Playing along with West Side Story
The beloved movie takes on new life with a live orchestra playing the score
West Side Story
With: National Arts Centre Orchestra
When & where: Jan. 17, 18, 19 at 8 p.m., NAC
Tickets: At the NAC box office or, with surcharges, through Ticketmaster.
When conductor Jayce Ogren takes the stage Thursday evening to conduct the National Arts Centre Orchestra, he will be marching to a different kind of beat. And so will the players. Each will don a set of head phones and listen to the beat of Bernstein — Leonard, that is.
The clicks that will sound in their ears represent the rhythm of West Side Story, the seminal film musical that has been adapted to allow a live orchestral performance to accompany the late Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno as they sing or lip sync some of the greatest songs written for the musical stage.
On the surface, the idea seems disarmingly simple: playing along with the Sharks and the Jets as they do battle on the streets of New York City in the late 1950s. But in reality, it’s no mean feat.
Worldwide, orchestras are playing movie scores as a way to attract new audiences and offer a different kind of musical experience. But adapting one of the most sophisticated scores ever written for a Broadway musical is a challenge.
In January 2011, officials at the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York decided they would prepare a version of West Side Story to offer up to venues to program in their seasons in honour of the 50th anniversary year of the film’s release.
But they did not have a complete score to work from, said Garth Edwin Sunderland, the senior music editor for the Bernstein Office, the organization charged with protecting and promoting the legacy of Bernstein, who died almost 13 years ago in 1990.
West Side Story was a collaboration of four of the brightest talents working at the time: Bernstein, the towering musical figure, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, composer of note and great pianist; Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book; Jerome Robbins, whose came up with the idea of taking the story of Romeo and Juliet and turning it into a musical; and an up-and-coming Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics. The musical features some of the most memorable songs of the Broadway stage, including Something’s Coming, Maria, America and I Feel Pretty.
When it opened on Broadway, John Chapman of the New York Daily News wrote: “This is a bold new kind of musical theatre — a jukebox Manhattan opera. It is, to me, extraordinarily exciting … the manner of telling the story is a provocative and artful blend of music, dance and plot — and the music and the dancing are superb. In (the score), there is the drive, the bounce, the restlessness and the sweetness of our town. It takes up the American musical idiom where it was left when George Gershwin died. It is fascinatingly tricky and melodically beguiling, and it marks the progression of an admirable composer …”
The film was unveiled in 1961 and won 10 Oscars, having been nominated for 11. Still, Bernstein is said to have not been totally pleased with the film score. And critics were less kind about the film. Pauline Kael, the legendary New Yorker critic, called it “frenzied hokum.”
Roger Ebert is kinder. In a recent review he said, “I think there are great things in the movie, especially some of the songs of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the powerful performances by Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, and above all Jerome Robbins’ choreography.”
Alex Ross, in his seminal work on 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise, describes the music this way:
“West Side Story is a beautifully engineered piece of pop theatre, fuelled by bebop melody, Latin rhythm, and old school Tin Pan Alley lyric craft. It is also a sophisticated essay in 20th-century style.”
Taking such an iconic work and adapting it to be seen in a new way carries a lot of responsibility. There are “Expectations.”
Sunderland calls the score to West Side Story “iconic. I don’t think there is a person in America who hasn’t heard the song I feel Pretty. Historically I think it contributed to moving Broadway forward into a more sophisticated style … in terms of Bernstein’s contribution.”
Sunderland says all of Bernstein’s music has an “integral drama” in it.
Perhaps that is why Bernstein laced the score with the dissonance of the notoriously unstable tritone or the “devil’s interval,” Sutherland says. You can hear it in the opening of the song Ma-ri-a.
“He built this really beautiful score around this really dissonant interval. I have to think he relished the challenge of that.”
Sunderland also thinks that Bernstein’s music, since his death, has had a rebirth. Pieces that were pilloried when they debuted are now played all over the world. “Today there is a broader acceptance of different styles” of music. Sunderland says this is part of Bernstein’s populist point of view.
In an article he has written on the recreation, Sunderland explained that “the challenge was to find a balance between Bernstein’s original orchestrations and the film’s elaborations upon them. This was necessary for both musical and practical reasons. … In live performance, what the musicians play is what you are going to hear — there are no tricks that can be played after the fact.”
Sunderland wrote that the first step “was to go back to the source, the original Broadway score, and begin the process of incorporating the many musical changes that were made for the film … To further complicate things, no complete full score of the 1961 film has ever been located, and the original parts have been lost.”
So he ended up working with a conductor’s “short score,” which condenses the music into four or five staves, and then cross-checking that with the original film. As you might expect, this was hard to do. But after several months it was ready for prime time. The first performance was in Los Angeles in the summer of 2011. Now the piece has been performed in several U.S. cities, in Australia and in London, England at the Royal Albert Hall, where Ogren conducted five sold-out performances. The Hall seats about 5,000 people, so yeah, it is popular.
“It requires a tremendous amount of focus for me because the film doesn’t compromise. It continues to go and go. And my job is to keep the orchestra right with the film.”
He can see the film when he is conducting, and in addition, he uses a small screen that is near his music stand. Coloured lines track across the screen, indicating the tempo in parts of the score where there is no click track, because the music is quite free but still needs to be kept together.
For Ogren, conducting the piece is a pleasure. “The music is just amazing. The themes are so timeless and inventive and they sound so fresh every time. … I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like this music.”
To perform the score, the NACO is bringing in about 30 musicians to beef up its normal complement, including a three-person saxophone section and a drummer with a full kit. The musicians will have three rehearsals to get used to each other and the score before showtime.
The Leonard Bernstein Office supplies a technical team, the click track and the film itself, which has been carefully stripped of the music and digitized to be played on a computer, which the Office is also carting up to Ottawa from New York.