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BWW Reviews: WEST SIDE STORY at the Symphony Gives New Life to Classic Movie

4 Out of 5 Stars

Tonight the film West Side Story was shown at Roy Thompson Hall, however, this was no ordinary screening of a classic film. For this showing, the orchestra from the original 1961 film prints was removed leaving only the dialog. The missing orchestra was replaced by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which had to keep in perfect sync with the film for the entire duration.

West Side Story is a modern take on the Shakespearean classic Romeo and Juliet. Set in the Upper West Side of New York City, two gangs (The American Jets and The Puerto Rican Sharks) battle it out for their turf. After Tony (a Jet) and Maria (the sister of lead Shark, Bernardo) meet and fall in love at a school dance, their relationship is quickly ended due to the hatred around them.

Before the show commenced, the film's title card was projected onto the large screen hanging above the orchestra. After a quick tuning, conductor Steven Reineke took his place and the orchestra began playing the Overture, which was written specifically for the movie, and was not included in the original stage show and subsequent revivals. Immediately, the crowd could feel that this would be a magical event.

Reineke himself could see the movie on a small screen in front of his conductor score. In order to keep in time the film had moving line overlays which marked beats and tempo.

Different colours would signal the conductor as to the type of cue he was receiving (for example: green for play, purple for tempo change, and white to count beats.) Reineke did an excellent job of keeping in sync with the film.

The film itself was stunning in this new resorted version of the original 70mm Panivision print. The movie was presented in stunning HD, and seeing it is a must for any film buff as even the latest Blue-Ray release is not at the same level of quality as this masterfully restored print. The dialog audio was restored from original audio tapes using the 6-track method, which was not commonly used at the time. This Academy Award winning mix of the sound has not been heard since the original release of the film, as all subsequent home releases use mono-directional sound.

There were moments where I completely forgot I was at a concert, and that the orchestra was playing separate from the film soundtrack. At other times, the experience was not as cohesive as the quality of the dialog's audio is not up to par with modern recording capabilities, and the audio sounds flat when compared with the magnificence and warmth of the Toronto Symphony. This would become especially noticeable following a period where no music was played, once the orchestra would come back in.

Leonard Bernstein's score was beautifully played by the Symphony. After seeing the last National Tour of the show, which used synthesizers in the place of many instruments, I felt that I had been cheated of hearing the show as was intended. I think I can safely say that tonight's performance of his most iconic and complicated theatre work would have made him proud.

This combination of film and music has given a new life to this classic film, adding an element of live performance into the mix. While the dialog may not be as crisp and clear as a modern day film, West Side Story at the Symphony was positively a new and stimulating experience for me, and I will be looking forward to seeing the symphony's next movie/orchestra combination venture, Casablanca in February.

Photo Credits:
Inline Image: Logo Courtesy of Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Photo of Steven Reineke by Sian Richards
Homepage/Featured Image: © 1961 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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From This Author Alan Henry