In 1949, the pre-eminent choreographer Jerome Robbins floated the idea of a Broadway musical based on "Romeo and Juliet" but set in a tough 1950s Manhattan neighborhood torn asunder by gang turf wars between the Jets and the Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks.
In its remastered, high-def version, the 1961 film of "West Side Story," adapted from the 1957 stage play, still resonates strongly with contemporary audiences and retains a powerful emotional impact.
All the more so when it's shown at Tanglewood on multiple big screens with the original Hollywood studio music track digitally extracted and replaced by the Boston Symphony in full cry, using a revised orchestral score, much as composer Leonard Bernstein would have intended for the work most consider his greatest masterpiece.
For the BSO's first full-length, contemporary "orchestra to picture" presentation this evening, the dialogue and vocals remain intact but the music takes center stage, conducted by the classically trained film composer David Newman.
Nina Bernstein, the composer-conductor's youngest offspring, views "West Side Story" as her "third sibling."
"For me it's this other person, a creature that always existed," she said from her New York office.
She thinks her father, who died in 1990, would have been excited by the live-orchestra version.
"He was not a big fan" of the Hollywood orchestration, she observed.
Anticipating her visit to Tanglewood, and having heard the "darned exciting" New York Philharmonic performance two years ago, she ventured that "it's going to be thrilling, tremendously moving. I'm going to bring a hankie."
For the 50th anniversary presentation that debuted at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011, a deep archaeological-type dig was required to unearth the full score, missing from the MGM-UA studio archives.
"I think it's a unique work of art, a one-of-a-kind mixture of a whole bunch of different forms stirred into a pot," said Newman during a conversation at Tanglewood on Thursday. He pointed out that "West Side Story" includes opera and operetta elements, high-powered jazz and Latin music segments, vaudeville, even music typical of a German beer hall.
Putting the project together for orchestras, along with Garth Edwin Sunderland, senior music editor at the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York, is the production supervisor, Steve Linder, a senior vice president and director of the attractions division of IMG Artists, a vast international performing arts management agency.
"No one could find the score," Linder recalled, though after a lengthy search it finally turned up at the University of Southern California in the collection of the film's late co-director, Robert Wise.
Sunderland refashioned the 465-page score, containing 90 minutes of music. The orchestration was slimmed down somewhat from what Linder called the "gi-normous" 100-player Hollywood version, which included six saxes, eight trumpets, five pianos and five xylophones.
Not surprisingly, Bernstein found the film soundtrack "overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety," according to Misha Berson's 2011 history of the show, "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination."
Now, the score is for a normal-sized orchestra, Linder explained, with a few extra percussion players, along with three saxes, guitar and mandolin.
"It's something orchestras can handle that doesn't compromise the integrity of the music," he said.
To uncork the Hollywood studio-orchestra music from the soundtrack required computerized audio-engineering wizardry by two high-tech firms in Burbank, Calif., and in Paris -- a Photoshop technique applied to source separation and sound isolation.
"Through the miracles of technology, the orchestra was extracted off the single track," said Linder. "What is being played through the sound system at Tanglewood is everything except the orchestra."
In order to precisely synchronize the BSO's live performance to the film, Newman uses a "click track" heard on headphones worn by players -- literally, rhythmic clicks to indicate starts, stops and the beat -- as well as color-coded vertical streamers, a light bar that moves across the small video monitor near the conductor's podium. Newman compares the technique to navigating and landing a plane precisely on the runway at a designated time.
"It's not simple, but we try to make it user-friendly," said Newman, who has conducted "West Side Story" previously with six orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as in Sydney, Australia, and Indianapolis.
Working with the BSO on Wednesday, Newman voiced high praise, stating that he had never accomplished as much in the first hour of rehearsal. "They did fantastic, they've always had the big Pops component, and that makes them more flexible with road-map stuff, weird notations and the legacy of Broadway and film music," he said."It's really important to do it immediately, with all the technology going," he said, "not to rehearse the music just by itself." That way, the comfort level for the players quickly increases.
"There's always a little growing pain," he acknowledged, since the most technically complicated music is in the overture and the balletic gang-sequence prologue.
"Once you get past that, it's pretty smooth sailing," said Newman, who returns to Tanglewood on Aug. 24 to share conducting duties with John Williams for Film Night. "It's the job of the conductor to right the ship when it goes off course but also to be be constantly making music, phrasing, drama, all that stuff, which is what audiences want to see. They want to see drama!"
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About ‘West Side Story'
The film: Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, based on Leonard Bernstein's music, playwright Arthur Laurents' book and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for the 1957 Broadway musical; the screenplay was credited to Ernest Lehman. The movie opened in 1961.
Stars: Natalie Wood (whose singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon), as Maria; Richard Beymer as Tony. Co-starring Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris.
Locations: Some on-location scenes were shot on Manhattan's West Side, including in the tenement area razed several years later to make way for Lincoln Center and at a public school playground on East 110th Street in Harlem.
Songs: "Something's Coming," "America," "Tonight," "I Feel Pretty," "Somewhere," "Gee, Officer Krupke," "One Hand, One Heart," "There's a Place For Us."
Awards: 10 Oscars out of 11 nominations, a record for a filmed musical, including Best Picture and Best Director shared by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Only three movies have won 11 Academy Awards -- "Ben Hur" (1959), "Titanic" (1997) and "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (2003).
Tonight's screening: The 21 2 hour MGM/United Artists film, plus an intermission, is shown complete from overture through the final credits with "exit music," just as moviegoers saw it during its original run at the movie palaces where it played in 1961.
Tonight's conductor: David Newman, 59, has scored 115 movies; his father was the nine-time Oscar-winning Hollywood composer Alfred Newman.
Previous BSO film nights: In addition to the annual John Williams concert that includes clips from movie scores, in 1991 under Music Director Seiji Ozawa, the BSO performed Prokofiev's score for the 1938 Russian film "Alexander Nevsky" at Tanglewood.
If you go
What: "West Side Story," complete screening of the remastered 1961 film with the score performed live by the Boston Symphony.
Where: Tanglewood, 197 West St., Lenox.
When: Tonight, 8:30
Tickets: Lawn seating $20 at the box office or tanglewood.org. Phone: (888) 266-1200. (Scattered Shed tickets may be available.)
Note: Saturday's rehearsal for "West Side Story" at 10:30 a.m. has tickets from $10 to $30. Music will not be performed in its entirety, and the full film will not be shown.