Composer David Newman On Why Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ Is Definitive

“I know lots of these recordings, and I think this is a definitive performance of West Side Story,” enthused David Newman, the composer given the job of arranging the score for director Steven Spielberg’s vision of the classic. “We did stuff that I think helped it, things you can’t do in a theater production.”

The job was a very personal one.

West Side Story has been a part of my life since I was a kid,” he recalled. “I remember listening to the Broadway cast album with my father, 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 years old. It was a big thing in high school in West Los Angeles to do musical theater in the spring semester.”

“One year, it was West Side Story, and I was the rehearsal pianist, and we’d rehearse the show every day for four months. I got intimately to know the Broadway version of it.”

The original 1957 Broadway production, composed by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was nominated for six Tony Awards. The 1961 movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture, and Spielberg’s 2021 $100 million budget adaptation is also expected to garner Oscars attention.

Newman saw the original West Side Story movie with his mother and later started up his own theatre company where, as musical director, he was once again involved in a stage production. Around that time, when he was in his 20s, Newman moved into the world of film scores. In 2011 he premiered the 1961 movie with a live orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl after doing a similar thing worldwide.

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“John Williams was going to do the movie when they announced it, but it’s a different job than composing, so he suggested that I do it,” Newman recalled. “It’s not something right up my alley, per se, and if it was anything but West Side Story, I think I would have tried to say maybe I’m not the best person to do this. However, I know West Side Story inside and out. 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 movie, and then Bernstein’s arrangement, which is a canonical piece now. What’s that one in a million chance of a frigging Broadway show arrangement being in the classical music canon from 1750 to today? It’s incomprehensible. All of that was fodder for pulling in because it’s a movie, but it’s the Broadway show. We were not rearranging or reorchestrating. Anything we did add needed to be hidden under that umbrella.”

He continued, “Spielberg and the writer Tony Kushner had been working on it for a year, and they had chosen from these various materials what they wanted to hear. That meant we had a jumping-off point. This West Side Story is all Spielberg’s vision, the whole thing. Whatever one thinks of the concept of actually doing this, this is his vision,” he added. “I knew all the performances and all the incidental music in West Side Story that you wouldn’t know unless you’ve done the show, and most people haven’t. There’s a lot of incidental music in West Side Story that has this kind of melodrama thing going on between scenes.” 

For Newman, this 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 musical editor, did a heroic job melding the vocals because all the actors were singing for themselves. They all have good voices, but being singers is not their job. We didn’t want anything to jar you out of the story,” the Oscar-nominated composer explained. “Most of the music is very integrated into the story, so we made little subtle introductions into songs, and they didn’t just pop on, 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, if not more, important than knowing what they did want.

“We never wanted it to be like this is a new arrangement of West Side Story. That’s the opposite of what we wanted. We wanted a great performance of the essence of what Bernstein’s vision was originally for West Side Story. That was our mandate.”

One thing Newman, Spielberg, and the team were adamant about was keeping the control conditions and components of the original productions. They wanted a freshness but also for it to be as close to what was known as possible.

“It was endless details. It’s hard to explain because orchestration is so weird. To change one little can be huge,” Newman said. “I remember being in high school and college and rehearsing Petrushka by Stravinsky, rehearsal after rehearsal, and then the bass clarinet was sick one day. They didn’t get a sub, so we rehearsed a portion of it 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? This doesn’t sound like anything. It’s wrong.’ So yes, with West Side Story, we obsessed over orchestration.” 

“There are many unusual ways that West Side Story is orchestrated that are unconventional, but we wanted to stick with that because if we didn’t, it would sound different and wrong and not like Bernstein. We weren’t trying to be different, and we certainly didn’t want to do wrong. “

He concluded, “We did do an arrangement of “Somewhere” for Rita Moreno, which uses some of the orchestration from the Broadway show. In the show, it was performed by a disembodied singer. In the 1961 movie, Tony and Maria sing it as a duet, but in our movie, Rita Moreno is singing it almost like a recitative. This West Side Story is a very unusual movie. It’s not an updating or remake of a musical. In my opinion, it’s much more akin to a different production of an opera. The music and the text are sacrosanct, but you can change the focus of the production. You’re not changing what they’re saying, you’re not changing the story, you’re not changing the music, but it’s a different context. It’s one of the reasons I believe this is a definitive performance.”

West Side Story is in theaters now.

The Tycoon Herald