This post is from NSO@Wolf Trap Festival Conductor Emil de Cou.
Picture it: the early 20th century, Lower East Side of New York City, a Jewish girl on a balcony, an Irish boy below singing "Tonight" in a musical called East Side Story. Indeed, that's how the idea for the musical that came to be known as West Side Story started out in the initial collaboration between playwright Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein. Over the next several years, with Jerome Robbins joining the creative team as director/choreographer and Stephen Sondheim as lyricist, the action of this modern day adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was transposed to the Upper West Side, with the animosity now between gangs of working class white kids and Puerto Rican immigrants.
The slums of the Upper West Side have long since given way to luxury high-rise condos and Lincoln Center and the most dangerous rumbles in the neighborhood are over the last chocolate babka or marble rye at Schnitzer's Bakery, the mythical battleground in the adventures of Seinfeld. What hasn't changed is West Side Story's iconic position in the canon of musical theatre. At any given moment somewhere in the world its score can be heard on Broadway, in London, in high schools, opera houses, ballet theatres, night clubs, and elevators.
All of which is a bit ironic considering how difficult a show it was to birth. Producers found the material too dark and musicians thought the score too complicated for singers and audiences alike. What we now consider hummable tunes were discordant at the time, not quite the stuff of The Music Man, which beat out West Side Story for the Tony Award in 1957. As much as we think of West Side Story as a classic, the original production ran a respectable, but hardly blockbuster, 732 performances. Compare that to the big hit of the day, My Fair Lady, which ran for 2,717 performances.
The labor pains paid off big time when the film version was released in 1961 and went on to win 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (shared by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise), and Best Score, for which a team of Hollywood's finest orchestrators and arrangers- Irwin Kostal, Johnny Greene, Saul Chaplin, and Sid Ramin- collaborated to bring Berstein's score from theatre to cinema. The result of this collaborative effort is what you hear tonight as we bring the music to life with the National Symphony Orchestra, and extra kudos to the NSO because Bernstein's rhythmic and harmonic diversity is quite the two-hour ride. From the bracing opening credits to the final shot, the music illustrates each and every emotional aspect with a complex instrumentation that requires all of us to stay on our toes, not so much for the singing as for the dancing: when the power of Bernstein's score meets the expressive precision of Robbin's choreography there isn't much wiggle room. You can't cheat the beat.
Oh, and yes, there is singing too. Another collaborator who could not cheat the beat is the soprano Marni Nixon as Maria. "Who?" you ask? Surely you remember her as the star of My Fair Lady as Eliza and The Kind and I as Anna? Alas, this greatest of Hollywood dubbers remains unheralded except by those in the industry. Not necessarily to their liking, Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn, and Deborah Kerr had singing voices that were deemed insufficient for motion pictures. Marni Nixon became the hired gun for the stars. It might have been some consolation to Natalie Wood that her co-star Richard Beymer, who plays Tony, wasn't considered voice-worthy either and was dubbed by singer Jimmy Bryant.
Still, it is Wood who breathes life into the character of Maria, just as Beymer brings the passion and pain of adolescent love to the role of Tony. It is this passion and pain of timeless love gone awry-with a little humor here and there-that reminds us that a little comedy makes tragedy a bit more bearable.
West Side Story
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Complete Film with Live Orchestra
Giant screens in-house and on the lawn!