David Newman is one of Hollywood’s most talented composers, having scored dozens of classic films – such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Anastasia, Jingle All the Way, The Nutty Professor and Matilda.
His family is steeped in Hollywood film music history, with his father – the Alfred Newman – the legendary head of music at Twentieth Century Fox in the studio’s hey day. His brother, Thomas Newman, is a brilliant film composer, as is their cousin Randy Newman. The list of musical Newmans goes on.
As a conductor and arranger David Newman is much in demand, overseeing concerts of film music in the US and Europe. He regularly shares the podium with John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl and at Tanglewood’s popular ‘Film Night’, and it’s that great composer who suggested Newman to Spielberg as a safe pair of hands for the music for West Side Story.
As you can read in our feature on the new film in the January 2022 issue, Newman has a long history with the music of West Side Story. But what exactly was his role, and what was it like working with Steven Spielberg? He told me all about it in a recent interview.
When did your work on the film begin?
Well, it was shot in 2019, so it was middle-late 2018 when we started talking and then pre-production was the beginning of 2019. Of course in March 2020 we got stopped for about six months, and then we started up again in late 2020 and finished in the middle of this year. We had to do the soundtrack album, which was really important to us, because we wanted this to be the definitive statement of the music.
What was your overall approach to this project?
We approached the music in very much the ’50s Bernstein style; we wanted to keep that as a North Star of the movie. We did some arranging, but we tried not to change it, because it’s so timeless, and it seemed counterproductive to do anything drastic.
As an arranger on a film like this, what is it you essentially have to do?
It’s hard to describe. Basically my job was to make sure that we kept Leonard Bernstein’s vision. We did not want to modernise or rearrange it. Of course we had to do some of that, but we didn’t want any of that to be ostentatious at all. It was just my job to ensure that it had the integrity that it frankly needed, and that all the authors and Spielberg and the production company wanted. So I did some arranging – I worked very closely with Garth Sunderland at the Bernstein Estate. Really the music is the music, it’s timeless and it’s now part of the concert world canon. It’s almost miraculous that music from a Broadway theatre piece, or musical, or however you want to define it, is in the western canon of symphonic music – vis a vis the ‘Symphonic Dances’.
You’re one of a handful of composers who can say they’ve scored a Steven Spielberg film. What was it like to work with him?
It was amazing watching him – I got to watch a bunch of pre-production. They did a lot of dance rehearsals and vocal rehearsals in New York in late 2018, early 2019, so I had a fair amount of discussion with him, but I learned more from watching him work. Speaking with him and then watching the whole process get birthed; it was a very long process and Covid really put a chink in it for a while, because you had to ramp up again. But he’s just what you would think of quintessentially as an auteur director. It was amazing working with him.
Of course, you’ve scored films he produced and didn’t you even play on the score for E.T.?!
I did. I played on E.T.; I played on 1941 and probably a couple of others that John Williams did. I was working as a session violinist.
What can you tell us about the soundtrack album?
We worked extremely hard and took it very seriously – Jeanine Tesori, myself and Matt Sullivan the music supervisor, Shawn Murphy the mixer, David Campbell the editor. We feel this is a historical document. The singing is really good, it’s really West Side Story. All the actors are young and they sing for themselves, but it was a lot of hard work to make it. We wanted to make the soundtrack like a mini drama, like a radio drama – of sorts – of the movie. It’s a wonderful, wonderful movie.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is in cinemas now and the soundtrack is out now on Hollywood Records
You can read the full feature in the January issue of BBC Music Magazine