We chat with the composer about his role in the remake and why he was hired to oversee the music of Leonard Bernstein.
By Brad GullicksonPublished December 20, 2021
Welcome to World Builders, our continuing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftsmen. In this entry, we chat with songwriter and song producer David Newman about maintaining the majesty of the old West Side Story in the new West Side Story.
His credits on the new West Side Story might read “all songs produced by / score arranged by”, but David Newman really only had one job: not to spoil everything. During redesign West Side Story, you can play around with the choreography, you can step up the cinematography, and you have to update the cast, but whatever you do, you can’t, and I mean, you can’t, tinker with the music. Only a maniac would conceive of such selfish nonsense, and director Steven Spielberg is no maniac.
When the idea of ââdoing his West Side Story At first tingling in his brain, Spielberg went to see his friend and musical collaborator John Williams. The man who helped us believe Superman could fly and propelled Star Destroyers into our imaginations didn’t laugh at the director’s pride. He nodded at the idea, thought about it for a second, and told Spielberg to hire David Newman immediately.
According to Williams’ estimate, no one liked or knew so much about West Side Story like Newman. The composer toured West Side Story across the United States and Europe, conducting countless live-to-picture concerts. He understands Leonard Bernstein’s score better than anyone on the planet, and he would protect him with his life from anyone who tried to smear him. And Williams told Spielberg, that’s exactly who you want on board if you want to try the adaptation.
How David Newman Became the Only Man for the Job
âIt goes back a long way to me,â Newman says. âIt goes back to when I was eight or nine years old. I have fond memories of having listened to the entire LP, both sides, with my father, probably a few years before his death. Alfred Newman is my father, do you know who he is?
Do we know Alfred Newman? Uhâ¦ yeah, just a little. Alfred Newman is THE film composer. In a career spanning over 40 years, Newman’s dad won nine Oscars and was nominated 45 times! We talk about films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The mark of Zorro, Miracle on 34th Street, All about Eve, Anne Frank’s Diary, and How the West was won. From the heart of Alfred to that of David, an invincible passion for cinematographic composition endures and flourishes.
âListening to that with him was great,â he continues. “And then we saw the movie in Chicago, on one of our trips with my mom. I’ll never forget it. This movie, I had never seen anything like it. It felt like I was still can’t really speak for myself It was just so beautiful.
Newman has composed over a hundred films, but never before has he arranged music for anyone else. West Side Story was a first, and he can’t imagine doing it again.
âIt’s a unique piece,â he says. “The reason is that I know West Side Story back and forth. I know where to find stuff, and that’s the reason I got involved. Also, I know I know the Bernstein estate very well, so politically I was in a good position to help Spielberg get through this with them.
What’s so weird about the West Side Story redesign?
Spielberg needed help on this front. When you walk into a room and say you’re going to do your West Side Story, the eyes go up, and maybe even roll. The original film is a beloved creation, a timeless one that seems untouchable to many. The act of playing the violin causes some to cry blasphemy.
âThe best analogy I can make is opera,â Newman says. âOpera is another kind of canon thing with classical music. And many operas are repeated over and over again. Bohemian is done everywhere all the time. When you go to see it in New York, or see it in Washington DC or Vienna, you are going to see the same music. You will see the same text. But you’re going to see very different productions, from the way it’s set to the way it’s dressed and how it’s lit. Every director is going to focus on something different, but no matter what, it’s always Bohemian. “
Newman considered Bernstein’s music holy, untouchable. The worst thing he could do was inject an ounce of himself or someone else into it. He was there as a watchdog. Stand back, let Bernstein do his thing.
âOur goal with music,â he says, âwas that it inevitably sounded like Bernstein. Period. There is no me, no one else. It is West Side Story. The choreography is different, but it’s not West Side Story. It still looks like Jerome Robbins’ work. It’s just more muscular, more filmic.
The composition of film music is a collaboration with the film, not the director.
There is a hazy quality in the way Newman discusses film music. He is in love – in love with West Side Story, yes, but also in love with the process to which he is attached. He has adopted the mission his father once held, and it is an extraordinary privilege that he does not neglect.
âFilm music can be extraordinary. When it’s done well, âhe says. âAnd that’s part of the legacy for me. This is what I admire so much about my father and his abilities. Not just to direct and compose, but to run a music department like 20th Century Fox, which he led for 20 years, and be such a fabulous minister – I don’t think Bernard Herrmann would have had a career without someone. one like Alfred Newman, nor David Raksin.
If you focus on the score of a movie, then the score missed the movie. Film composition is an invisible art, and Newman doesn’t contradict the concept, but it was never invisible to him. He grew up with it; he grew up. His father’s profession remains magical and mysterious even after he has cast away many of his illusions.
âIt’s a great art form,â Newman says. âIt’s a strange art form. It’s not concert music. It’s hard to describe. At its best, this is exciting and awesome music and serving the cinematic medium. Film music is more like collaborating with technology than with a director. Once a movie is made and edited, it takes on a life of its own, and a good director watches the movie and follows what the movie asks and needs. A good, good artist like Spielberg, they understand it intuitively.
Film composition is never boring
Work on the new West Side Story certainly did not cure David Newman of West Side Story. He is no longer as in love with the score as he once was; it is more. Spending three years protecting Leonard Bernstein’s music has reaffirmed his faith. He is more religious than ever.
âMy father died in 1970,â he says. âI was 16, but I remember him saying to me, ‘Music never gets boring.’ It’s always surprising. Yeah, you know you have your ups and downs with stuff, but it’s a wonderful job because there are so many beautiful things in the past, in the present, and probably in the future. Film music is inherently interesting if you actually take the time to study it.
To strangers, it may seem incredible that he can have a lifelong love affair with West Side Story. How many times can you listen to a sheet music while recognizing its beauty and genius? But for us moviegoers, we understand. West Side Story is good on the first watch, excellent on the second watch, and absolutely nirvana on the millionth watch.
West Side Story is now playing in theaters. Read our review here.
Related subjects: Steven Spielberg, West Side Story, World Builder
Brad Gullickson is a weekly columnist for Film School Rejects and senior curator for One Perfect Shot. When he’s not talking about movies here, he’s talking about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Track him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He him)