Composer David Newman Explains Why Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ Is Definitive
“I know a lot of those recordings, and I think this is a definitive performance by West Side Storyenthused David Newman, the composer responsible for arranging the score for director Steven Spielberg’s classic vision. “We did things that I think helped, things that you can’t do in a theatrical production.”
The work was very personal.
“West Side Story been a part of my life since I was a child,” he recalls. “I remember listening to the Broadway cast album with my dad, Alfred Newman. It’s kind of one of my only memories because he was very busy when we were young. He died in 1970, and I think I was 14. It was a big thing at West Los Angeles High School to do musical theater in the spring semester.
“A year was West Side Story, and I was the rehearsal pianist, and we rehearsed the show every day for four months. I got to know the Broadway version intimately.
The original 1957 Broadway production, composed by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was nominated for six Tony Awards. The 1961 film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 10, including Best Picture, and Spielberg’s $100 million budget adaptation in 2021 is also set to grab Oscar attention.
Newman saw the original West Side Story film with his mother and later set up his own theater company where, as musical director, he was again involved in a stage production. Around this time, when he was in his twenties, Newman entered the world of film scores. In 2011, he premiered the 1961 film with a live orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl after doing a similar thing around the world.
“John Williams was going to do the movie when they announced it, but it’s a different job from composing, so he suggested I do it,” Newman recalled. “It’s not something that suits me, per se, and if it was something other than West Side Story, I think I would have tried to say that maybe I’m not the best person to do this. However, I know West Side Story inside and outside. I know all the recordings.
“There are four main sources of West Side Story, which include the Broadway show, which is the main thing, the 1961 film, and then Bernstein’s arrangement, which is now a canonical play. What is the one-in-a-million chance that a Broadway show arrangement was in the canon of classical music from 1750 to today? It’s incomprehensible. It was all fodder to entice because it’s a movie, but it’s the Broadway show. We weren’t rearranging or re-orchestrating. Everything we added had to be hidden under that umbrella.
He continued, “Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner had been working on it for a year and they had chosen from these different materials what they wanted to hear. It meant we had a starting point. This West Side Story is Spielberg’s whole vision, the whole thing. Whatever one thinks of the concept of doing this, that is his vision,” he added. “I knew all the performances and all the incidental music in West Side Story that you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t done the show, and most people didn’t. There is a lot of incidental music in West Side Story which has this kind of melodrama between scenes.
For Newman, it was a professional experience like no other.
“It was a really weird project, but a huge group of us, our music team, made it work. David Channing, the music editor, did a heroic job merging the vocals as all the actors were singing for themselves. They all have great voices, but being singers isn’t their job. We didn’t want anything to take you out of the story,” the Oscar-nominated composer explained. “Most music is very integrated into the story, so we did little subtle intros in the songs, and they didn’t just pop in, so we had to figure out how to get into that stuff without saying, ‘ Oh, here’s a song.’ We wanted to avoid that. »
Knowing what they didn’t want was as important, if not more so, than knowing what they wanted.
“We never wanted it to feel like it was a new arrangement of West Side Story. This is the opposite of what we wanted. We wanted a big performance of the essence of what Bernstein’s vision was for West Side Story. It was our mandate. »
One thing Newman, Spielberg and the team were adamant about was retaining the control conditions and components of the original productions. They wanted freshness but also for it to be as close as possible to what was known.
“It was endless details. It’s hard to explain because the orchestration is so weird. Changing a little bit can be huge,” Newman said. “I remember being in high school and college and of rehearsing Stravinsky’s Petrushka, rehearsal after rehearsal, and then the bass clarinet was sick one day. They didn’t have a sub, so we rehearsed a part without a bass clarinet. There were something like 90 people in the orchestra; one person was missing, and we were like, ‘What? What’s going on? That doesn’t sound like anything. That’s wrong.’ So yes, with West Side Storywe were obsessed with orchestration.
“There are many unusual ways West Side Story is orchestrated in an unconventional way, but we wanted to stick with that because if we didn’t, it would sound different and out of tune and not like Bernstein. We weren’t trying to be different and we certainly didn’t mean any harm. “
He concluded, “We did an arrangement of ‘Somewhere’ for Rita Moreno, which uses some of the orchestration from the Broadway show. In the show, he was performed by a disembodied singer. In the 1961 film Tony and Maria sing it as a duet, but in our film Rita Moreno sings it almost as a recitative. This West Side Story is a very unusual film. This is not an update or remake of a musical. In my opinion, it is much more like a different production of an opera. The music and the text are sacrosanct, but you can change the direction of the production. You don’t change what they say, you don’t change the story, you don’t change the music, but it’s a different context. That’s one of the reasons I think it’s a definitive performance.
West Side Story is in theaters now.