SF Symphony soars through magnificent West Side Story

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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.

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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.

Lopez family aims high in TheatreWorks’ Somewhere

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The cast of TheatreWorks’ Somewhere includes, from left, Eddie Gutierrez as Francisco, Priscilla Lopez as Inez, Michael Rosen as Alejandro, Leo Ash Evens as Jamie and Michelle Cabinian as Rebecca. Photo by Tracy Martin

In my interview with Priscilla Lopez (see below for the link), the original Diana Morales in the landmark production of A Chorus Line, she calls Somewhere, the play written by her nephew Matthew Lopez now at TheatreWorks, a “dance-ical,” meaning not a play exactly, not a musical exactly but a drama infused with dance. That’s a great way to describe the show, which features a number of dance sequences.

I reviewed Somewhere for the Palo Alto Weekly. Here’s an excerpt:

If you could distill American drama down to two themes, they might be family and dreams, especially if dreams can also encompass delusions. Lopez’s play, which had its premiere last fall at San Diego’s Old Globe and has been seriously revised for its bow in Mountain View, is all about a family of dreamers.

“We force the world to look like our dreams,” the starry-eyed mother tells her disillusioned son. “We do not force our dreams to look like the world.”

That’s the truth. How else to account for just how happy the Candelarias are when the reality of their situation could make for a depressing evening of theater.

Read the complete review here.

[bonus interview]
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Award-winner Priscilla Lopez for a story in the San Francisco Chornicle. Read the story here.

Matthew Lopez’s Somewhere continues through FEb 10 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Lovely as ever, Rita Moreno tells her tale

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Rita Moreno dances through her past with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia in the world premiere of Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup at Berkeley Rep. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

She’s charming and gorgeous. Vivacious and soulful. In short, Rita Moreno is the perfect candidate for an autobiographical show.

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup is not yet the perfect show for this legendary performer, but it provides a snazzy opening to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre season.

Written by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone and directed by David Galligan,, the show is at its best when Moreno is taking us through the ups and mostly downs of her storied career. Act 1 is a chronological narrative, beginning with a 5-year-old Rosa Dolores Alverío boarding a ship in 1936 to take them from Puerto Rico to a new life in New York.

From her first meeting with Louis B. Mayer at age 16, Moreno was catapulted from life in the barrio to the world of hardscrabble glamour as a Hollywood starlet who, it’s interesting to note, could have chose the screen name Mitzi Margarita.

What’s so interesting about Moreno’s story is that throughout her career, she was fighting stereotype – of Puerto Ricans, of women, of Puerto Rican women. She played Indian, Siamese, Native American, Polynesian and more and says her small roles in mostly forgettable movies defined her professionally as the “resident utility ethnic.”

When she finally played a Puerto Rican so famously in West Side Story, director Jerome Robbins made her – and ever actor playing Puerto Rican – wear a thick coat of makeup that made them all exactly the same color. The white actors could have varying skin tones, but the ethic actors were not allowed that measure of reality.

Those are the kind of details that really shine in Taccone’s smart script, which mostly eschews the razzle-dazzle of the typical show-biz biography.

The first half is punctuated by photos and film clips (Alexander V. Nichols’ projections and lights look terrific on Anna Louizos’ elegant set) and bits of musical numbers. A young Moreno sits on the fire escape of her building singing along with the Pied Pipers’ “Dream” on the radio. When she falls head over heels for Marlon Brando, she sings a few verses of “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” then when things go badly, she veers into “When October Goes.”

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Music Director César Cancino and his quartet handle the music cues nicely, though it would be nice to have Moreno sing an entire song other than “The Hate Song,” an unnecessary bit from her stint on The Electric Company, which is represented far more successfully by a film clip of Moreno singing Tom Lehrer’s hilarious “The Menu Song” with Morgan Freeman.

Aided by dancers Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, Moreno re-creates her introduction to Spanish dancing as a teenager. She also resurrects Googie Gomez from The Ritz, a role that won her a 1975 Tony Award. While it’s wonderful to see Googie, the number (she massacres “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) is overplayed. Moreno has done this bit to better effect in her cabaret act.

Moreno, who turns 80 in December, is a captivating storyteller, and hearing what life was like for a starlet in 1950s Hollywood is chilling. She describes being abandoned at a party (by the shoe magnate who would later marry Debbie Reynolds no less) and barely escaping some serious sexual assault.

