For all its success, Leonard Bernstein disliked the film of “West Side Story,” especially Hollywood orchestrations that made the street-gang “Romeo and Juliet” musical too imposingly sentimental. The production, too, was marked by gentrification: Just after filming, the tenements of the location-filmed opening were razed to make room for Lincoln Center.
The version of “West Side Story” performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Friday — playing along with a screening of the film — was conceived as partial redress: the score tweaked to be closer to Bernstein’s original and to Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal’s lean, resourceful theater orchestration; live performance adding incisive texture that the film soundtrack smoothed away. (The new version was premiered in 2011, for the film’s 50th anniversary; the BSO performed it last summer at Tanglewood.)
The labor involved — piecing together and editing the music (that work overseen by Eleonor Sandresky and Garth Edwin Sunderland of the Leonard Bernstein Office), digitally scrubbing the orchestra from the soundtrack, painstakingly synchronizing the score back to the film — was formidable. Conductor David Newman followed a monitor superimposing a dizzying, darting series of moving-bar and flashing-dot cues onto the film; both he and the players wore headphones providing a metronomic click track of tempi.
Boston Symphony Orchestra: “West Side Story”, Robert Newman, conductor
It was elaborate tailoring for, in essence, a straitjacket, a preordained, circumscribed flow of musical time. That the constraint was only occasionally noticeable was testament to the skill of both the players and Newman.
Vocal numbers were trickiest: Without that sense of coordinated breath, the music sometimes seemed to chase the beat rather than ride it. Dances, though, were thrilling, dynamically punchy. Jerome Robbins’s choreographic sequences were the highlights of both film and concert, movement through space translated into powerful graphic design on screen, the orchestra locking into the rhythms with athletic proficiency.
The film remains more grand than gritty — nothing about it feels light or nimble — and a nearly 90-piece orchestra is still pretty luxe for a musical. In that way, this hybrid had something of a 21st-century urban feel: a new development disguised as a reclamation project, up-to-date comforts and conveniences given a referential veneer of the old neighborhood.
But the story still plays out with striking effectiveness; “West Side Story” is engineered with high tolerances. There will always, it seems, be a place for us in “West Side Story,” even when it’s not the place it once was.