New York Philharmonic – David Newman conducts Leonard Bernstein’s score to a Live Screening of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story

West Side Story [2021; New York premiere of Bernstein’s score arranged by David Newman]

Tony – Ansel Elgort
Maria – Rachel Zegler
Anita – Ariana DeBose
Bernardo – David Alvarez
Valentina – Rita Moreno
Office Krupke – Brian d’Arcy James
Lieutenant Schrank – Corey Stoll
Riff – Mike Faist
Chino – Josh Andrés Rivera
Anybodys – Iris Menas

New York Philharmonic
David Newman

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Sarah Broshar & Michael Kahn
Production design by Adam Stockhausen
Art direction by Ryan Heck
Set Decoration by Rena DeAngelo
Costumes by Paul Tazewell
Screenplay by Tony Kushner

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 12 September, 2023
Venue: Wi Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

The New York Philharmonic kicked off this season with a screening of Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film of West Side Story with live orchestral accompaniment. Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score – which successfully combines lyricism with Latin-American rhythms, jazz, bebop, blues, vaudeville, and ballet – has a complicated history and exists in several versions. The story, which transforms Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a love story of two teenagers divided by 1950s’ NYC street gangs – the Puerto Rican Sharks and the home turf Jets – began as a Broadway musical in 1957, orchestrated for 27 musicians. For the 1961 film the orchestra was expanded to 72 and a lengthy overture was added. In early 1961 Bernstein supervised Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin assembling a concert piece, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

For this adaptation, composer/conductor David Newman – who knows Bernstein’s score as well as anyone, having conducted live-to-picture presentations of the 1961 version nearly 50 times with orchestras across the U.S. and Europe – made his own arrangement. Like Tony Kushner’s script, the song order for Spielberg’s remake hews closer to the original stage version than to the 1961 movie, although locations for some songs, and some contexts, have been changed. Particularly conspicuous is the repurposing of ‘Somewhere’ (sung by Tony and Maria in the 1961 film) as a song for Valentina (a new character created by Kushner for Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film). A noteworthy addition to the soundtrack, and the first song after the instrumental prologue, is ‘La Borinqueña’ (not the sanitized version that is the current Puerto Rican national anthem, but one written in the mid-1800s when the colony was seeking independence from Spain), sung with its original revolutionary lyrics, and fists up by the Sharks – a cappella and in Spanish. Newman also composed the underscore, based on incidental music from the Broadway show, and included some music not in the earlier film, such as the gorgeously balletic ‘Scherzo’.

The NYP is well acquainted with the film score, having performed real-time accompaniments to the 1961 version in 2011 and 2016 (both times under Newman). More recently and pertinently, the orchestra, led by Music Director Designate Gustavo Dudamel, is featured on the soundtrack of the Spielberg film.

On this occasion, the dimly but visibly illuminated orchestra of nearly 100 musicians let the music rip and the results were sensational. Conducting with vitality and precision (and a monitor displaying a specially marked print of the film) Newman kept the music well synchronized with the screen action, a challenging task given Justin Peck’s intricate choreography (adapted from Jerome Robbins’s iconic dances for the 1957 musical) and the extent to which the score mimics the characters’ movements, and the need to provide perfectly coordinated accompaniments for the vocals.

The rambunctious percussion and edgy brass sections were most spectacular in the fast-paced dance numbers (‘Mambo’ and ‘America’). The sumptuous strings were tender as required in ‘Maria’ and ‘One Hand, One Heart’, and most memorably in ‘Somewhere’. The woodwinds, bouncy and bright in the quirky ‘’Cha-Cha’, were appropriately animated in ‘America’. The ensemble as a whole was at home with the many Latin and jazz elements, successfully conveying the frantic dance rhythms in ‘Mambo’, the fiery passion of ‘America’, the raw punch in the bepop/fugue ‘Cool’, and the dark intensity of ‘The Rumble’. An especially emotional rendering of music from the ‘Balcony Scene’ in the elegiac ‘Finale’ led into the extended ‘End Credits’ sequence where the Geffen Hall lights went up over the musicians as they delivered superlative renderings of ‘Somewhere’, ‘Tonight’, ‘I Feel Pretty’, ‘America’, ‘Scherzo’, ‘Mambo’, and ‘Maria’. 

As for the film itself, what’s very effective is how Kushner’s shrewd and darkly sensitive screenplay makes the story more relevant to today’s audience by amplifying the immigration narrative through deeper back stories of the lead characters and having so much of the action take place against a background of crumbling tenements and wreckage-strewn streets (The movie’s time-frame has been moved a few years forward to correlate with the real-life demolition of New York City’s San Juan Hill neighborhood to make way for Lincoln Center). But most impressive of all are the dazzling montages in the musical numbers and Peck’s reimagining of Robbins’s colorful and innovative choreography, all enhanced by spirited playing.

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