In Act 2, the chronology turns into a more free-form recounting as Moreno struggles to find work. When she gets to West Side Story, she re-creates two numbers, “Dance at the Gym” and “America,” and while it’s always great to see Moreno strut her stuff, to faithfully perform these numbers requires more than what she’s got (her knees, she admits, aren’t what they used to be). She’s a trouper, no question, but this effort seems too much when a film clip might serve the storytelling more effectively.

While it would be impossible not to feature music in the story of Moreno’s life, the power in this show is her storytelling. Though leaning heavily on Teleprompters for the opening-night performance, Moreno fascinates as she describes almost losing her mind making Carnal Knowledge and then worrying about how playing a prostitute in that movie might affect her chances of getting the gig on The Electric Company.

Though the show is 2 ½ hours, there’s a lot she doesn’t mention. For instance, when she’s struggling in Hollywood and begins to consider secretarial school, suddenly her career gets a boost when she appears on the cover of Life magazine. Very exciting but how in the world did a struggling actress end up on the cover of Life?

It’s interesting that Moreno didn’t make a movie for seven years after West Side Story, but what makes it even more interesting is that she won an Academy Award for that movie, a fact she doesn’t mention (though that Oscar, along with many other awards are on display in the lobby and available for carefully guarded photo ops).

Though she does briefly, poignantly delve into the loss of her husband, Dr. Leonard Gordon, last year, she doesn’t discuss her later career much (beyond telling off a hot-shot British director by affirming that she does NOT do Mexican madams). That’s a shame because there are doubtless stories to be told about Sister Pete, the fascinating nun she played on HBO’s prison drama, Oz.

There’s a thread through the show of identity, and how Moreno has lost it, found it and fully owned it. At one crisis point, she says, “I had made myself up beyond all recognition.” These days it seems Moreno, who has won every award on the planet and conquered seemingly every aspect of show business, knows who she is and could afford to rest on her laurels. But she powers ahead, and her story keeps spinning on. Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup will undoubtedly deepen as the run continues and the Moreno spark connects more fully with the compelling Moreno story.

[bonus video]
Here’s Moreno singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Menu Song” on The Electric Company with Morgan Freeman. Genius.

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup continues an extended run through Nov. 12 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Chita’s jazz…and all that

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Chita Rivera, a true Broadway legend, wowed a capacity audience at the Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret Series. Photo by Laura Marie Duncan. Below: Rivera as Anita in West Side Story. Photo by Leo Koribbean. Bottom: Rivera with the songwriting team Kander and Ebb and Liza Minnelli. Photo by Martha Swope.


Last night I fell in love with a 77-year-old Broadway legend.

Actually, I started with a giant crush that developed during a recent phone interview with Chita Rivera (read the story in the San Francisco Chronicle here), and then that crush fell off the deep end when I saw her in person at the recently re-opened Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel as part of the Bay Area Cabaret series.

About 13 years ago, when I was the new theater guy at the Oakland Tribune/ANG Newspapers, I had the chance to interview Rivera in person at the Clift Hotel. She was launching a Broadway-bound autobiographical show called Chita & All That Jazz. On my way to the interview, I passed a flower stand, and on impulse, I bought her a gardenia. I knew that’s not what a seasoned professional would do, and my purpose wasn’t to butter her up – it was more about honoring her extraordinary career. To arrive empty handed felt like…not enough. When I sat down with her and gave her the flower, her eyes welled up, and the interview was wonderful. I got a big hug at the end, and I was happy.

Chita West Side

The problem, a few weeks later, was the show. It was like a big cruise ship entertainment with a glossy spin on Rivera’s storied career. A legend deserves better. She tried again with The Dancer’s Life, another autobiographical show scaled to Broadway size. But it didn’t do as well as people had hoped. That’s when Rivera decided to scale it down for cabaret. She started at Michael Feinstein’s club in New York and has since taken it around the country. She works with a trio (because she thinks it’s sexy to be able to say, “And now I’d like to introduce you to my trio.”) and with bigger bands and orchestras. And the one-on-one aspect of the cabaret arrangement is a wonderful way to experience the Chita magic.

