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Concert review: 'West Side Story' film premiere at the Hollywood Bowl with live orchestra

July 9, 2011 |  3:47 pm

West Side Story This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

The Hollywood Bowl became, as it occasionally does, a big cinema Friday night. Fifty years after "West Side Story" was first shown at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre down the road, the film had a new "premiere." This time the orchestral score was digitally removed from the sound track and replaced by a live orchestra.

David Newman conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic skillfully and excitingly. An avid crowd of nearly 10,000 applauded the dance sequences, which were newly thrilling. The loudest cheers, though, were heard when Leonard Bernstein’s name was shown, in graffiti scrawl, on the end credits.

Would the composer have winced or been secretly pleased? Populist though he was and a media maven, he had little to do with Hollywood or its Bowl. He accepted only one invitation to score a film, “On the Waterfront,” in 1954, in part because he had been blacklisted and needed the work. He created what has become, in its concert version, a repertory work. At Oscar time, the film won eight Academy Awards but the composer was snubbed.

Bernstein didn’t involve himself with the filming of “West Side Story” -- which was directed by Robert Wise and the irascible Jerome Robbins (who choreographed the dances but was ultimately kicked off the set) -- and could be privately dismissive of its “Hollywood-ization.”

He conducted rarely at the Bowl, although a 1955 appearance led to Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, conceiving the idea of using gangs in “West Side Story.” And in 1982, Bernstein conducted a transcendental performance of the “West Side Story” Symphonic Dances at the Bowl with the L.A. Philharmonic (which they recorded).

Seeing the film (which will be repeated Saturday night) at the Bowl with a live orchestra is an intriguingly odd experience. A large screen suspended over the shell was not quite large enough to do full justice to a movie shot in Panavision 70. It had to be letterboxed but the new HD transfer looked great. Eight small monitors were on the lip of the stage for the folks in the most expensive seats (who basically had the experience of watching the film on television). The side video screens were also employed, which meant from my vantage at the rear of the boxes, I could see it on 11 different-sized screens.

The original soundtrack sounded boomy and unnatural, spoken and sung voices had different characteristics, and mixing in the live orchestra, which was also amplified, was an ongoing balancing act. And Newman’s job was not to interpret but to follow, which he did convincingly. He is an enthusiastic, jazzy conductor, and he was able to produce quite a bit of excitement along the way.

But in many ways this new artificiality was all to the good. The old artificiality of “West Side Story” is as an immersive cinematic experience, what with the Sharks and Jets dancing on city streets ("gangs of ballerinas" was the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s description). At the Bowl, however, these dances became a hybrid between live performance and film, and were not just beautiful but surprisingly believable.

The film’s tiresomely sentimental scenes, especially during “Tonight” on the balcony, felt ever more fake when seen in context of a live performance setting, but even that was a sort of improvement. It became easier for the viewer to separate good music from bad cinema.

Ultimately, this “live” performance was intended less as a new kind of performance art than as a new kind of packaging, which has become big Bernstein business since his death in 1990. MGM treated the Bowl’s “West Side Story” as a promotion tool for its upcoming Blu-ray release of the movie and its cable TV operations.

Still, the Bowl’s “West Side Story” is a step in the right direction. Bernstein ultimately learned to hate the recording studio and the studio system. In his later years, he insisted that all his recordings and videos be documents of live performances.

So why not now go further with “West Side Story” as a performance film?  Neither Natalie Wood (Maria) nor Richard Beymer (Tony) did their own singing on screen. Next time let there be live singers for the musical numbers. And go ahead, mess with the film’s orchestral score, which was produced, if with Bernstein oversight, by other hands. It, too, need not be sacrosanct. 

A stage work is meant to be interpreted. Might not the same be possible for an imperfect but sometimes inspired film version of a musical?

[For the record, 12:25 p.m. July 11: An earlier version of this review did not specify that Bernstein and Laurents conceived the idea of using white and Puerto Rican gangs to tell the story.]

RELATED:

The Phil tangles with Sharks and Jets

-- Mark Swed

Photo: "West Side Story" projected over the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday night. Credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times.

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