WEST SIDE STORY – BSO at Tanglewood

Thousands in a sold-out shed and on the packed lawn enthusiastically experienced the BSO’s splendid performance of the complete musical score accompanying a sparkling remastered "West Side Story” last night at Tanglewood. No conductor better suited to lead the BSO for the occassion was David Newman, who has scored more than 110 films, worked with the finest orchestras worldwide, and twice before conducted screenings of the 1961 Academy Award-winning film.

The event made evident great musicals have great music and great dance. Newman and the BSO didn’t miss a beat in the dance, in song, or in dialogue with Leonard Bernstein’s glorious score. An American treasure, the film memorializes forever the spectacular, groundbreaking choreography of Jerome Robbins. The union of music and dance is amazing, particularly in the ballets (yes we can call them that) of the Jets and the Sharks. The film earned its Best Editing Oscar (of 10, including Best Picture) just for the choreographed rumble, where violence and athleticism have seldom more viscerally been combined.

Some random observations. First, Natalie Wood, Maria, looks SO young, SO virginal. Second, for those of us of a “certain age”, the story reminds how much the country has changed. In “West Side Story”, Puerto Ricans were so marginalized, they saw themselves as immigrants, even though they have always been US citizens. Third, the use of the gun - and a simple handgun at that - is a shocking, extreme act. Enough said.

Impressive is how creatively Arthur Laurent’s book, adapted for the screen by Ernest Lehman, hews to Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”, particularly in the second act. (The movie has an intermission. Remember those?) Stephen Sondheim, who was 25 when he penned the lyrics, was way ahead of his time. Just listen to the lyrics of “Gee, Officer Krupke” where the Jets blame their delinquency on families of drug addicts, drunks, and what we used to call sexual deviants (and it’s played for comedic relief) and concludes “Officer Krupuk… krup you!" Brilliant, just brilliant.

But getting back to Bernstein - the centenary of his birth the raison d’être for the performance - what was most revelatory was the film’s intricate underscoring and the interstitial orchestrations, which I’d never heard before, even though they’d always been there.

As ravishing, although more subdued, as the overture was the underscore for the end credits (ingeniously designed by the great graphic artist Saul Bass) which were most always cut from television broadcasts. In their usual ill-mannered custom (rude, really), some Tanglewood patrons started for the parking lots early - last night when the film’s end credits began, despite a polite request in the program to remain seated until the performance was fully completed. Most gratifying for the majority who remained was the spontaneous roar from the crowd when the names of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim appeared in the end credits. What a legacy these creative geniuses have produced. It makes one proud to be an American.

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