Sep 27th, 2011
Path of Discovery: West Side Story at 50
West Side Story is arguably one of the great trifectas: a timeless love story, a nearperfect
motion picture and a brilliant musical score. This year marks the 50th
anniversary of the classic film, based on the hit Broadway musical, and to celebrate
the golden year MGM will release a completely restored Blu-ray set in November.
But West Side Story deserves a commemoration greater than just a video release,
and The Leonard Bernstein Office in New York City had something a little more
special, a little more daring in mind to celebrate the historic event. As the last
decade saw orchestra-to-picture tours like John Goberman's Wizard of Oz shows
and Ludwig Wicki and the 21st Century Orchestra's performances of Howard
Shore's Lord of the Rings trilogy become increasingly popular in concert halls
around the world, Paul Epstein, Senior Vice President at The Leonard Bernstein
Office, saw the perfect opportunity to kick off the 50th anniversary of Bernstein's
beloved classic with a similar approach, setting his sights on the major orchestras of
Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
What ensued was an exciting and unexpected path of discovery by a team with the
intensity and aggressiveness of the Jets and the Sharks combined. The West Side
Story project began with a mix of mystery, science, and ultimately love for both
Leonard Bernstein's score and Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' Oscar-winning
Epstein went to Steve Linder, Senior Vice President and Director of Attractions
Division at IMG Artists, who is preeminent in producing live orchestra to picture
shows. Linder worked at the Hollywood Bowl for 20 years, serving as Director of
Presentations for a portion of his tenure. He worked tirelessly to bring film music
concerts to the Bowl, incorporating "clip shows," where film score excerpts were
performed live to their respective scenes. That history gave him the edge needed to
bring the complete West Side Story film to the concert hall. "Here's the perfect film
where the music transcends the concert the hall," says Linder. "It transcends film
music. It transcends any specific genre because it's Bernstein's music."
Linder believes West Side Story's universal appeal to audiences in and out of the
concert hall is the perfect opportunity to bridge both worlds. "Besides the fact that
Bernstein's music transcends classification, I think it's also a great movie. It is one
of those movies that had a troubled past yet it is a film that is beloved by everyone.
It is one of those things where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,
although the parts are pretty damn good. So any orchestra approaching it is going
to look at it potentially different from other films. That started a long process of
For Linder and the Bernstein Office, that process of discovery turned out to be an
unexpectedly long and arduous road. Epstein and Linder wanted to have their first
concert in July with David Newman conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So
with a loud ticking of the clock at their backs, they rushed to get the necessary
approvals from MGM. Immediately out of the gate they hit some unwelcome
roadblocks. First they struggled to get the studio's attention, which at the time was
fluctuating in and out of bankruptcy and had difficulty focusing on the benefit of
starting such a project. As soon as MGM's financial situation leveled out and the
studio figured out how to staff such a unique and unexpected production, the Lion
saw the huge promotional opportunity for their upcoming restored Blu-ray release
of the film. With MGM on board all systems were "go."
But there was one major obstacle: the original score materials didn't exist. To make
matters even worse, just as the original score materials were lost, so were the
original mixing stems, leaving only a composite mix of the audio. With the
dialogue, music and effects all mixed together, it would be a nightmare to remove
just the orchestra from the mix for live musicians to perform.
Without hesitation, Linder went to Bob Heiber, Vice President of Audio for Chace
Audio. Chace was instrumental in fully restoring the film's audio from the newly
discovered original six-track mix for the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray. Heiber in turn
recommended Paris-based Audionamix, who was testing and perfecting their
proprietary technology on separating sound elements from monophonic audio
tracks. Finally, they were in luck!
