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July 11, 2011
West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl
David Newman conducts LA Phil in exuberant performance live-to-picture by Jon Burlingame

Photo by Marilee Bradford

HOLLYWOOD—Nearly 22,000 people watched West Side Story while the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the landmark Leonard Bernstein score live to the film on Friday and Saturday nights at the Hollywood Bowl.

David Newman conducted the Philharmonic in the nearly three-hour presentation, with the newly restored 1961 film – which won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture – projected in high definition on the Bowl's giant screens.

The weekend performances, which were met with audience cheers and standing ovations, marked the beginning of a 50th anniversary mini-tour of the film and its music being performed by the nation's leading orchestras. Newman will conduct West Side Story with the New York Philharmonic on Sept. 7 and 8, and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 25.

The 1961 film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway smash, with music by Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, won Oscars for co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, along with Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars for George Chakiris (as Bernardo) and Rita Moreno (as Anita). It also won Oscars for cinematography, art direction, sound, film editing, music scoring and costume design, as well as an honorary Oscar to Robbins for his innovative choreography.

The film, a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet set in the world of New York street gangs (the Jets and Sharks), features several songs that have gone on to become well-known standards, including "Somewhere," "Tonight," "Maria," "America," "I Feel Pretty" and "One Hand, One Heart."

It looked stunning on the Bowl screens, and Newman's impassioned conducting brought out the expressive best from the Philharmonic musicians, who remained in perfect sync with the movie throughout Friday's performance. (Patrons sitting close, or with binoculars, could see the "streamers" crossing Newman's monitor throughout the evening, helping him to make sure every cue was caught correctly – a complex, difficult task for any conductor.)

MGM, which currently owns the rights to the United Artists film, invested heavily in the restoration for its upcoming Nov. 15 release of the Blu-Ray of West Side Story. As part of the restoration, it asked Chace Audio by Deluxe to use "source separation technology" to take the original monophonic soundtrack and remove the orchestral elements while retaining vocal performances, dialogue and sound effects; that effort, based on technology developed by Paris-based Audionamix, enabled the Philharmonic to accompany the film's original vocals.

This weekend's performances marked the first time that this has ever been done with West Side Story. More than 9,400 attended Friday night's performance; Saturday's was attended by more than 12,000. Film producer Walter Mirisch, original cast members Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn (who played Riff), and more than a dozen performers who played the Jets and Sharks, attended Friday night's performance.

©2011 Jon Burlingame
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