Downsizing at ‘West Side Story’

What it means when a string section is cut by half

Volume CX, No. 9September, 2010

Paul Woodiel

Many readers read an edited version of this essay in the New York Times. Below, Allegro presents the original. The tragedy of cutting the music at “West Side Story” was picked up by media all over the world.

In 1983, as an ambitious young violinist with a newly minted violin degree, I had the rare luck to form a friendship with Leonard Bernstein.

One summer evening, during dinner at his home in Fairfield, Conn., he asked, “Why don’t you play ‘West Side Story’ with me? I’m recording it in the fall, and I think you’d be great in the fiddle section.”

I stopped eating and placed my soup spoon down carefully, for as you may imagine, he had secured my full attention at that particular moment.

Three months later, I found myself in the legendary (now long defunct) RCA Studio A in midtown, in a state of sheer terror.

I spent a week nestled in Lenny’s hand-picked orchestra, culled from the ranks of New York’s most superb instrumentalists, recording the full, resplendent score of “West Side Story” for the Deutsche Grammophon label, and filmed by the BBC.

It was the most exhilarating experience of my young life.

In the 25 years since, I have enjoyed a rich and varied career as a theater musician.

I’ve toured the world as the fiddle on the proverbial roof, sweltered in a marching band uniform in The Music Man, and played a languid tango in Norma Desmond’s mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

Last year, the stars at last aligned for me again.

Declining a generous offer for a solo chair in another show, I went hat in hand to the music coordinator for the current revival of “West Side Story” at the Palace Theater.

For the past 16 months, I have once again had the privilege, eight times per week, to perform the most miraculous orchestration ever created for Broadway, surrounded by the greatest players in New York.

Now comes word, however, that in order to cut costs, our producers will, beginning this week, reduce our string section by half, release five string players and “replace” them with an electronic synthesizer piped in from another room.

I believe Lenny would have been offended by even the suggestion of this scheme.

The sweeping grandeur of Broadway’s classic scores would be impossible without master orchestrations.

Irving Berlin (Bernstein’s favorite songwriter), couldn’t read a note to save his life – it was Robert Russell Bennett who put the ammo in Annie Oakley’s “Gun.”

Even the beloved overture to “Gypsy” was penned not by Jule Styne, but by the estimable Sid Ramin, Bernstein’s collaborator (with Irwin Kostal) on “West Side Story.”

Bernstein was unique. As conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he inherited a post once held by Gustav Mahler, who like Lenny, knew a couple of things about the orchestra.

Lenny was “The Orchestra,” for pity’s sake! Didn’t he teach us its marvels through decades of charismatic concertizing and his televised Young People’s Concerts including, notably, “What is Orchestration?”

The orchestrator’s crafty magic isn’t much understood by the average theatergoer; it’s best appreciated, I dare say, by us, the musicians who thrill (or despair, as the case may well be) to a given score night after night on end.

The orchestration of “West Side Story” towers above all others, a genius masterwork of peerless complexity and beauty, that still reveals marvels to my colleagues and me even after 500 performances.

No Broadway composer had ever brought anything close to Lenny’s powers to the orchestrator’s table.

The score’s eye-popping instrumental forces, too long to print here, involve everything from bass saxophone to slide whistle to three piccolos.

He also crafted precisely eleven independent string parts to lushly render his sublime love songs: “Maria,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” and “One Hand, One Heart.”

From July 13 onward, the skeletal remains of the section (I will still be there, lest this sound merely self-serving) will assiduously accompany an inert, artificial, electronic sound which an engineer will try to manipulate, hoping to deceive our remaining audiences into thinking this is the real thing.

They’re betting you won’t notice the difference.

But if you happen to be listening, as Lenny would have suggested you do, you’ll notice.

It sounds like crap.

Why cheapen the show this way? Lincoln Center’s glorious production of “South Pacific” was scheduled to close at the end of August after a long and successful run.

It featured a full string section and an orchestra of 30.

This honors the integrity of the show, and preserves Rodgers’ legacy (and that of his great orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett).

Things aren’t great for Broadway musicians.

There are fewer jobs than ever, as pit “orchestras” have increasingly become small pop/rock bands.

I’m okay with that, though – I’m proudly anachronistic.

But I’m tired of our being portrayed as whiny, featherbedding union hacks who selfishly create unfair obstacles to free enterprise in the theater business.

Obviously, violins aren’t necessary in many new shows.

But “West Side Story,” above all, is not one of those shows.

Why not, if the show is no longer profitable, simply close it with its dignity intact, and honor the legacy of Bernstein’s crown jewel, rather than set an ugly precedent for future revivals of this and other orchestral shows?

If Bernstein’s work can’t be presented fully here, on the West Side itself, then where on earth else?

This isn’t dinner theater, after all. It’s not even Vegas.

This is Broadway.

And this is “West Side Story.”