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The Phil tangles with Sharks and Jets

An orchestra playing along to the film of 'West Side Story' -- sounds simple, yes? In a word, no.

July 03, 2011|Barbara Isenberg

In town conducting at the Hollywood Bowl in 1955, composer Leonard Bernstein took a break to visit with playwright Arthur Laurents at the Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool. The two men sat at the edge of the pool, discussing not just their assorted projects but also that morning's headlines about juvenile delinquent gangs.

The way Laurents put it in his memoir "Original Story By," that poolside conversation jump-started "West Side Story," one of the most accomplished musicals of all time. Both men were already intrigued by choreographer Jerome Robbins' idea to rethink Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as a contemporary musical, and the collaborators soon scrapped Catholic and Jewish protagonists for a tale of rival urban gangs.

"West Side Story's" Jets and Sharks burst onto Broadway in 1957, then onto the big screen in 1961. Robbins and Robert Wise directed Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as the doomed lovers, and the film won 10 Academy Awards, including best picture. A supporting cast led by Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn sang, danced and fought its way across New York's Upper West Side to Bernstein's extraordinary music, Laurents' tender book and Robbins' incomparable choreography; then-27-year-old Stephen Sondheim crafted the memorable lyrics.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 03, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
"West Side Story": An article in the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition about the restoration of the "West Side Story" score misspells the name of the Leonard Bernstein Office's Eleonor Sandresky as Eleanor Sandreski. The error was detected after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 10, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
"West Side Story": A July 3 article about the restoration of the "West Side Story" score misspelled the name of the Leonard Bernstein Office's Eleonor Sandresky as Eleanor Sandreski.

Now comes the film's 50th-anniversary year, and where better to celebrate than at the Hollywood Bowl, which played a role in its gestation? To honor the occasion, the Bowl will present on Friday and Saturday a newly remastered HD film screening and a live performance of Bernstein's music, with David Newman conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"This is the first time the complete film score has been played by an orchestra since it was recorded in 1961," said Garth Edwin Sunderland, senior music editor at the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York. "Until now, the only way a symphonic orchestra could play this music was to play excerpts from the Broadway score or 'Symphonic Dances From "West Side Story," ' a 20-minute concert suite of the dance music."

The "Symphonic Dances" have been performed nearly three dozen times by the L.A. Philharmonic alone, for instance, most recently under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel at the Bowl last summer. So when the Leonard Bernstein Office approached the Phil with the promise of a complete score for the Bowl this summer, who could say no?

" 'West Side Story' is one of the iconic movie musicals, and we haven't seen it in this form with a live orchestra," said Arvind Manocha, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. "For us, it was a no-brainer."

It was not, however, an easy task for the people who put together the 90-minute score. For the Leonard Bernstein Office, which works to protect and preserve Bernstein's legacy, it was a complicated, multi-year endeavor.

"This is something I wanted to do for quite a while," said Paul Epstein, senior vice president of the Leonard Bernstein Office. "The experience of having a live orchestra is so much more visceral than hearing the soundtrack of a film. With the 50th anniversary of the film coming up, we reinvestigated how to overcome all the obstacles."


Herculean task

The organization, which is the event's producer, had long faced two challenges: Substantial parts of the film's score were missing and, until very recently, there was no good way to separate the film's vocal and orchestral tracks. How would an audience be able to hear the film's vocals without hearing the filmed orchestra?

First was the problem of locating the film music, an endeavor that took Bernstein staffer Eleanor Sandreski a year of research. But even that didn't net a complete orchestral score, explained Sunderland.

"For instance, there were not just changes made by the film editor after the recording sessions but also improvisations by studio musicians," he said. "In some places, too, the film orchestration was unwieldy for live performance without the limitless resources of an MGM recording studio."

A major challenge was finding a balance between Bernstein's original orchestrations and the film's elaborations upon them, Sunderland said. "There were 30 seconds in the prologue, for instance, which had five xylophones, doubled by five pianos. It's a thrilling section but completely impractical for live performance."

Ask Sid Ramin, "West Side Story's" Oscar-winning co-orchestrator. "On Broadway, we used 'doublers' for the woodwinds, where the first reed might play flute, clarinet, as many instruments as he knew how to play," he recalled. "But when we did the picture, it was one player for every instrument. I think we used 16 woodwind players rather than the four we had on Broadway. It was a luxury and we loved it."

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