By BARBARA HOFFMAN
Talk about knowing the score: Who better to play “West Side Story” than Leonard Bernstein’s own New York Philharmonic?
We’re about to find out. For two nights only — Wednesday and Thursday — the Phil will back up the Jets, the Sharks and star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria as the 1961 film unspools at Avery Fisher Hall.
Thanks to some digital voodoo, the instrumentals from the soundtrack have been removed, freeing 96 live musicians to perform “Somewhere,” “Maria” and the rest of that indelible score.
The music’s hardly new to the Phil: Bernstein, its laureate conductor, wrote an abridged version, “Symphonic Dances,” just for the orchestra. But never before have they played all 90 minutes of “West Side Story,” their strings, woodwinds, percussion and brass beefed up by three saxophones and electric and Spanish guitars.
Alas, the Phil’s not the first. Led by David Newman, who’ll also conduct it here, the LA Philharmonic performed it in July at the Hollywood Bowl.
In the audience was George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, the sleek leader of the Sharks.
“I thought, ‘How are they going to do this and keep it in sync?’ ” says Chakiris, now 76. “But it was so flawlessly done.” He and Russ Tamblyn, the film’s Riff, are coming to Avery Fisher for an encore.
Though Bernstein reportedly favored his more serious symphonies and opera music, those who knew him say “West Side Story” — “Romeo and Juliet” played out on the mean streets of New York — was close to his heart.
“I think he was proud of what he’d written, whether it was musicals or serious music,” says keyboardist Harriet Wingreen, who joined the Phil in 1965. She’s still there, but says the piano passages of “West Side Story” are “unplayable” for her 85-year-old hands, so another keyboardist will perform them.
As Bernstein’s rehearsal pianist, she had a rare view of him at home. She was shocked to find he read all his reviews, good and bad.
“Harold Schonberg, the critic for the Times, just killed him,” Wingreen says. “I was in [Bernstein’s] apartment once when one of his sidekicks gave him a review, and I can’t tell you what he said!” Oh yes, you can.
“ ‘That motherf - - - ing c - - ksucker!’ ”
Bernstein died in 1990, a loss music lovers still feel today. That seemed clear this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, whose “West Side Story” screening drew 22,000 people. As one critic reported it: “The loudest cheers were heard when Leonard Bernstein’s name was shown, in graffiti scrawl, on the end credits.”
And the New York Philharmonic? It’s just getting warmed up: On Oct. 25, “Star Wars” composer John Williams will lead the Phil in such classic film scores as “Spartacus” and “Vertigo.” Come Nov. 2 and 3, it’ll join Philip Glass and his ensemble for the 1982 cult hit “Koyaanisqatsi.”