Leonard Bernstein’s film score comes to life with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s West Side Story

It would be easy to say that West Side Story is the quintessential American musical.  Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, the racially charged love story is set in the late 1950s in the powder keg of an ethnically divided, blue-collar Upper West Side, New York neighborhood.  But stage shows which integrated racial prejudice, social injustice and bittersweet  love have been around since Jerome Kern’s Show Boat and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.  Still, West Side Story marked an epochal turn in musical theater from the sentimental themes of the Depression Era and post-war America to the sophisticated, socially conscious motifs of the 1960s.

West Side Story, the Academy Award winning film, was presented in its entirety as the final performance of the season by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by then-newcomer Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents and innovative choreography by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story included such modern pop standards as “Tonight”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Somewhere”, “Maria” and the show stopping, “America”.

The 1961 film version of the Broadway musical won ten Oscars, including Best Picture, and starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.  (Baltimorean John Astin also made an hilarious, uncredited appearance in the dance hall scene.)

It might just be a coincidence that in back-to-back performances last May, the BSO accompanied Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times and then presented Prokofiev’s intoxicating ballet Romeo and Juliet.  But pairing those delightful presentations certainly set the stage for West Side Story.

In choosing to accompany West Side Story, Music Director Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) took on the task of synchronizing a live performance to set dance numbers and the recognizable vocal renderings of playback singers Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant.  This was an extremely daunting undertaking on the company’s part.

Technology has allowed for the removal of the original orchestral accompaniment while retaining both the musical vocals and the dialogue.  But given the enormity of the orchestra that worked on the film (for instance, five xylophones doubled by five pianos), recreating the original arrangements by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal would be nearly impossible for most companies.  Consequently, the Leornard Bernstein Office produced a new version of the film score which would capture the original tone, yet be practical for a concert performance.

Marin Alsop leads the BSO Orchestra. Courtesy KenRockwell.com
Marin Alsop leads the BSO Orchestra. Courtesy KenRockwell.com

Admittedly, the new version sounded thin in certain spots.  This was most noticeable in the “Tonight Quintet.”  But the orchestra dazzled with the revamped “America”, the Gershwinesque “Prologue”,  the intricately woven, “Dance at the Gym”, and the finger snapping jazz number, “Cool”.

Only with “Maria”did they experience a noticeable bump in the road.  There was a slight delay on the downbeat, and the musicians never really caught up with Jimmy Bryant’s vocals.  This misfire did not matter to the near-capacity crowd who stayed through the end of the film’s credits and then gave Alsop and the BSO a well-deserved standing ovation.

West Side Story was a forward thinking musical with themes which are still critical today.  But for Alsop, the film conveys a second, more personal relevancy.

“I love this film, because it was shot in the late 1950s and early ‘60s in an area I knew very well; a lot of tenements and grittiness.  That area was later redeveloped and became the Lincoln Center.  I look at this film now and think, ‘that’s right where the Metropolitan Opera is today’.”

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concluded it’s 2012-2013 season with its performance of West Side Story.  Information about summer shows, such as the July 3&4 Star Spangled Spectacular at Oregon Ridge Park, and the schedule for the upcoming 2013-2014 season may be found at the BSO website.