David Newman, son of the venerated film composer Alfred, brother of Thomas, and a part of the illustrious Newman scoring heritage, has written a slew of great original scores over the years, including many for his longtime collaborator Danny DeVito (War of the Roses, Hoffa), and lots of terrific family/adventure fare (Matilda, Galaxy Quest, The Brave Little Toaster). In recent years, Newman has moved from the A-list film scoring scene to the A-list film music concert scene, regularly conducting major U.S. orchestras during sold-out live-to-film performances of classic scores, including John Williams’ Home Alone just last month with the L.A. Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles.
For Newman, 2021 also marked something of a return to A-list cinema, but with a twist. When he was brought on board Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, Newman faced a unique challenge: adapting and arranging not just a pre-existing work, but an all-time classic. Said work represents a landmark in the careers of both composer Leonard Bernstein and the late lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Their initial Broadway production of West Side Story was eventually adapted into the Oscar-winning 1961 movie musical, and it continues to cast a formidable shadow throughout popular and classical music culture.
How, then, does a composer express fidelity towards an existing work while also providing enough tweaks for a modern-day audience? As it turns out, West Side Story has been a part of David Newman’s musical life for about as long as he can remember. We caught up with him to hear all about his thoughts on the show, and how he went about adapting the music for Spielberg’s new vision. Then, stick around for Newman’s thoughts about his father Alfred, and the practices of early film music.
Sean Wilson: First, to put the interview into some kind of context, what was your initial exposure to West Side Story, and what kind of impact did it have on you?
David Newman: West Side Story was something for me growing up. It came out in 1957 and I was born in 1954. When I was maybe seven or eight years old, we got the Broadway cast album. One of my earliest memories is listening to it with my father, Alfred Newman. He was the head of 20th Century Fox [Music] and won nine Academy Awards. I remember sitting and listening to the whole thing and being absolutely thrilled by it, even as a young child.
There’s a thing in high school or late middle school that involves doing musical theater productions in the spring semester. They would cast a musical at large that would allow anyone in the school to audition. Certainly, where I grew up on the west side of Los Angeles, it was a big, big deal. When I was maybe 14, we did a production of West Side Story. This was probably 1969 or 1970. I was the rehearsal pianist. So for four months, I rehearsed incessantly after school. It’s so hard, and it’s young kids. So I spent a lot of time playing West Side Story. Then, in my 20s, I went to USC as a violin performance major. Essentially, one part of USC is a conservatory of sorts. It’s a large university but in terms of Los Angeles, the west coast at the time, that was the place. You’d either go to USC, Juilliard or Curtis. Or maybe Indiana. I was working playing violin but I had a semi-pro theater group with these friends of mine. We’d all met in high school doing plays. We did about six summers, and one summer in college, we did West Side Story. I was maybe 24 or 25 and I was the music director. I rehearsed and I got to conduct a union orchestra.
I started writing music when I was about 28 years old, maybe around 1985 or 1986. I’d gotten a conducting masters; I wanted to be a conductor and had no interest whatsoever in composing. My conducting went nowhere so I did start composing. I conducted all my film scores. Around 2005, I started conducting film concerts, although I had done some in the late 1980s, because I’d run the Sundance Institute Film Music Program. Here and there, I’d conduct a film music concert but nothing regular.
However, starting in the mid-2000s, I was regularly conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. In 2011, we premiered the film version of West Side Story with a live orchestra. That completely changed everything. It went on to be booked hundreds of times in the ensuing couple of years. It’s the perfect marriage of art music, theater music and drama and movies. I’ve probably done that 40 or 50 times with every major orchestra in the U.S. And then in 2018, Steven Spielberg, on the recommendation of John Williams, hired me to, quote, unquote, “arrange and supervise the music for West Side Story.”
It’s the only job like this that I’ve ever had, and it’s kind of hard to describe. It isn’t really an arranging job. It’s not really an orchestration job, either, although there were elements of both. It’s a singularly unique movie. It is not a filming of a show, but it is the show. It is completely, purely West Side Story, particularly the music. We had to be very careful with what we did with the music. If the choreography needed something, you can’t just write something. You have to go and find Leonard Bernstein’s stuff, pop it in and make it seamless. We toyed with changing the orchestration a little. Not that we didn’t change it, but 95% of it was not changed. The minute you start messing with it, it doesn’t sound right.
There were a couple of things that guided us. For me and Garth Sunderland, who supervises the music for the Leonard Bernstein estate, the symphonic dances of West Side Story are part of the canon of classical music. It’s about a one in a million percentage. It’s minuscule what goes into the canon. What that essentially means is a piece of music is played by most orchestras once every couple of years. You’ve got your Beethovens, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and so forth. West Side Story is part of that. It’s not just some show. It has a very storied pedigree. It’s 1957, so it’s almost 60 years old. The 1961 movie was done three years after the show. The original orchestrators on the Broadway show were the orchestrators and arrangers on the movie. Therefore, we felt that the movie was fair game to pull from as well, musically.