NSO at Wolf Trap: It won’t be just any showing of ‘West Side Story’


George Chakiris (foreground) in ‘West Side Story.’ (west side story/HANDOUT)
July 29, 2012

Just to mention it to a friend is to suddenly be cast an extra in her one-woman show. First, there’s the shrill, “Oh, my god, that’s my favorite musical EVER!” Then there’s the shoulder hunch, the finger snapping, the grand hand gestures, the attempt at lyrics.

“West Side Story,” the ever relevant, swooningly romantic musical set in 1950s New York and put to film in 1961, still grabs hold of its fans more than 50 years later.

As part of the anniversary celebration of the film’s release, the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Emil de Cou, will give a live performance of Leonard Bernstein’s original score Saturday at Wolf Trap while the film plays on giant high-definition screens at the Filene Center, in the covered pavilion and on the lawn.

“Getting to see it this way for the first time would be such an electric experience. A win-win for everybody,” says Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter. “It’s magical, and because you have this really big orchestra, you can hear the score front and center.”

De Cou — a student of Leonard Bernstein’s many years ago at the Hollywood Bowl, the largest natural amphitheater in the country — has done a number of similar performances, though few had the complexity of a Bernstein score. He hopes to honor his former teacher with a flawless synchronization of music to picture Saturday night.


American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for the musical ‘West Side Story,’ is seen in this 1957 photo. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“The orchestra is really, really excited about it. It’s music that we love so much,” de Cou says. “It’s really tricky. And I’ve conducted a lot of movie concerts over many years at Wolf Trap and other places. I was looking at the film today, and it’s extremely complicated because it was never meant to be played this way.”

Although the orchestra soundtrack has been eliminated for Saturday’s performance, the rest of the movie’s audio, including the singing, remains. “And you have to match it within a quarter of a second,” de Cou said.

For a third of the film, de Cou and the musicians will be wearing a single ear cuff each and listening to “click tracks,” a series of audio cues that aid in timing sound to moving images. But for the rest of the performance, they’ll rely on what they see and their memory of the film, right down to the dance steps.

The live orchestra allows the audience to hear the music in a way that only the people who recorded the soundtrack have before.

Helping to pull it all off is NSO production manager Daryl Donley. For 12 years, he’s been bringing his web of wires to the game. And for a production like this, there are sets of wires for stand lights, click tracks, microphones and the movie’s audio-visual components.

“It’s like surgery, Donley says. “It’s gotta be very precise.”

The process of coordinating orchestra and film is complicated by the score, Donley says. “A Bernstein score is more challenging than many of the scores that go to film. It’s because of the details and intricacies and tempo changes,” he says.

So he has no quarrel with providing ear cuffs to the entire orchestra. Generally, only the conductor wears a cuff.

Jamie Bernstein saw the movie with a live orchestra for the first time last month in a performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

“The music resonates forever, and the theme of intolerance still exists,” she says. “And that dancing is the other element that doesn’t go out of date. They created their own little universe.”

Five things you might not know about ‘West Side Story’

1. The original concept for “West Side Story” was a conflict between Jews and Irish Catholics over Easter-Passover season.

2. In the final weeks of writing the show, Leonard Bernstein wrote to his wife, Felicia: ”I never stop working and I never sleep. They want me to cut all of the beautiful romantic parts.” To which, Felicia wrote back: “Don’t give up the ship. Fight for what you think is beautiful!”

3. While Bernstein was working on “West Side Story,” he was also writing for the operetta “Candide.” The song “One Hand, One Heart” — with completely different lyrics — was originally written for “Candide.” “But they thought it wasn’t funny enough,” according to his daughter, Jamie Bernstein Thomas. “Office Krupke was also intended for Candide.”

4. The movie and the original Broadway cast albums reached gold status, with sales of over a million.

5. The musical has been translated into Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian (two versions), Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, French, Russian and, of course, Spanish.

Sources: Jamie Bernstein; www.westsidestory.com

‘West Side Story’

Live orchestral soundtrack by

the National Symphony Orchestra

Tickets: $20 to $52

8:30 p.m. Saturday

The Filene Center at Wolf Trap

1551 Trap Rd., Vienna.

703-255-1900

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