How David Newman Protected Leonard Bernstein with ‘West Side Story’

We chat with the composer about his role in the remake and why he was hired to stand guard over Leonard Bernstein's music.
David Newman West Side Story

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with composer 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 mess it up. When remaking West Side Story, you can play with the choreography, you can intensify the cinematography, and you gotta update the casting, but whatever you do, you cannot, and I mean, you cannot, tinker with the music. Only a maniac would conceive of such egotistical absurdity, and director Steven Spielberg is no maniac.

When the notion of doing his West Side Story first tingled through his brain, Spielberg went to his friend and musical collaborator John Williams. The man who helped us believe Superman could fly and propelled Star Destroyers into our imagination did not scoff at the director’s hubris. He nodded at the idea, thought about it for a second, and told Spielberg to hire David Newman immediately.

In Williams’ estimation, no one loved or knew as much about West Side Story as Newman. The composer has toured West Side Story throughout 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 it with his life against anyone who tried to muck it up. And Williams told Spielberg, that’s exactly who you want on board if you’re going to take a crack at adaptation.

How David Newman Became the Only Man for the Job

“It goes way back for me,” says Newman. “It goes back to when I was like eight or nine years old. I have fond memories of listening to the entire LP, both sides, with my father, probably a few years before he died. Alfred Newman’s my father, do you know who that is?”

Do we know Alfred Newman? Uh…yeah, just a little. Alfred Newman is THE film composer. During a career that spanned more than 40 years, Newman’s father won nine Academy Awards and was nominated 45 times! We’re talking about movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Mark of Zorro, Miracle on 34th StreetAll About Eve, The Diary of Anne Frank, and How the West Was Won. From Alfred’s heart to David’s, an unconquerable passion for cinematic composition continues and thrives.

“Listening to that with him was great,” he continues. “And then we saw the movie in Chicago, on one of our trips with my mom. I’ll never forget it. That movie, I’d never seen anything like it. There was a feel to it that I still can’t really articulate for myself. It just felt so beautiful.”

Newman has composed over a hundred films but never before has he arranged music for someone else. West Side Story was a first, and he doesn’t imagine himself doing it again.

“This is a one-off,” he says. “The reason is because I know West Side Story backward and forwards. I know where to grab stuff, and that’s the reason to hire me. Plus, I know I’m very familiar with the Bernstein estate, so politically, I was in a good position to help Spielberg through this with them.”

What’s So Weird About Remaking West Side Story?

Spielberg did need help on that front. When you walk into a room and say you’re going to do your West Side Story, eyes raise, and maybe even roll. The original film is a beloved creation, an all-timer that seems untouchable to many. Fiddling about causes some to scream blasphemy.

“The best analogy I can make is opera,” says Newman. “Opera is another sort of canon thing with classical music. And many operas are done over and over and over. La bohème is done all over the place all the time. When you go and see it in New York, or see it in Washington DC or Vienna, you’re going to see the same music. You’re going to see the same text. But you’re going to see wildly different productions, from the way it’s set to how it’s dressed and how it’s lit. Each director is going to emphasize something different, but no matter what, it’s still La bohème.”

Newman saw Bernstein’s music as holy, untouchable. The worst thing he could do was inject an ounce of himself or anyone else into it. He was there as a guard dog. Back off, let Bernstein do his thing.

“Our goal with the music,” he says, “was for it to seem inevitably Bernstein. Period. There’s no me, no anybody else. This is West Side Story. The choreography is different, but it’s not not West Side Story. It still looks like Jerome Robbins’ work. It’s just more muscular, more filmic.”

Film Score Composition is a Collaboration with the Film, Not the Director.

There’s a misty quality to the way Newman discusses film music. He’s in love — in love with West Side Story, yes, but also in love with the process to which he’s attached himself. He has adopted the mission his father once held, and it’s an extraordinary privilege that he does not disregard.

“Film music can be extraordinary. When it’s well done,” he says. “And that is a part of the legacy for me. It’s what I admire so much about my father and his ability. Not just to conduct and compose, but to run a music department like 20th Century Fox, that he ran for 20 years, and to be such a fabulous minister — I don’t think Bernard Herrmann would have had a career without someone like Alfred Newman, nor David Raksin.

If you’re focusing on a movie’s score, then the score has failed the movie. Film composition is an invisible art, and Newman doesn’t contradict the concept, but it’s never been invisible to him. He grew up with it; he grew out of it. His father’s profession remains magical and mysterious even after he’s pulled many of its illusions away.

“It’s a great art form,” says Newman. “It’s a weird art form. It’s not concert music. It’s difficult to describe. At its best, it’s thrilling and great music and in the service of the film medium. Film music is like collaborating with a technology more than it is with a director. Once a film gets made and cut, it takes on a life of its own, and a good director watches the film and follows what the film demands and needs. A good, good artist like Spielberg, they intuitively understand this.”

Film Composition is Never Boring

Working on the new West Side Story certainly hasn’t cured David Newman of West Side Story. He’s not as in love with the score as he once was; he’s more so. Spending three years protecting Leonard Bernstein’s music reaffirmed his faith. He’s more hardcore a believer than ever.

“My dad died in 1970,” he says. “I was 16, but I remember him saying to me, ‘Music just never gets boring.’ It is always surprising. Yeah, you know, you have your ups and downs with stuff, but it’s a wonderful profession because there’s so much beautiful stuff in the past, in the present, and probably in the future. Film music is intrinsically interesting if you actually take the time to study it.”

To outsiders, it may sound incredible that he can maintain a lifetime love affair with West Side Story. Just how many times can you listen to one score and still recognize its beauty and genius? But to us film freaks, we get it. West Side Story is good on the first watch, great on the second watch, and absolutely nirvana on the millionth watch.

West Side Story is now playing in theaters. Read our review here.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)