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David Newman on keeping Bernstein’s music alive for Spielberg’s West Side Story

David Newman, West Side Story

On Right on Cue, Editor-in-Chief Clint Worthington talks to film, TV, and video game composers about the origins and nuances of their latest works, along with commentaries on the score’s most important tracks.

This week, we’re talking to David Newman, son of acclaimed composer Alfred Newman and a proud member of a film music family that includes brother Thomas and cousin Randy. He’s a prolific and legendary composer and conductor who’s scored more than 100 feature films and television shows. You may know his work from films like Serenity, the live-action Scooby-Doo films, and most notably, his iconic score to Galaxy Quest.

But his latest project isn’t to compose a new original score, but to play musical steward for Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner’s adaptation of one of the most celebrated musicals of all time — Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Rather than reinterpret Bernstein’s timeless score for this new adaptation, Newman used his lifelong experience with the musical (and familiarity with the Bernstein estate) to craft something that fit Spielberg and Kushner’s updates to the script, choreography, and story, while keeping the essential spirit of those classic tunes alive. This includes everything from rearranging “Somewhere” to give to Rita Moreno’s Valentina (a new character from the film) to reintroducing musical elements from the original show that weren’t present in Robert Wise’s 1961 version.

The results are as dazzling as they are deeply loyal to the source material, Newman’s protectiveness of Bernstein’s music evident in every held note and eased-in transition from song to song. He’s quick to point out that he changed nothing; but even that act of preservation brings forth a sense of lineage with the original show, entrenching it in an old-school style of Hollywood filmmaking that just doesn’t come about on the big screen often enough.

In this podcast, Newman joins me to talk about his relationship to West Side Story, what they changed (and didn’t change) in his new arrangement, and how they dealt with the thorny nature of COVID hitting their production right as they struggled to get the music just right.

You can find David Newman at their official website here.

West Side Story is currently playing in theaters; if you’re vaxxed, boosted, masked, and feel comfortable going, please go for it. You can also listen to the soundtrack on your preferred music streaming service courtesy of 20th Century Music.

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Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as one of the founders of the website/podcast Alcohollywood in 2011. He is also a Senior Writer at Consequence of Sound, as well as the co-host/producer of Travolta/Cage. You can also find his freelance work at IndieWire, UPROXX, Syfy Wire, The Takeout, and Crooked Marquee.