“West Side Story” and the New York Philharmonic
On Wednesday, September 7 the New York Philharmonic presented a 50th anniversary, high definition, screening of the film “West Side Story” (1961), at which the Philharmonic played the score live, at Avery Fisher Hall. The event was conducted by the prolific film scorer, and international orchestra leader, David Newman. Although the Philharmonic has played selections from “West Side Story” in the past, Wednesday’s event marked the first time the orchestra had ever played the entire score. It was also the 15,228 concert given by the New York Philharmonic.
After intermission, just before the film’s second half, Newman addressed the audience. He told us that “West Side Story” is very much in the Philharmonic’s blood due to its composer’s (the late Leonard Bernstein) association with the Philharmonic. Newman also pointed out that the film’s opening dance sequence that establishes the rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, was filmed on the grounds of what is now Lincoln Center.
Newman then brought the house down by introducing “West Side Story” cast members, who were in the audience, including Russ Tamblyn (who played Riff), and Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor, George Chakiris (who played Bernardo). Newman also introduced Marni Nixon, who famously dubbed Natalie Wood’s singing voice in the film. “West Side Story” producer Walter Mirisch and the children of Leonard Bernstein, and the film’s late co-director Robert Wise, were also present and acknowledged.
From my second row seat all I can say is “wow.” Just walking into Avery Fisher Hall and hearing the musicians warm up was a thrill. Although, from my perspective, the on stage musicians blocked the lower part of the screen, it did not matter. The musicians were the reason I was there. Having seen “West Side Story” numerous times, beginning at around age 11, I tried, unsuccessfully, to not get caught up in the story. Instead my eyes darted from the screen to the musicians to Newman’s spirited conducting style. Newman’s enthusiasm, and constant in motion body language, as he conducted while watching the movie on a small TV screen in front of him, with the music cue marks delineated by moving vertical lines, was one of the evening’s many highlights.
Having worked in the post-production end of the film industry, I can appreciate how a movie like “West Side Story,” obviously, has numerous music cues. It is one thing to get the cues exact in the editing room. It is quite another issue to have to hit each cue live with a sold out house watching. The Philharmonic’s musicians made it look effortless.
As for the movie itself, as I revisit films over the years I find that while the movies do not change, I do. In each of the many times I have seen “West Side Story,” I have always found something new and compelling in the characters, story and music. I can still remember seeing it for the first on TV, as a little kid, in a cropped “pan and scan” version, presented over two nights. I recall the strong impression that each half made on me, as well as on my elementary school friends. We had never seen anything like it. Now, as an adult and a film writer, at Wednesday’s performance I found myself particularly moved by the film’s second half in which the film’s two lovers, Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) try to create a peaceful world in which to be together. Despite their best intentions events spin wildly out of control, building to a very powerful final scene. At age 50, with the Sharks and the Jets now in their 70s, and with a new DVD and Blu Ray release to follow, “West Side Story” retains its relevance and emotional power, evident from the evening’s numerous curtain calls.
Oh yeah, and there’s the music too.