SF Symphony soars through magnificent West Side Story

West Side Story 1
Cheyenne Jackson is Tony and Alexandra Silber is Maria, two star-crossed lovers surrounded by musical theater’s greatest music in the San Francisco Symphony’s season-ending concert of West Side Story conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Below: The company performs the Quintet near the end of Act 1. Photos by Stefan Cohen

It’s hard to imagine but it’s true: the music is so glorious you barely even miss the dancing. The San Francisco Symphony concludes its season with the first concert presentation of the full score for West Side Story, and it’s simply mind blowing. For the original 1957 production, composer Leonard Bernstein apparently made concessions in the orchestrations based on what was available to him at the Winter Garden Theatre. Then, when the chance came along to re-orchestrate for the movie in 1961, orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal (under Bernstein’s supervision) went big but perhaps too big. According to Symphony program notes, Bernstein then worried that the work had become “overblown and unsubtle.”

In 1984, Bernstein put together his dream West Side Story for a Deutsche Grammophon recording and finally got the orchestrations he wanted. That’s what we hear in this concert under the astute direction of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, a friend and admirer of Bernstein’s.

This concert does not preserve any of Jerome Robbins’ original direction or choreography, nor is there much of Arthur Laurent’s book. This is truly a concert concentrating on the score. While Bernstein utilized opera stars like José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa for his dream recording, Tilson Thomas wisely goes with more score- and story-appropriate Broadway voices.

West Side Story 2

This allows the focus to be squarely on Bernstein’s music. Even the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim seem less important when a fully symphony orchestra allows Bernstein’s music to jump, pop and soar so magnificently.

If it seemed like we were watching a recording session, well that’s not far off. Very little attention was paid to directorial flourishes like getting the actors and chorus members on and off the stage efficiently because all the attention was lavished on the music.

From the scintillating prologue to the tear-stained finale, Bernstein’s score has never sounded more vital, more full of brilliance and heart. The relationship between songs like “Maria” and “Somewhere” become even more pronounced as we hear them running as leitmotifs through the piece. And it’s such a pleasure to hear the delicate underscoring of some dramatic scenes, most especially the balcony scene between Tony (Cheyenne Jackson) and Maria (Alexandra Silber) when they profess their love for one another.

Jackson and Silber do an awful lot of kissing (will that come across on the recording?) in an effort to convey the instant and soul-deep connection between Tony and Maria. They do a marvelous job, and Silber especially, with a soaring soprano and a light touch, emerges as a real star. Jackson’s boyish charm carries “Something’s Coming” but his “Maria” is achingly beautiful.

The doomed couple’s improvised wedding, “One Hand, One Heart,” had special poignancy this week. Here are two people in love who want to get married with every cultural and social force around them telling them they are forbidden to do so. The resonance of that in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings involving same-sex marriage only added new depth and even more beauty to the scene.

Julia Bullock makes only one appearance, but it’s a powerful one. She sings a “Somewhere” that is not overstated (easy to do with this song) but captures the open-heart and hope amid oppressive darkness.

The show’s more comic numbers, “America” and “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” come off beautifully and don’t feel completely out of place as they sometimes can. Having Symphony Chorus members present to beef up the vocal sound is also pretty wonderful.

At only two hours, with the second act being much shorter than the first, you really feel the absence of the book in Act 2 when the tragedies descend. The music conveys a lot, and Tony’s death by gunshot is well handled, but the concert can only take the narrative so far.

Still, when the music is this a live, so full of rhythm and soul and breathtaking beauty, it’s hard to complain about anything. This San Francisco Symphony recording can’t come soon enough.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Cheyenne Jackson for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here. (subscription may be required)

The San Francisco Symphony presents West Side Story at 8 p.m. June 28 and 29 and July 2 and 2 p.m. June 30 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Tickets are $47-$160. Call 415- 864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

West Side represent!

