It almost goes without saying that 'West Side Story' might be the greatest musical ever written. It also almost goes without saying that its Oscar-winning screen adaptation might be the greatest musical film ever made. Every note, every lyric, every frame is iconic, a rare example of a work where each element is in perfect harmony with one another. In celebration of the film's fiftieth anniversary, the Sydney Festival have teamed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to present the film, newly restored, with Leonard Bernstein's legendary score performed live.
Adapted from the classic 1957 musical, 'West Side Story' received unanimous critical and commercial acclaim in its transfer to cinema in 1961. Co-directed by filmmaker Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins (who had originally conceived the musical with Bernstein and writer Arthur Laurents), it's an immense film in almost every way, from its stunning cinematography, to Robbins' brutal choreography, to Boris Levin's epic design. Even after half a century, the film has lost none of its impact, and is still a moving and, at times, disturbing criticism of violent youth culture, with doomed lovers Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) pulled apart by racial intolerance. Even now, there's something shocking about a musical that includes blatant racism, violence, rape and death.
One of the major highlights of 'West Side Story' is its magnificent score. Better known as a classical composer, Leonard Bernstein constructed one of the most complex scores ever written for a musical, and it's almost a significant classical achievement in itself. With the recent success of presentations of films and their scores such as 'The Lord of the Rings', it was decided 'West Side' would recieve the same treatment. A massive international effort was launched to find the original sound elements, in order to extract the dialogue from the already-recorded score on the film. However, 50 years on, the original elements had gone missing, making it incredibly difficult to separate the vocal and music tracks. Over the course of nine months, Paris-based company Audionamix extracted each part of the vocals, sound effects and dialogue from the score. After several successful tests and a complete reconstruction of Bernstein's score, the production premiered on July 2011 at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by film composer David Newman. When the Sydney Festival approached the Leonard Bernstein Office about bringing the production here, Newman himself decided to return as conductor and lead the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House Concert Hall.
I have no doubt this is the best many of us will ever hear this score. Bernstein's music has such an engine to it - such a robust power, and hearing it performed live in any capacity is breathtaking. Coupled with the stunning film, the result is magical. There are few more beautiful and moving moments on film or in music than Tony elating over his new love in 'Maria', or more heart-stopping and ecstatic than the Puerto Rican dance duel 'America'. The balance between the live sound and the 50-year old dialogue recording is never jarring or uneven, and while the music is clearly the focus of this production, at no point does it overpower the film. The orchestra give an inspired and flawless performance, and even from up in the circle, I could see the excitement on their faces as they played. Newman kept them on time and cue-perfect, working from a timed monitor of the film as well as his physical score. By the end of the performance, as Maria walks away from the body of her beloved Tony, accompanied by Bernstein's delicate strings, you could hear the sound of sobs and tears throughout the hall.
'West Side Story' stands as one of the great twentieth century artworks, and what the Sydney Festival and the SSO have offered us is a chance to truly appreciate exactly why that is the case. None of its potency has been lost over time, and hearing the music soar through the auditorium only amplified that. Cinema or music today rarely dares to go as far or hit as hard as this. This film-lover will hold this rare and priceless experience very close to his heart.