To my ears, the Boston Symphony Orchestra—supplemented by saxophones, guitar, and mandolin—sounded overblown and unbalanced, oddly tinny at times (perhaps because of the amplification), glorious at others.
By Helen Epstein
It came as a jolt as I was sitting in the jam-packed Tanglewood Shed last Saturday night to realize that West Side Story, the once-revolutionary Broadway update of Romeo and Juliet, was 65 years old, born as an idea that choreographer Jerome Robbins presented to Leonard Bernstein in 1948.
The good news is that the music is not remotely arthritic and that this classic American musical is almost as exciting to experience now as it was then. Hundreds of revivals all over the world confirm West Side Story‘s position as a masterpiece of American culture every year.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the well-known musical score was as thrilling as the experience of watching the newly-remastered 1961 film on several enormous screens.
I have written here about my partiality to the Met at the Mall and how state-of-the-art technology has transformed operatic performance into something miraculous and close to what Wagner imagined it could be. Tanglewood’s recent practice of showing movie clips to orchestral accompaniment (mostly by John Williams, conducting the Boston Pops) is nowhere near as elegant and seamlessly integrated as the productions of the Met in HD but it is an interesting, twenty-first-century cultural experience, an uneasy combination of live and recorded components.
Whereas most contemporary musicals employ much reduced or even recordings of orchestras to accompany live performers on stage, Tanglewood’s version of West Side Story did the opposite: the 1961 film was screened to the accompaniment of a first-tier orchestra easily twice the size of the Broadway original.
The way it works is through a new sound technology that—like an audio version of Photoshop—removes one part of the movie soundtrack, the orchestral element, but retains vocals, dialogue, and effects. Conductor David Newman, a veteran composer of film scores in his own right, conducted the large orchestra accompanying the film vocalists. In addition to the score, he had a miniscreen showing the film at the podium, and although he did not always manage to keep the players exactly in synch with the actors on film, it was close enough.
The orchestration and quality of sound seemed very different from Bernstein’s own orchestrations and symphonic concerts of material from West Side Story that I’ve heard in the same venue. To my ears, the orchestra—supplemented by saxophones, guitar, and madolin—sounded overblown and unbalanced, oddly tinny at times (perhaps because of the amplification), glorious at others. Unlike some of my companions who focused most of their attention on the enormous screen, I concentrated on the music I adored as a child and teenager and was distracted by the unfamiliar situation of watching a movie but listening to a live orchestra.
The film of West Side Story (itself a sanitized Hollywood adaptation of the Broadway musical) won 10 Academy Awards, and you can still see why. In addition to the score, there is the astounding choreography that still packs a punch after all these decades. Choreographer Eliot Feld is one of the Jets.
Natalie Wood remains a fragile and moving Maria for all time; Rita Moreno a tart-tongued and wonderful Anita. George Chakiris’s portrayal of Sharks leader Bernardo has held up well, even in the context of far more dangerous gang members in the news today, although he looked like he had spent too much time in a tanning salon. Although some of the Sharks appeared to have been dropped into a vat of brown paint, they didn’t seem like caricatures while, surprisingly enough, the Jets did—as though they had stepped out of the pages of an Archie and Veronica comic book.
Much has been written about alleged racism in West Side Story. Our group, which included an Albanian and a Frenchman, didn’t find it in a script that stereotypes New York City cops, gang members, their girlfriends, and Doc the Pharmacist with a relatively even hand. New York’s West Side of the 1950s plays a major visual role in this film, and shots of the skyline and streets and parks now evoke local history as well as sociology. The old West Side highway under which the Sharks and Jets situate their famous rumble has since been torn down. There are few corner drugstores left in Manhattan, and the tenements that lined the streets have been replaced by the concrete and glass of Lincoln Center.
The once sketchy West Side has become one of the most expensive places in New York City to live. Yet West Side Story sparkles brighter than the new boutiques that now line the old dreary blocks. The BSO will be playing it again in Symphony Hall in 2014. Order your tickets now!