstein's extraordinary music, Laurents' tender book and Robbins' incomparable choreography; then-27-year-old Stephen Sondheim crafted the memorable lyrics.
Now comes the film's 50th-anniversary year, and where better to celebrate than at the Hollywood Bowl, which played a role in its gestation? To honor the occasion, the Bowl will present on Friday and Saturday a newly remastered HD film screening and a live performance of Bernstein's music, with David Newman conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"This is the first time the complete film score has been played by an orchestra since it was recorded in 1961," said Garth Edwin Sunderland, senior music editor at the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York. "Until now, the only way a symphonic orchestra could play this music was to play excerpts from the Broadway score or 'Symphonic Dances From "West Side Story," ' a 20-minute concert suite of the dance music."
The "Symphonic Dances" have been performed nearly three dozen times by the L.A. Philharmonic alone, for instance, most recently under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel at the Bowl last summer. So when the Leonard Bernstein Office approached the Phil with the promise of a complete score for the Bowl this summer, who could say no?
" 'West Side Story' is one of the iconic movie musicals, and we haven't seen it in this form with a live orchestra," said Arvind Manocha, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. "For us, it was a no-brainer."
It was not, however, an easy task for the people who put together the 90-minute score. For the Leonard Bernstein Office, which works to protect and preserve Bernstein's legacy, it was a complicated, multi-year endeavor.
"This is something I wanted to do for quite a while," said Paul Epstein, senior vice president of the Leonard Bernstein Office. "The experience of having a live orchestra is so much more visceral than hearing the soundtrack of a film. With the 50th anniversary of the film coming up, we reinvestigated how to overcome all the obstacles."
The organization, which is the event's producer, had long faced two challenges: Substantial parts of the film's score were missing and, until very recently, there was no good way to separate the film's vocal and orchestral tracks. How would an audience be able to hear the film's vocals without hearing the filmed orchestra?
First was the problem of locating the film music, an endeavor that took Bernstein staffer Eleanor Sandreski a year of research. But even that didn't net a complete orchestral score, explained Sunderland.
"For instance, there were not just changes made by the film editor after the recording sessions but also improvisations by studio musicians," he said. "In some places, too, the film orchestration was unwieldy for live performance without the limitless resources of an MGM recording studio."
A major challenge was finding a balance between Bernstein's original orchestrations and the film's elaborations upon them, Sunderland said. "There were 30 seconds in the prologue, for instance, which had five xylophones, doubled by five pianos. It's a thrilling section but completely impractical for live performance."
Ask Sid Ramin, "West Side Story's" Oscar-winning co-orchestrator. "On Broadway, we used 'doublers' for the woodwinds, where the first reed might play flute, clarinet, as many instruments as he knew how to play," he recalled. "But when we did the picture, it was one player for every instrument. I think we used 16 woodwind players rather than the four we had on Broadway. It was a luxury and we loved it."
Conductor Newman reviewed the evolving score as Bernstein Office staffers assembled their jigsaw puzzle. "Leonard Bernstein's music is so inventive and cleverly done, moving the story forward," said Newman, who has long conducted live music for film projects both at the Sundance Institute and the Hollywood Bowl. "Restoring film scores is like a treasure hunt, and I think this score is one of the jewels of the 20th century."
"Bernstein was such an unusual artist," he said. "At the time he wrote this, he was straddling musical theater, symphonic conducting and serious musical composition. I think in 'West Side Story,' he combined popular music, musical theater and opera idioms and turned them into a unique work of art. There was certainly nothing like this in musical theater before."
Steve Linder, senior vice president of global arts manager IMG Artists and the event's production supervisor, was impressed by Newman's enthusiasm and experience. "You have to conduct the score at the same tempo it was done in the original recording," Linder said. "There's very little room for interpretation here. Johnny Green conducted the original score and you're conducting Johnny Green's original tempos. You're also accompanying vocals and it's a syncing challenge. When you're looking at a film performance, Rita Moreno can sing that song 15 times and she's going to sing it the same way every time."
'Audio magic trick'
Technicians were simultaneously taking apart the film's vocal and orchestral tracks. "Traditionally, in motion picture mixing, you have the dialogue track and vocals mixed and kept separate from the final music and sound effects," said Robert Heiber, vice president audio at Burbank-based Chace Audio by Deluxe. "In 'West Side Story,' the orchestra is married to these vocals."
Working with new technology from Paris-based Audionamix, Chace strived to pull off what Heiber calls "an audio magic trick of the highest order." Chace and Audionamix tested their new process first on the film's song "America," a colorful musical number arguing the virtues and follies of Puerto Rico versus America; the song has not just traditional song and dance, but also complicated group vocals, large orchestrations, footsteps and finger snaps. When that worked well, highly trained technicians went on to extract all the music from the film's soundtrack and leave behind the voices and sound effects.
The Hollywood Bowl evening comes amid a gaggle of 50th-anniversary celebrations. The film was a highlight of the TCM Classic Film Festival in May; writer Misha Berson's book "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination" came out in June; and a Blu-ray version of the film debuts in November.
The Leonard Bernstein Office is also readying the film and reconstituted score for future concerts. The film and live performance package is already booked at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall for Sept. 7 and 8 with Newman conducting the New York Philharmonic, and Newman will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at its Symphony Center from Nov. 25 to 27. The project's European premiere will be at Royal Albert Hall in London with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra in June 2012.
"One can only imagine Bernstein's music played live by a brilliant orchestra and a conductor sensitized to what Bernstein wanted," said playwright-actor-musician Hershey Felder, whose "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein" is due at the Old Globe in San Diego later this month.
"When musicians are present, there is a deep connection with the audience," Felder said. "I don't know what happens exactly, but as great as a recording is, it never captures the true immediacy of sound leaving an instrument and going right through the listener's body."