By DANIEL J. WAKIN
When it came time to make a movie of his “West Side Story,” a busy Leonard Bernstein entrusted the score to Hollywood and his loyal arrangers.
But he was less than enchanted with the results. On hearing the overture for the first time on the stereo of the music director, John Green, he burst out, “Johnny, how the hell could you have done it so badly?,” one of the film’s producers, Walter Mirisch, said.
Regardless of his opinion then, the guardians of Bernstein’s musical legacy have painstakingly recreated a written score of the soundtrack to be performed live by an orchestra during a screening of the movie, which will be stripped of its instrumental music.
Taking the Score From ‘West Side Story’ : For a screening of “West Side Story” at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday and Thursday, audio engineers removed Leonard Bernstein’s score from the movie soundtrack so it could be performed live by the New York Philharmonic. Here are two versions of an excerpt from the film, one with the score intact and the other with the score removed. The vocals remain in both versions.</>
The New York Philharmonic will do just that on Wednesday and Thursday evenings at Avery Fisher Hall. This is one of a spate of movie jobs by the Philharmonic this season, including a performance of the score to “Henry V” by William Walton (no movie shown, but narration by Christopher Plummer) on Sept. 17; a program of classic movie score excerpts accompanied by film clips on Oct. 25; and a performance of Philip Glass’s score during a showing of “Koyaanisqatsi” on Nov. 2 and 3.
Through some remarkable audio engineering, the original dialogue and singing of “West Side Story” will remain, while the Philharmonic plays along. It is like a version of Music Minus One: recordings of solo works without the solo line, to be played along with in your living room. But in this case, think of it as Music Minus 100.
“I wanted to find new ways for people to enjoy Lenny’s music,” said Paul H. Epstein, the senior vice president of the Leonard Bernstein Office, which oversees and perpetuates all things Bernstein. “I wanted to prepare the new generation for Lenny. I thought this would be a way of reaching them.”
The “West Side Story” production coincides with the issue of a restoration of the original MGM movie by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment on Blu-ray and DVD 50 years after its release in theaters. The film won 10 Oscars.
The live-orchestra version had its premiere on July 8 and 9 at the Hollywood Bowl by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, old hands at playing movie scores during screenings, and moves on to Chicago and London in the coming months. Its backers say that inquiries have come from Melbourne and Sydney, Australia; Tokyo; and several summer festivals. David Newman, an experienced movie score composer who led the Angelenos in the premiere, will conduct the New York Philharmonic.
An extraordinary amount of detective work and sound-engineering wizardry went into the realization of the live-orchestra screenings.
Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal orchestrated the original Broadway musical in close collaboration with Bernstein. “He was very much involved,” said Mr. Ramin, 92, who was a childhood friend of Bernstein’s. “He put his seal of approval on what we had done.”
They were assigned to orchestrate the movie score under the guidance of Saul Chaplin, the associate producer. For Broadway, the arrangers wrote for roughly 30 musicians. MGM allowed them an orchestra three times the size. “It was like giving us a big candy store and saying, ‘Eat what you want,’ ” Mr. Ramin said.
What resulted was a lush, large score with six saxophone parts, passages with eight trumpets and others with five pianos added to five xylophones. The movie arrangers created a new overture, doubled the size of the opening dance prologue, moved scenes around and added musical overlays to the two-and-a-half-hour movie. They won an Oscar for best original score.
“The score as a whole was nearly as daring for the film as it had been for the stage,” wrote Misha Berson in her book “Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination” (Applause, 2011). No American movie, she added, “had such an adventurous sound palette.”
Bernstein, Ms. Berson wrote, found the sound mix “overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety.”
Jamie Bernstein, a daughter of the composer’s, said by e-mail that her father “didn’t love everything” about the arrangement, or the movie, for that matter, but kept tactfully quiet.
Mr. Ramin said of Bernstein’s reaction to the movie score: “He liked some of it, and he didn’t like some of it. Lenny was really a purist at heart.”
Mr. Mirisch, 89, who wrote about Bernstein’s reaction in his memoir, “I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History” (Wisconsin Film Studies, 2008), said in an interview, “I assume if he was like the rest of us, he thought he could have done it better himself.”
Fifty years later, those who have reconstructed the movie score defend their own efforts, saying they have gotten closer to Bernstein’s vision.
“Bernstein as a populist would want to have as many people exposed to his music, even with the compromises,” said Garth Edwin Sunderland, the Bernstein Office’s senior music editor and the man who created the new score. “We’ve pulled it somewhat back from the excess of the film score. We made it closer to his theatrical intentions.”
Mr. Sunderland said the theater orchestration formed the backbone of his work. He also used a partial version of Mr. Ramin’s personal score, which was found in Columbia University’s archives, and a reduced version that belonged to Mr. Green. Eleanor Sandresky, a Bernstein office researcher, tracked down the Green materials in the collection of the movie’s co-director, Robert Wise, at the University of Southern California. Some orchestrations had to be reproduced by ear.
Passages impractical for onstage orchestras, like a section with five pianos and xylophones, were slimmed down. Mr. Sunderland made the “Cool” dance music more jagged; it had been smoothed out for the movie, he said.
Next the arrangers had to contend with the many tiny cuts and expansions that came with the film editing, so that the live performance would synchronize precisely with the progression of the movie frames.
“That’s just a mind-boggling, complicated process,” Mr. Sunderland said. The final score fills 465 pages and contains 90 minutes of music.
“The music is hard,” said Bing Wang, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s associate concertmaster. “It’s fast, with a lot of tempo changes. We had to switch gears constantly.”
The technical process of stripping away the orchestra from the soundtrack was done in parallel. The job was given to Chace Audio by Deluxe of Burbank, Calif., a sound-engineering company that handled the restoration of the soundtrack for the DVD and Blu-ray release.
Because the orchestra, voices and dialogue all existed on the same soundtrack, the task was enormously difficult. The orchestra could not simply be subtracted. It had to be scraped away. Chace brought in Audionamix, a Paris-based audio technology company, which had developed a technique used to extract Edith Piaf’s voice for the movie “La Vie en Rose.”
According to Audionamix’s chief executive officer, Olivier Attia, the technique involves sampling sound waves for instruments and instructing a computer to scrub out their appearances on the soundtrack. “Think about it as Photoshop for music,” Mr. Attia said.
The voices and dialogue remained. Engineers had to restore some sound effects, including dancing step sounds and many of the finger snaps that are so emblematic of the work.
The hard part in performance is coordinating the orchestra with the images on the screen, especially difficult in the dance scenes choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the movie’s co-director. (Other credits for the musical belong to Arthur Laurents, book, and Stephen Sondheim, lyrics. Ernest Lehman is listed as screenwriter for the movie.)
The orchestra musicians will wear earpieces that deliver rhythmic clicks to indicate the beat. Mr. Newman will have a monitor in front of him, with a light bar moving across the screen, indicating cues. The orchestra will be amplified, Philharmonic officials said.
Meanwhile, the performances in New York this week will have a special resonance. Mr. Mirisch recalled that the production team found a neighborhood of condemned tenements in Manhattan to film the opening dance sequence. “We had all those streets to ourselves,” Mr. Mirisch said. “It was a marvelous piece of good luck.”
That neighborhood soon became Lincoln Center.