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MSO: West Side Story

by Carol van Opstal

The origins of West Side Story date back to the late ’40’s, when Jerome Robbins pitched the idea of a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to composer Leonard Bernstein.The romantic tragedy, underpinned by themes of racial tension, conflict and prejudice was originally going to feature  Jewish and Puerto Rican gangs, and had the working title East Side Story.

Gradually the musical we have come to know and love, débuted on Broadway at the Winter Garden, on September 26, 1957, with the film being released in 1961. 

The setting was the West Side of Manhattan (exterior shots were filmed at a location facing demolition as part of an urban renewal project and became the Lincoln Centre). While the Puerto Ricans remained, the rival gang became a motley crew of “Americans” (ironically, of diverse migrant backgrounds themselves).

The film, with a live performance of the score by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was screened in Melbourne as part of the MSO’s Bernstein Celebration.

Prior to the performance, the highly esteemed Jeanne Pratt addressed the audience and spoke of her affection for this, her favourite musical. Her oration was met with appreciative applause. In addition to her passionate advocacy of Musical Theatre, as Chairman of The Production Company (now in its 20th year), Jeanne Pratt’s patronage of the MSO and support for the Arts in general were no doubt on the minds of the audience who clapped and hollered approvingly.

Then, with the musicians in place, Conductor Benjamin Northey  took to the rostrum, and the magic began.

The Prelude and Overture were performed to the vibrant orange title card designed by Saul Bass. The changing hue of the colourful lights on either side of the stage added to the dynamism of the opening of this iconic film.

The original orchestration of West Side Story, penned by Leonard Bernstein, with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal has been lost, but thankfully have been reconstructed. The demands of a Conductor are considerable in any performance, but add to those the need to synchronise the orchestra with the images on screen, and done can only imagine the demands made of the Conductor are intensified.Nevertheless, the ever-affable Northey made it all seem effortless, and what resulted was a thrilling rendition of the music.

The strings swept proficiently from romantic to scintillating passion, while the brass and percussion sections dazzled the audience.  The performance of West Side Story enabled the audience to hear and appreciate the breadth of talent of its musicians. The Dance at the Gym scene, in particular, was nothing short of thrilling. At its completion, the audience simply couldn’t refrain from applauding the Orchestra.

Not only was this an opportunity to see the newly-restored version of this outstanding film on the big screen (the opening aerial shots are spectacular), but we were treated to a scintillating musical performance. 


Film Directed by Robert Wise, with Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Orchestral score performed live by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Conducted by Benjamin Northey

Hamer Hall, Saturday July 28, 2018.   

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