Post image for Los Angeles Music Review: WEST SIDE STORY: FILM WITH LIVE ORCHESTRA (LA Phil’s BERNSTEIN 100)

by Tony Frankel on November 30, 2017

in Film,Music,Theater-Los Angeles


As is becoming increasingly popular, films with astounding soundtracks are being shown with just dialogue and sound effects while an orchestra plays the score live; it’s cost-effective for the presenting organization and offers the spectator the chance to hear live music while waxing nostalgic over a great movie. The Los Angeles Philharmonic didn’t just make a case for this type of entertainment last weekend at Disney Hall, but presented the score to West Side Story with such brutal conviction and polished precision that it should be recorded for CD release without dialogue.

When I first heard West Side Story, it was the original Broadway cast recording on my parents’ mono Magnavox console. Without  Jerome Robbins’ direction and choreography, without the sets and costumes, and without the dialogue, I was transfixed over and over by the 1957 trailblazing musical, an updating of Romeo and Juliet. Even without hearing the dialogue, all of those themes in Arthur Laurents’ story—belonging, true love, war, peer pressure—resonated. The dazzling street-wise sophistication of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics combined with all of those styles in Leonard Bernstein’s rhythmic score created a seminal musical of grittiness and beauty for the ages.

Winning ten Oscars, the Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins-directed film adaptation was the hit of 1961. LA Phil’s remarkable, revelational performance of the film’s complete musical soundtrack — playing along with a screening of the film — elucidated not only the creators’ breathtaking originality and innovation, but Bernstein’s unmatched genius for incorporating classical, jazz, be-bop, blues, and vaudeville into a brash new Broadway sound. But I noticed something else: the orchestrations sounded beefier and fresher than they did in a movie theater. Certainly David Newman’s conducting — so fierce that his baton went flying at one point — was a marvel of endurance and sensitivity, and the indefatigable players astounded with their precision and stamina, but it turns out these are updated orchestrations.

One of the Academy Awards went to Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Irwin Kostal, and Sid Ramin for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture. Kostal and Ramin orchestrated the original Broadway musical in close collaboration with Bernstein, but the Maestro did not like all of the scoring adaptation, which according to him leaned toward sentimentalization (Green conducted and Chaplin was Associate Producer). This may be the centennial celebration of Bernstein, but the score was tweaked back in 2011 for the film’s 50th anniversary. Hewing closer to those thrilling original orchestrations from Broadway, Garth Edwin Sunderland of the Leonard Bernstein Office oversaw a piecing together and editing of the music, which now has more texture than the original score, which I must admit sounds a bit syrupy in comparison to this glorious redux. The updates, Technicolor for the ears, were especially notable in the “Dance at the Gym” — with its heart-racing “Mambo” — and “Cool.”

The music was digitally erased from the soundtrack, so Bernstein’s office had to scrupulously synchronize the new score back into the film; an exacting job to be sure. Now, Newman follows a monitor which displays a quick-darting series of light bars and flashing-dot cues (a.k.a. click track, which is essentially a multi-colored moving metronome). Unfortunately, the venue’s acoustics, brilliant for the music, were a bit unkind to the dialogue and sound effects, which both had unintentional reverb (one day they’ll fix those amplification gremlins at Disney Hall). Also, West Side Story was filmed in the Panavision 70 format, and Panavision engineers broke new ground in telephoto and zoom lenses (cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp also won an Oscar), but the film did not fit the hall’s screen; none of it was cut off, but the movie should have been larger. Still, there’s no arguing the movie’s timelessness and the privilege of watching nearly 100 players blasting this marvelous music into the firmament.

photo stills and poster copyright Mirisch Films

West Side Story: Film with Live Orchestra
Los Angeles Philharmonic
David Newman, conductor
played November 24 and 26 (review date), 2017
for more events, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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