Program Notes: West Side Story

Program Notes: West Side Story

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Full program notes:

Leonard Bernstein

Born: August 25, 1918, Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died: October 14, 1990, New York City

West Side Story

In 1947, choreographer/director Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein with what the composer called in his diary “a noble idea: a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics… Street brawls, double death – it all fits.” The idea lay dormant until 1955, when a Los Angeles newspaper headline about Latino gang problems inspired an exciting new path. With the hiring of 25-year-old composer Stephen Sondheim, who reluctantly signed on to provide lyrics only, the final pieces fell into place.

After two years of rewriting and struggles to raise financing, West Side Story’s 1957 Broadway opening elicited reactions that ranged from passionate raves to stunned walk-outs. The latter were sparked by the musical’s depiction of gang warfare and prejudice, and its near unprecedented body count for a musical on the Great White Way. The show was largely snubbed at the Tony Awards in favor of a more accessible rival, The Music Man.

Nevertheless, audiences in New York and London (where the show was an instant smash) quickly caught up with the innovations of Robbins’ explosive, character-driven choreography, Arthur Laurents’ ingenious transposition of Shakespeare, and the thrilling Bernstein score, with lyrics by Sondheim, that included “Tonight” and “Maria.” When Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise joined forces to co-direct the 1961 screen version for United Artists, starring box office favorite Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer (The Diary of Anne Frank), the result was one of the decade’s greatest commercial and critical triumphs.

The film’s co-stars, George Chakiris (Bernardo) and Rita Moreno (Anita), took home Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Actress. In all, the film won 10 Academy Awards: for Best Art Direction–Set Decoration, Color; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Costume Design, Color (the winner, Irene Sharaff, also worked on the Broadway original); Best Film Editing; Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture; Best Sound; Best Director (for both Robbins and Wise, the first time this award was shared); and Best Picture. Jerome Robbins also received an honorary Academy Award “for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”

a state-of-the-art live performance

Fifty-seven after its original release, the motion picture West Side Story will be presented today in a format that brings its own innovations. MGM has created a restored, high-definition print of the film that reveals details unseen since 1961. A new sound technology developed by Paris-based Audionamix and utilized by Chace Audio by Deluxe, one of the film industry’s top restoration companies, has isolated vocal tracks from the feature, using new source-separation technology that separates elements within a monophonic soundtrack.

In the case of West Side Story, Audionamix “taught” its technology to recognize and then remove orchestral elements on the sound- track while retaining vocals, dialogue, and effects. This allows the Minnesota Orchestra and today’s conductor, David Newman, to accompany the vocals. Newman and the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the first-ever live performance of this production in 2011.

Although the original musical materials for the movie arrangements were lost, 14 months of research by Eleonor M. Sandresky of The Leonard Bernstein Office brought to light a trove of important finds in private collections and library archives around the country. From materials discovered in the papers of orchestrator Sid Ramin, as well as in the archives of conductor/music supervisor Johnny Green, director Robert Wise and producer Walter Mirisch, she was able to assemble a mock-up short score of the complete film. Garth Edwin Sunderland, Senior Music Editor for the Bernstein Office, restored and adapted the orchestration for live performance. At the same time, Sunderland oversaw the creation of a brand new engraving of the entire film score, right down to last-minute modifications made on the scoring stage in 1961.

The final result is a presentation of West Side Story unlike any in the history of this screen musical.

Program note by Steven Smith, an Emmy-nominated documentary producer, journalist, and author of the biography A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann.

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