West Side StoryThe Broadway company of West Side Story dances it out at the gymnasium. Below: The Shark ladies argue about the merits of living in “America.” Photos by Joan Marcus

To quote one of the Jets, “Dig this and dig it the most.” The most compelling drama at Wednesday’s opening of West Side Story wasn’t happening on the stage of the Orpheum Theatre. It was a few blocks away at the giant theater known as AT&T Park, where the Giants were routing the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series.

The Orpheum stage crew thoughtfully announced the score before the show started and then shared the news of the Giants’ win before the show resumed after intermission.

The Giants delivered an impressive score Wednesday night, and so did West Side Story. Under the baton of John O’Neill the 19-piece orchestra conveyed the irresistible pulse of Leonard Bernstein’s music and gave the entire evening the sort of dramatic heft and unbelievable beauty that only occasionally appeared on stage.

I wonder if any production of West Side Story will ever live up to the grandeur of the score. In theory, the idea of translating Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of 1950s New York is a good one, but the story is so rooted in its time – in ways the score is not – that it can’t help but seem a bit of a relic.

This touring production, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, is based on the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote the book. It was Laurents’ intention to deliver something rough and gritty, which he does by trying to actualize the violence. The blood and danger on stage is amped up, but the Jets – the kids of white immigrants – and the Sharks – the kids of Puerto Rican immigrants – are still exquisite dancers, so the real threat is missing a turn or falling out of step with your fellow hoodlum.

That said, the moments that propel West Side Story far beyond most musicals involve the seamless combination of Jerome Robbins’ choreography and the Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score.

West Side Story 3

In the touring production helmed by David Saint (based on Laurents’ work) and choreographed by Joey McKneely (based on Robbins’ original), those moments are thrilling: the “Dance at the Gym” when the Sharks and the Jets pretend to play nice; Anita (the wonderful Michelle Aravena) and her friends tearing up “America”; and the “Tonight” quintet, which is practically operatic in its scope.

The more intimate moments don’t work as well in this production, partly because the Tony and Maria lack chemistry. Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt are appealing, and Ewoldt has a shimmering light soprano, but their love story is suggested more than felt. That’s partly the result of the book – they fall in love instantly (like Romeo and Juliet) and are on their knees pledging their troth within 24 hours.

Still, you must admit, having the song “Somewhere” accompanied by a dream ballet as foreplay is a fairly potent aphrodisiac.

One of the nice surprises of this revival isn’t the intermittent Spanish that pops up in the lyrics and dialogue but the joyful menace that turns the out-of-sync novelty number “Gee, Officer Krupke” into something with a little more dramatic weight. Similarly, “I Feel Pretty,” which can be pretty cornball, is actually funny and a little sassy.

Laurents’ revised ending – the same people die in the same old ways – makes it less explicit that the war between the Sharks and the Jets has ended. In other productions (and the movie), the gangsters join together to carry a fallen comrade off the stage. Maria’s grief and outrage over all the senseless violence has bridged their differences. Not so here – there’s an attempt to cross enemy lines, but it’s tentative at best.

That’s a realistic ending, especially as it follows the near-horrific scene in which the Jets nearly rape Anita. If these truly are dangerous thugs, as Laurents wants us to believe, a crying Maria or a stack of dead bodies won’t quell their hate and gangster tendencies.

Realistic or not, it still doesn’t make for a great musical theater ending. Shakespeare knew there needed to be a glimmer of hope, and you certainly feel that in Bernstein’s music, as we “Somewhere,” mustering its hymn-like power, rumbles in the underscore. But Laurents’ stage picture withholds that from us.

Dig that and dig it the most. Vamos Gigantes.


West Side Story continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 888 746 1799 or visit www.shnsf.com for information.

Just play it cool, boy! The enduring sound of West Side Story

West Side Story 1

The Jets take flight to Leonard Bernstein’s score in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story. Photo by Joan Marcus. Below, Leonard Bernstein, further below from Life magazine in 1956: Collaborators Bernstein (left), Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim discuss the imminent opening of West Side Story. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt © Time, Inc.

