History Lessons from Music Producer David Newman’s West Side Story [Interview]

You also talked about preserving the timelessness of the music. Technically, how did you do that?

Well, the most salient thing about “West Side Story” is that, first of all, [Bernstein is] an American composer. He was arguably the most famous musician of his time, that he was American is quite unique, that he was so famous and American. He was a simply marvelous composer, conductor and pedagogue, marvelous on television. He was a handsome man. He was everything, like a Renaissance man. He wrote “West Side Story” very early on. He had written, I think, “On the Town” before. He had made film music, “On the Waterfront”, the Kazan film. But “West Side Story” is truly his best known, probably most beloved, work.

But when you watch “West Side Story”, it’s just a mixture of different styles. You have broke counterpoint, you have Renaissance counterpoint, you have Latin jazz, you have bebop, you have jazz, swing jazz, you have opera. You have all these things mixed together. It’s the very definition of eclectic, and yet it doesn’t sound eclectic. Everything is based on an interval called an augmented fourth. This is the average score in the 12-note scale.

It’s a real, almost narrative interval, in the sense that in medieval and renaissance times, as western music was developing, it was almost a sin to use this because most music was in church, in a sacred context. And it was a sin to use that interval. This is the devil’s interval. But it’s also based on a shofar call, the call to Jewish worship, the kind of horn they use, which is sometimes a perfect fourth. So an augmented fourth is like a clean perfect fourth.

It is intellectually interesting and indescribably beautiful. The melodies are beautiful, but they are very bouncy. These are not typical melodies. They are difficult to sing and there is a fugue in the middle of “Cool” in this dance. This kind of jazz dance, the whole middle is basically a fugue exposition. And what the hell is there? And then the quintet where the Jets start. There are five games, the Jets do something, the Sharks do something, Maria does something, Tony does something, and Anita does something. And then they all sing together in counterpoint, what I call Renaissance counterpoint. I can’t think of a show that does that, a Broadway show.

And then he wrote the “Symphonic Dances” in 1961, so it’s four years after the show. And it’s a piece, and like I said, in the canon. The musical canon, perhaps from 1750 to today, in almost 300 years, there are millions and millions of pieces of music written. There are maybe 500 that are played over and over again. “West Side Story” is one of them, the “Symphonic Dances”. You have to be very careful with something like that. It’s not like updating, God likes it, “In the Heights” or a lot of those musicals, or what they did to “Dear Evan Hanson”, whether you like it or not.

It’s just not a good idea to do so. That’s not where you can make your mark, which Spielberg and Tony Kushner were trying to do. They’re just trying to clear the story, clear the story, clear the motivation, rejuvenate the cast, make the cast more authentic, make the language more authentic, Spanish, no subtitles. When you’re at their house, at Anita’s or at Maria’s, that’s how they talk, and you don’t understand what they’re saying. If you don’t understand Spanish, you don’t understand what they say, but you do. It’s not like you don’t understand.

So it’s the thing that, without the music being solidly in the context that Bernstein wrote it, anything that deviates from is scrupulously vetted and intellectually sound and viscerally doesn’t take the viewer to another bizarre place. That’s what we had to do. Then they can go further in the script aspect and the way they put the songs. The choreography is a little different, but it’s not that different. It’s more muscular, it’s more musical, it’s better for these actors. It is choreographed specifically for who was cast. The Jerome Robbins choreography, you have to do it if you rent the show, the Broadway show.

But none of the choreography felt like it wasn’t – it sounded like Jerome Robbins to me, just a little different. In other words, it didn’t go that far from booking. What we pushed the most was the script, the way some of the songs were written. One thing we did, we snuck into some songs rather than just stepping in. “Krupke” has a different start now. There’s a little cue that goes into “A Boy Like That.” I just took something from the song or something, but 95% of it just came from the Broadway show, really.