Stumptown's 'West Side' Story' is as timely as ever
Stumptown Stages picked a great time to put on "West Side Story," the Broadway classic that features music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins and book by Arthur Laurents.
It doesn't get much bigger than "West Side Story," which is being staged through Oct. 27 at the Winningstad Theatre. Theaters and museums are celebrating "Leonard Bernstein at 100," the 100th birthday of the late composer and conductor, including the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education with an exhibit on display into January.
"West Side Story" was Bernstein's greatest stage work, telling the modern-day "Romeo & Juliet" story of lovers (starring Tina Mascaro and Alexander Trull) caught between rival gangs, the "American" Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks.
It's a daunting task to put on "West Side Story," including the musical arrangments. The Tribune caught up with Adam Young, Stumptown's music director, for his thoughts on the musical, Bernstein and more:
Tribune: You've done some Bernstein works, but this is the big one for musicals, why?
Young: This is the one. It's an incredible piece. This came out in the middle of the 20th century (1957) and classical harmony was out of style. (Bernstein) embraces those principals of ambiguous harmony and it's not strictly tonal — it is tonal, but in a very American way.
Just take the main chord of the show in the prologue: It's C major and C minor at the same time, and that means you can't place it. It's home — but you're not sure where the home is. It's tonally ambiguous.
He's also doing such things as the horns as honking; it's the streets of New York, and in making that scene you can hear and see and be on the streets of New York.
Tribune: It's quite a chore arranging "West Side Story" music?
Young: In the initial orchestration, Bernstein said the original plan was 60 musicians and he didn't know how he'd get it down to 30. Well, I'm doing it with 12 — 12 musicians and me conducting. "Yes we can do this, it's not daunting at all." I'm really proud of our band.
I had only a budget for two reed players (for playing saxophone, clarinet, bassoon, etc.), and got the two best in town ... and in the music there is still five reed books. I took those five reed books over the summer and — I can't rewrite or arrange music legally — turned it into one book, so my players could cover all the books. It's not an arrangement, but it is an arrangement. They said, "Holy cow, it's going to work."
I had to do similar work with the trumpet and violin players.
Tribune: Where do you rank Bernstein in the pantheon of conductors and composers?
Young: There are few that come even near him. Beethoven conducted his symphonies ... and we recognized Mahler as this huge figure in reforming what symphony is. Film scapes wouldn't be the same had Mahler not written symphonies. But, he was notorious as a conductor, big and mean and demanding. Bernstein had a little bit of that — he knew what he wanted and knew how to get it out of the orchestra.
Tribune: It's a big deal for you to direct the "West Side Story" music?
Young: It's a huge thing. It's the first time being just a conductor. All I'm playing in performances is baton. When you're trying to do what Bernstein envisioned with 60 players and whittled to 30 and I'm doing it with 12, you have to finagle it. (For example) The keyboard player is doing a great job; we had to change bassoon parts, and some of it's played by the keyboard player.
We're trying to up the standard for sure. "Let's polish this and put on the best show we can possibly do." With an ensemble this big, 26 members, and this is the biggest band we've had ever, it needs to keep it all together. We all gotta be on the same beat.
"West Side Story" stages at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 27 at Winningstad Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway. For info/tickets: www.stumptownstages.org.
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