What makes West Side Story so incredibly intoxicating, even 53 years after its premiere? There’s no denying the power of Jerome Robbins’ athletic and gorgeous choreography or the simplicity and (occasional) corniness of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (his first for a Broadway show). And Arthur Laurents’ book, which puts a 1950s spin on Romeo and Juliet, is about as solid as Broadway books come.

But it’s the music, Leonard Bernstein’s astonishing music, that elevates West Side Story to legendary status. Combining classical with jazz with show tune, Bernstein concocted a highly original sound that has yet to be bested on the Broadway stage. This is a score for the ages, one as equally at home in the symphony hall as in the high school auditorium. How many scores can fit as comfortably in both spaces? Aside from Bernstein’s own Candide (which he was working on in tandem with West Side Story), not many.

Lenny Bernstein

We’ll have the chance to revisit the score this week as the most recent Broadway revival comes to town as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series.

Patrick Vaccariello is the music supervisor and musical director for the revival, which opened on Broadway in March of 2009 and is still running at the Palace Theatre. He helped get the tour in shape and comes to West Side Story – his first Bernstein show – having worked on musicals ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to The Boy from Oz as well as the most recent revivals of A Chorus Line and Gypsy.

Having been immersed in the world of Bernstein’s music for nearly two years now, Vaccariello says one secret of the Bernstein score’s power is the way it supports the emotions of the characters.

“It’s my job as the musical director to convey the emotion to the musicians so they’re fully supporting the actors,” Vaccariello explains on the phone from his New York home. “The characters on stage are passionate people. From the fanfare and the prologue to the finale, we all take an incredible musical journey each night, and that journey is fully supportive of the action on stage. We use the original orchestrations – by Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal – which are thrilling.”

West Side Story 3

When the revival opened, the orchestra included 29 pieces. That has since been reduced by four. And for the tour, the pit will hold 19 musicians plus the conductor, which is still pretty large for a traveling show. “A lot of Broadway shows have synthesizers,” Vaccariello says. “We have violins and cellos, so you get the emotion. When violinists play a melody, it’s thrilling.”

The musical director, being the arbiter of the musical emotion, is able to react directly to what the actors are putting out there on stage.

“We can shape the show differently every night,” Vaccariello explains. “For instance, in the balcony scene, when Tony and Maria are singing ‘Tonight,’ they play it slightly different every night with different dynamics. I can try and match that by bringing out the woodwinds or shaping a phrase slightly differently. Everything in this show is heightened, and the beauty of the Bernstein score is that it energizes the performances.”

In addition to grand symphonic pieces like “Somewhere” or “Maria,” the orchestra also gets to cook with numbers like “The Dance at the Gym” and “America.”

Vaccariello calls the “Tonight” quintet one of the “most amazing pieces of musical theatre ever” because, as he says, “it’s purely about the acting and the singing and gorgeous lyrics.”

And in this production, directed by Laurents (who was 91 when the revival opened), the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks, sings in Spanish. “That adds a whole other layer of emotion,” Vaccariello says.

Broadway audiences unfamiliar with the show were somewhat baffled by the Spanish lyrics (translated by In the Heights’ Lin-Manuel Miranda), and as the production went on, some of the Spanish was turned back into English.

“We didn’t want audiences new to the show confused by the story,” Vaccariello says, “so we put a few bits of English back in. But there’s still plenty of Spanish.”

Bernsteins’ score for West Side Story raised the bar for Broadway musicals. The show integrated book scenes with songs and dancing in a seamless way that was groundbreaking and still sets the musical theater standard.

“Many new composers would love to write like Bernstein,” Vaccariello says, “and many try. His work is a great learning tool. And it never gets old or dated.”

Hearing the score 50 years later, Vaccariello says, “feels like hearing it for the first time.”

PODCAST: Listen to an interview with West Side Story Music Supervisor/Musical Director Patrick Vaccariello here.

Here’s a peek at Bernstein conducting “Dance at the Gym” for the 1985 studio recording of West Side Story.


West Side Story opens Wednesday, Oct. 27 and continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 888 746 1799 or visit www.shnsf.com for information.