Linder and the Bernstein Office knew they had a long road ahead of them and took
the leap of faith to find whatever remaining elements existed of Bernstein's classic
score while attempting to successfully extract the orchestra from the original sixtrack
A Detective Story
Enter Eleonor Sandresky, a New York composer, producer and performer, who also
serves as the Bernstein Office's Licensing Associate. Apart from co-founding MATA,
a non-profit organization commissioning new works from young composers,
Sandresky's credits include membership in the Phillip Glass Ensemble, where she
has performed and conducted live music to film. Epstein saw the valuable resource
Sandresky could provide to the project and recruited her to research and track
down any of Bernstein's original film score materials. Since the film's production was a near-horror story and MGM didn't have the
foresight to see any future uses of the score, the materials became lost. "In those
days when you would make a film nobody thought about saving music," Sandresky
says. "In this case, the show already exists. They made it as a Broadway show and it
was never intended to be a movie until it was a huge success. Bernstein was so busy
writing one of his big symphonies at the time and he was under a big deadline and
he didn't have time to work on the film that much. So he sent Sid Ramin and Irwin
Kostal out to Hollywood with his instructions and they were in touch a lot. But Sid
and Irwin did the orchestration and they just made things for scenes. ‘Oh, we need
a little extra music here or we need to take some music out there.' It was a real nipand-
tuck type of situation. And nobody thought any more about it. So people who
were savers saved things and people who were not didn't. MGM went through all
the various incarnations through the years, and at a certain point, when they moved
all their materials out to the West Coast, they just got rid of everything. Fifty years
of film music-it's just gone. They couldn't imagine actual performances of film
music then. It seemed so arcane."
Sandresky's first stop in her search: Columbia University. Making the quick trip
uptown to Sid Ramin's collection she luckily found half of the original score in
various forms-piano vocals, some orchestrated with notes in various stages. With
copies from Ramin's collection secured, she advanced her search to Irwin Kostal. Sandresky looked into what she could find from the orchestrator's estate but
unfortunately no archives exist. She then trekked to Harvard University to
investigate the collection of the original conductor/music supervisor Johnny Green.
Adding some materials from Green's collection to what she found at Columbia,
Sandresky could see the original score slowly manifesting. But still it was not
Sandresky next explored the Library of Congress in D.C. with the hopes of finding
some of the original score mislabeled or misplaced. It really wasn't until she
focused her search on the West Coast that she struck gold. "We finally found the
complete short score in Robert Wise's collection at USC. I didn't actually believe it
when the guy said that's what they had. I thought, ‘Oh, it's going to be a piano vocal
or it's not going to be the short score.' When it came in the mail, sure enough it was
the short score. It was amazing. Right at that time everybody started coming
together in agreement that this project should go forward. That was in January of
Now that all the pieces were coming together, the team was under the realization
that they had a live concert performance in six months and they needed to move as
fast as possible. Sandresky and Bernstein Office Senior Music Editor Garth Edwin
Sunderland, without hesitation, jumped right in to the reconstruction. Sunderland
would handle the orchestrations while Sandresky would correctly spot the film.
Since the original Oscar-winning orchestrations were too much for a live concert
stage, Sunderland needed to improvise. Steve Linder notes the original film had
"six pianos and six pianists, and no orchestra is going to hire six pianos and six
pianists to those concerts. So there were some decisions that had to be made about
making it a little more practical in terms of its instrumentation."
"The feeling was that if we stayed close to the orchestrations of the [West Side
Story] Symphonic Dances," Sandresky adds, "that would be closest to Bernstein.
With a few additions here and there, that's essentially what we had." For reference,
Sunderland also used Bernstein's 1984 opera re-recording with José Carreras and
Kiri Te Kanawa.
Meanwhile, Sandresky continued to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. "I was
putting together, watching the film, figuring out which parts were really in the film
and which parts were not in the film and then scanning each page and collating a
mockup for them to start. Garth began the actual detailed reconstruction of the
orchestration and then tried to mimic what the sound quality is on the film for the
concert stage." With the reconstruction half of the project underway, time was of the essence for
Chace Audio and Audionamix.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away at Chace Audio, Bob Heiber was trying to solve the
problem of having a live orchestra to picture show of West Side Story without any
existing mixing stems. He knew that the orchestra would somehow need to be
extracted from the only existing composite mix but he was not impressed with the
history of previous extractions. "Prior to the West Side Story screening, the method
of removing orchestras from soundtracks has really been referred to as ‘dip and
dive.' So you either dip around the music as best as possible or you chop it out and
replace the sound effects if you can." A serious issue with dipping and diving is that
there can be an extraordinary amount of orchestra bleeding in the track and if the
conductor misses a beat or two, the orchestra would be off. Then, to the discomfort
of the audience, two orchestras would be heard playing side by side.
Heiber knew the West Side Story project deserved better. He turned to Rick Silva
and the team at Audionamix (ADX). ADX specializes in de-mixing fully mixed and
mastered music into separate stems for re-spacialization and upmixing. "We had
been working with them and their technology for the last seven years to help them
develop their technology. Their technology is really source separation technology."
And what exactly is source separation technology? Rick Silva, ADX's Vice President
of Production, says source separation is "pretty much what it sounds like. The
source is anything that you're listening to, whether it's the mix from the radio, a
mix from 50 years ago that was on a record. If the individual tracks or the
multitracks aren't available or never were available, we're able to analyze the file
once we digitize the source. We can identify the different components or the
arrangement and by identifying this arrangement and using our proprietary
algorithms, we can start to separate those elements from the mix into their own
isolated tracks. That allows you the freedom to take a mono recording and turn it
into a stereo recording or even a 5.1 up-mix." What ADX could provide sounded
like the perfect fit for West Side Story. "They can
actually map the music in a combined track and then suck it out," Heiber adds.
Knowing that ADX had perfected their source separation technology, Heiber
presented the idea to Linder. "I said, ‘I got to tell you there's a new technology that
could let us take the music score out of West Side Story. On the other hand, it's a
good thing that Leonard Bernstein is dead because if I'd told him I'd taken his score
out of West Side Story I know he'd come after me with a gun.'"
The West Side Story project proved to be a unique problem for Silva and the ADX
team. "Our challenge was different because we had to extract just the orchestra and
leave the singing voices, dialogue, effects and foley intact. So up to that point I don't
think we have done anything that complex. I would say it's the first time we used
our technology on this type of project." Heiber and his team at Chace prepared all
the materials, isolated all the music, and sent everything out for the ADX team to
work their magic. All they could do now was wait and see.
So in December of 2010, ADX, confident yet still taking a leap of faith, did their
first test on the beloved song "America," "which as you know is an incredibly over
the top big musical number," says Heiber, "large orchestrations, singing, vocals,
vocalizations, snaps. It's got everything in it. And we performed this test and it
worked pretty darn good."
With the success of their first test behind them, ADX upped the ante and did
additional tests on "Somewhere" and "The Jet Song" in January of 2011. Astonished
at the results, the team was confident the extraction would work. "We were all
really impressed with what they had done," says Heiber. "We agreed that it was
possible to extract the orchestra from West Side Story and provide all the original
dialogue and vocals a cappella now for David Newman to provide brand new
orchestration and live performance."
"It was a very tricky process and we all agreed that we needed to start somewhere in
March, at the latest," he continues, "because we wanted to deliver the finished track
for David to work with by the end of May, knowing that the concert was scheduled
for July." With the first July performance at the Hollywood Bowl looming ever
closer, ADX went to work in extracting the nearly 100 minutes of score from West
Silva's team provided three levels of extraction for Heiber, Linder and Newman.
The primary goal of the extraction was not to damage the dialogue or compromise
any of the scenes. "By providing three levels of extraction," Silva explains, "we can
give them something really tight, meaning no music. But sometimes you might
have 10 percent of the dialogue damaged and sometimes that's unacceptable. So
then we can lower that threshold and maybe put a little more music in there and
use a less tight extraction."
Heiber notes in the end Newman would be the one conducting the live
performances so he would have plenty of input. "David came in and supervised the
entire final mix. When we were done, we were left with a track where we had taken
all of Leonard Bernstein's beautiful orchestra out of the mix and left it up to David
to put it back in perfect time when he did his performance."
David Newman is no stranger to working extensively on restoration and
reconstruction projects so his input was extremely valuable. Newman frequently
brings never-performed pieces of film music to his Big Picture concerts at the
Hollywood Bowl. He also spent a considerable amount of time over the previous
three years reconstructing lost Jerry Goldsmith scores to be performed live by the
America Youth Symphony. "I made a few suggestions because you don't have to
completely remove the orchestra; you won't be able to hear it with the live orchestra
playing. Sometimes they got rid of too much and affected the voices too much. So
they really concentrated on getting the clearest vocal sound that they could and if a
little orchestra bled through, then it was fine."
In late May the extraction was complete and Chace Audio had a few short weeks to
reincorporate it back into the film and do an overhaul of the dialogue mix. With the
Bernstein Office just wrapping up the reconstruction of the score, Newman began
his orchestra prep. "The score was all streamered and punched and clicked and all
gridded so I could synchronize the orchestra with the picture. That was the next
step-to set up the score and make a visual for the conductor. This is going to go all
over the world touring and there are going to be multiple conductors doing it."
After nine months from inception to discovery to reconstruction, it was finally
West Side Story Comes Home
The West Side Story reconstruction project premiered the fully restored high
definition picture and original six-track mix with a tremendously successful
performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor David Newman at the
Hollywood Bowl on Friday, July 8. However, the defining moment of the project
was seeing West Side Story come home to Leonard Bernstein's orchestra, The New
York Philharmonic. Debuting with the Philharmonic, Newman once again
conducted two sold-out nights (Sept. 7 and 8) that paid the greatest respect to
Bernstein's music and brought Avery Fisher Hall to full-bodied life. Linder, as well as the rest of the team, was excited and eager to bring this project to
Bernstein's home orchestra as well as the original shooting location of the film,
where Lincoln Center now stands. "The New York Philharmonic has a long history
of doing crossover. They are very careful about how they approach non-standard
classical repertoire, although you could argue that Bernstein is standard classical
repertoire because West Side Story is played in standard symphonic concerts all the
time. One of the great things about Bernstein as a composer is that he crosses
genres, everything from classical music to pop culture to film music to Broadway.
[The Philharmonic has] done film concerts before but they've done very few, and I
hope this leads to more of these events."
With an oversize projection screen above the orchestra, the audience at Avery
Fisher Hall, apart from the Hollywood Bowl concert, were the first to experience
the amazing new high definition restoration with the lost original six-track audio
mix. Jerome Robbins' choreography never looked better in the pristine restoration
and Newman brought voracity out of the orchestra to perfectly complement the
star-crossed lovers. Essentially performing a two-and-a-half-hour Hollywood
scoring session in one sitting, Newman and the Philharmonic soared through the
overture and hit every beat, snap, jump, and punch, from the prologue to the tragic
finale. The reconstruction and re-orchestrations were just as vibrant and powerful
as Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal's Oscar-winning orchestrations, giving numbers like
"Mambo" and "America" true orchestral power.
All of the extensive work that Chace Audio and Audionamix put in to extracting the
audio paid off. The original Johnny Green-conducted orchestra was nowhere to be
heard, except for a moment where the original track was coming out of a jukebox as
diagetic music, but that would be asking too much of Newman to conduct two
orchestras at once. If previous extractions resulted in digital artifacting or
anomalies in the vocal tracks as a result of the extraction, then ADX's new
technology revolutionized source separation.
One would expect the power of the orchestra to drown out the dialogue but that
wasn't the case. Newman craftily kept the orchestra balanced without stifling any of
the vocals. They played it cool, boy. Before the start of the second act, Avery Fisher Hall was aflutter with the film's
original crew and cast members. In what turned out to be a truly magical moment,
Newman took to the podium and asked each of the attending West Side Story
alumni to take a stand. The audience gave a 10-minute ovation to the film's
producer Walter Mirisch, co-orchestrator Sid Ramin, Russ Tamblyn, George
Chakiris and Marni Nixon, who provided the singing vocals for Natalie Wood's
Asked prior to the concert if he was nervous about conducting the New York
Philharmonic, Newman quipped, "I'm always nervous. Doesn't matter what I'm
doing. I'm nervous getting up in the morning." If Newman was nervous, it did not
show and the orchestra truly shined. After the concert Newman was beaming. "It
was thrilling. I think this music is in their DNA. It was a wonderful experience."
David Newman and West Side Story's next stop will be with the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra in November. After Chicago, West Side Story will begin its world tour in
2012, making stops in Sydney in January, London's Royal Albert Hall in June,
Tokyo in September, and Melbourne in October.
The love and affection given to the West Side Story project is undeniable. With
such a short turnaround time for Eleonor Sandresky's detective work, Garth
Sunderland's reconstruction, Chace Audio and Audionamix's audio extraction and
source separation, and David Newman's passionate conducting, the project is
without a doubt the greatest tribute one could offer to one of cinema's beloved icons
on its 50th birthday.
A very special thanks to Bob Heiber, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Steve Linder,
David Newman, Eleonor Sandresky and The New York Philharmonic.
You can follow Justin on Twitter: @Justin_M_Craig.
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