At the 380-seat Venetian, with a show called Chita Rivera: My Broadway, she was incandescent. She walked on stage (from the kitchen, which is how you do it at the Venetian) in a sparkly red dress and matching jacked. With her trio behind her, she launched into a medley of “I Won’t Dance” and “Let Me Sing.” Over the course of the 90-minute show, she would actually dance – maybe not full on choreography but just enough to let us know she’s still got the sharpest, sexiest moves around – and we would have let her sing all night if she had been willing.

Rivera exudes charm but doesn’t actively try to charm. Her expertly structured and scripted show seems casual and off the cuff. She’s warm and funny and dazzling in the most appealing show-biz way. She radiates Broadway pizzazz but comes across as a grounded gal you’d love to pal around with. That’s the kind of combination that let’s you get away with anything.

Not that Rivera takes advantage. We’re in the palm of her hand, but she never coasts. She takes us through highpoints (and a few low) of her career with stops along the way for her mega hits: West Side Story’s “A Boy Like That”/”America,” Sweet Charity’s “Where Am I Going?,” Bye Bye Birdie’s “Put on a Happy Face”/ “How Lovely to Be a Woman”/ “A Lot of Living to Do” and Kiss of the Spider Woman’s “Where You Are”/ “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Before launching into her signature tune, “All that Jazz” from Chicago, Rivera noted that when Rita Moreno played her role of Anita in the movie version of West Side Story and Catherine Zeta Jones played Velma Kelly in the movie of Chicago, both won Oscars. Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner, said that was OK with her. “I’d rather get there first anyhow.”

Chita Liza Kander Ebb (fix)

Paying homage to her dear friends John Kander and Fred Ebb, she sang “Love and Love Alone” from the still-gestating musical The Visit and a wistful “I Don’t Remember You” from The Happy Time and “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink in which she starred opposite Liza Minnelli as her daughter.

Rivera’s voice these days is husky but expressive. She swings almost as well as she moves, and her rapport with the adoring audience is cabaret ecstasy.

Reminiscing about her experiences in San Francisco, Rivera said she first visited the city at age 17 when she was in a tour of Call Me Madam starring Elaine Stritch. She’s been back many times and still loves the city even though her tour of Kiss of the Spider Woman wasn’t the hit here that she had imagined. She came here as a well-trained musical theater neophyte and this weekend returned as theater royalty. She made a cabaret room feel like a Broadway stage and we were all up there with her doing high kicks in the spotlight.

That’s a great feeling, and it’s only something you can experience when a performer as talented and generous as Rivera opens her heart and lets you in.

Here’s a treat – Rivera singing Kander and Ebb’s “Love and Love Alone” from The Visit:


Visit Chita Rivera’s official website here.

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.

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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.

Sing a song of Sondheim

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Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Eamonn McCabe/Retna

You never need an excuse to celebrate the genius of Stephen Sondheim, but here goes:
– We’re still celebrating his 80th birthday (which actually occurred last March).
– He has a new book out, Finishing the Hat, Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (445 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, $39.95).
– A new DVD, Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, is out on Nov. 6.
– And tonight in San Francisco is the opening of West Side Story, Sondheim’s Broadway debut as a lyricist.

Sondheim 2 (book)Sondheim was interviewed recently on WNYC radio’s The Leonard Lopate Show and talked about his life and work. You can listen to the entire interview below, but here are a few juicy excerpts:

LOPATE: “What makes a lyric good, is it being clever, having good rhymes?”

SONDHEIM: “That makes for a clever rhyme, but a good lyric… what makes a good sentence? What makes a good paragraph? You’re telling a story. And the lyric is serving the story, and it’s consistent with the character and has its own delights, meaning surprises: verbal surprises or thought surprises. It has a continuity, it has something to say… everything that a short story should have, a novel should have.”


LOPATE: “[In your book,] you write that songwriters are halfway between a creator and interpreter. Is that because they have to keep the connection to the book and to the plot?”

SONDHEIM: “No, it’s just that the only begetter is the book writer. That’s the person that makes it up out of nothing. There’s two kinds of art, obviously. There’s creative art and interpretive art, when you deal with things like the theatre or symphony or symphonies and things like that. You have the person who writes it and the person who performs it. The songwriter does both. The songwriter does not make it up out of nothing; the songwriter makes it up out of the characters and situations the book writer has made. But he’s partly creative in that he is also making a song where there wasn’t a song before. But he is interpreting at the same time.”

Listen to the entire interview here.

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

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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.”

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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.