New side of `West Side Story’

The new Broadway cast recording of West Side Story is out today in all the usual outlets (in three dimensions on CD, digitally via iTunes, etc.).

To celebrate the classic work of Leonard Berstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins, let’s take a peek at the music video for “Tonight” from the new recording as sung by Karen Olivo as Anita, Matt Cavenaugh as Tony and Josefina Scaglione as Maria.

You’ll notice the Sharks singing in Spanish — the lyric translations are by Lin-Manuel Miranda on In the Heights fame.

Bravo Bernstein! San Francisco celebrates Lenny

The great American composer Leonard Bernstein would have been 90 this year, and the man who gave us the memorable music for West Side Story, Candide and other Broadway shows, among all his other symphonic work, is being celebrated in style.

The San Francisco Symphony leads the celebration with Michael Tilson Thomas, a longtime friend and colleague of the late composer, conducting an all-Bernstein program Sept. 17-19. The program includes some of his show music — West Side Story, Trouble in Tahiti, Fancy Free and On the Town – as well as Meditation No. 1 from Mass, scenes from A Quiet Place and “To What You Said” from Songfest.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw, baritone Quinn Kelsey and cellist Peter Wyrick are the soloists. Tilson Thomas, Upshaw and the Symphony will perform the same program on Sept. 24 to open Carnegie Hall’s 2008-09 season.

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco is also part of the Bernstein celebration with a screening of the PBS documentary Reaching for the Note, which delves into Bernstein’s musical and personal life. The screening is free at 7 p.m. Nov. 20 but reservations are required.

At 8 p.m. Dec. 4, pianist Jeffrey Siegel offers The Anniversaire Pieces, Bernstein’s musical tributes written for friends, family and fellow composers, as well as Meditation on a Wedding and El Salon Mexico.

Cantor Roslyn Barak presents Lenny’s Voice: Bernstein’s Humor and Jewish Spirit at 7 p.m. Dec. 4.

Also in the series is JCCSF’s benefit event: 100% Michael Feinstein – Bernstein and Friends on Nov. 23 with cocktails at 5 p.m. and the concert at 7 p.m. when Feinstein reprises his Carnegie Hall tribute to his friend and mentor.

Recalling his friend, Tilson Thomas recently told an interviewer: “If Leonard Bernstein were here right now and asked to comment on his 90th birthday, I know he would say, `I didn’t compose enough.’ He was so busy being an entertainer and educator that he lost years and years of time. Now we wish, along with him, that he had written more. He was interested in so many different musical genres. In this program we’re doing in honor of what would have been his 90th birthday, we are going to try and celebrate the range of his musical interests. So there will be some of the most familiar music from some of the great shows and ballets, but also some really challenging pieces that come from his last opera, A Quiet Place, as well as a kind of gala show of music—some of the most mournful, some of the most irreverent, some of the most blithely innocent, some of the most self-consciously tortured: the whole range of the possibility of his music to amuse, to delight, to provoke, to question.”

And thinking about the Bernstein legacy, Tilson Thomas said: “Bernstein continues to have a great influence on all the people he taught and trained and influenced. Over the course of time, it may be that the language of his music will become more remote from audiences, but I think there will still be a certain kind of heart inside of it that will always be recognized as symbolizing a particular period in the United States, when people were very confident and very generous. To me, he represents someone from the generation of young victors of the Second World War—who, looking out at the world from the United States, which was pretty much in an all-triumphant position, still had such an interest in celebrating the cultural tradition of other nations: the great European traditions, the South American traditions, Asian traditions. Bernstein was already in that place long before it was as politically fashionable and correct as it is now. He had a courageous and generous spirit, and I think such spirits make a difference.”

The San Francisco Symphony performs its all-Bernstein program Sept. 17-19 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$130. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org

For information about the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Bernstein events, call 415-292-9933 or visit www.jccsf.org.

Now here’s four minutes of heaven as Bernstein conducts the overture from Candide: