Interview: David Newman on The “miracle” of West Side Story

The conductor and composer shares his experience working on the 2021 reimagination of the classic musical.

By: Jan. 20, 2022
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Interview: David Newman on The “miracle” of West Side Story

How do you solve a problem like having to adapt some of Broadway's greatest known music for the silver screen?

Composer and conductor David Newman, who's scored over 110 films and developed a reputation as a highly-sought after conductor throughout his career, found himself asking that same question when he was brought onto the creative team for Steven Spielberg's reimagining of the classic musical WEST SIDE STORY.

The film, starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno and more opened in theaters on December 10, 2021 and earned rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. There was a veritable powerhouse behind the scenes as well; directed by Spielberg, with writer Tony Kushner, choreographer Justin Peck, and a musical team inclusive of Newman.

While Newman doesn't normally work in musical arrangement, he came to the film through a mutual colleague of both his and Spielberg. "I got involved in it because I'd been working with John Williams a bit, and John recommended me to Spielberg. I've never done anything like this and I probably never will again, I'm not an orchestrator or arranger for other people. But there was something about West Side Story-I love it, and I wanted to help."

Newman's connection to WEST SIDE STORY dates back to his childhood, where he and his father (Academy Award-winning composer Alfred Newman) would listen to the 1957 original cast album of the musical. He went on to perform as the rehearsal pianist during his high school's production of the show, and as a young adult he teamed up with his school colleagues and friends to form a summer theater group. Quite possibly one of the more well-known ways he's connected to the musical is through his involvement in premiering and conducting the Hollywood Bowl concerts, where the music is performed alongside the 1961 film. Even with such a rich history with the story and music, Newman's experience on the film was totally unique from his past work with the musical.

"We had a big music department, it was a big team thing, and it took us a little while to come to the aesthetic of what we were going to do-which was not mess around with it too much. Obviously we're going to re-record it, it's going to be sung by the actors, there's a little bit of new choreography, though I dont think it's that dissimilar from Jerome Robins'." Newman states. "Our job was to give Spielberg what he needed in terms of the underscore-a little bit longer here, a little bit shorter here...But we also had to ensure not to change it too much, because it's an orchestral canon piece. It's a piece that's played every year by tons of orchestras, and will continue to be played forever, as long as there are orchestras."

The insistence on not changing the music of the film too much from the original source material came after several rounds of trial-and-error. "We didn't come to it immediately. We started by changing things, arranging, and it just never seemed to feel right. I think I initially came to the conclusion that the music was not the place to mess around, to update, to make contemporary-whatever word you want to use."

"Make note, this is a big Hollywood movie, this is not an independent film-we had resources, and a lot of pressure. But we came to this conclusion...that anytime we tried to change anything, or where it was too obvious it was changed, it just didn't work. The only thing we did change was 'Somewhere'."

"Spielberg wanted Rita sing it acapella after she learns of Bernardo's death, and she learns that Tony killed Bernardo. The acapella doesn't really work, but we made an arrangement of it. So that's about as far away as we went, but we felt that there was precedent. 'Somewhere' is probably the most famous song, and maybe the most covered song [from WEST SIDE STORY] but in the musical, it's in a weird structural place. So we felt like we could [rearrange] that, and it wasn't weird. But we didn't do anything else like that. If there were underscore cues, I would grab it from the incidental music in the Broadway show, or some other place in Bernstein's 'Symphonic Dances', or something like that. We didn't want the music to bump anybody and have them say "What is this?". We felt that many of the audience that were going to see it were already big fans of the movie."

The music might not have changed much from the source material, however the story does receive a slight refresh to help audiences better connect to the tragedy of Tony and Maria. "It's the screenplay that kind of broadened the scope of everyone's character, and maybe made [the story] a little bit clearer."

As with most announcements that a beloved piece of media-whether it's a film, musical, or something else-is being remade, or reimagined, there is sometimes pushback from the public, or from fans of the source material. With this new WEST SIDE STORY, though, Newman explains that the goal of the film was more so to find a new way of telling the story of the Jets and Sharks.

"To's more analogous to an operatic production, something like how Madame Butterfly is done every year and the music is always the same, the text is always the same, but the productions are wildly different. You can have it in a hospital or psychiatric ward, or in a very traditional way, and it's done all the time."

"I think the goal of an opera production is to clarify something-you know, there's a reason why you can play this music over and over again, it just has so much in it. And you can highlight this part of it, or that part, and you try to give it a different perspective without completely changing it. That's more, I think, what this movie was."

Now that the film has been in theaters for a little over a month and is expected to move to streaming services in the near future, many audiences have had the chance to form their own thoughts on the reimagination of the Broadway classic. However, when Newman was working through the arrangements and watching the film come to life in post-production, he wasn't sure what the future would look like for it. "You never know, no matter how long you work on it... until you watch it all the way through with a little distance, you just have no idea [how it will turn out]. Many times in my career I've had something I thought was horrible that turned out great, and something I thought was great turned out horrible. This was just overwhelmingly wonderful. Everybody should be able to see this film in a theater, according to me-but I think I'm just so proud and glad to have been involved in this, as difficult as it was."

"Like I've stated, I'm really familiar with West Side Story, and I don't know what I thought about making a movie out of this. I thought the 1961 movie was great, but upon viewing this movie I just think it's such an extraordinary achievement. I can't even think of an analog to this, as to how somebody could make a movie out of something without wrecking it in a way, and making it better in a way, and making it more timely without being cynical and pandering. It's miraculous what [Spielberg] did, and I'm very proud of our music department and what we did. It's a great recording. I think you could say it's up there with the best recordings of West Side Story."

While the role of musical arranger might not have been one he expected, his involvement in WEST SIDE STORY seems like it's now an incredibly important part of Newman's career. "I would've been proud just to watch it. I don't really know how to describe it! I didn't really know what to think of it until I saw it, and then I was just overwhelmed by it. I just can't believe he [Spielberg] did it. That he made a movie that is so much 'West Side Story' yet different-but not too different-and that elevates the material. It's almost like the story gets elevated a little more toward the lofty heights of the music..."

"I'm sad it opened in this crazy time we're in right now. But...this movie will be around for a long time, if not forever. I think it's one of those movies. I think it's a timeless movie."

Steven Spielberg's WEST SIDE STORY is now playing in theaters. To learn more about David Newman and his work, visit


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