Behind the scenes of West Side Story: how the music team recorded Bernstein’s score for the 2021 film adaptation

We hear from music supervisors, screenwriter Tony Kushner, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Steven Spielberg himself about the process of creating and capturing the music of West Side Story

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Music and vocal recordings for the 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story took place in New York and Los Angeles, under the direction of conductor Gustavo Dudamel, arranger David Newman and music supervisors Matt Sullivan and Jeanine Tesori. West Side Story‘s original lyricist Stephen Sondheim was also present for the recording process.

Stephen Sondheim’s involvement in the recording process

‘It was really wonderful having Stephen Sondheim in the vocal booth when we were recording,’ music supervisor Jeanine Tesori says. ‘You felt the spirit of the original show was right there with us, blessing what we were doing.’

‘Stephen Sondheim is a genius – a word I use very rarely,’ says Tony Kushner, the playwright who has written for the screenplay for this new West Side Story adaptation for the big screen.

‘Some of the lyrics for West Side Story have the brilliant rhyming and wordplay we associate with him, but some of them are simple. Every song in West Side Story yields dramatic richness. None is static, each is a beautifully structured progression, each develops the characters, their relationships to each other and to language and class and history, each advances narrative and meaning.’

Steven Spielberg’s approach to prerecording the music and vocals

The music for the film adaptation was prerecorded and then dubbed over the on-screen performances. This was a first for Steven Spielberg, who had never worked in this way.

‘I remember on Close Encounters we prerecorded the musical dialogue with the mothership a few times because that was part of a scene, but most of the time I’m just making the movie, and then I give it to John Williams, he goes off, writes the score, and then we spend about ten days in the recording studio when the film is all cut together,’ he says. ‘But this being a musical, it’s a completely different approach.’

Working with conductor Gustavo Dudamel

In creating the film adaptation, Spielberg worked with the Bernstein siblings – as well as with West Side Story lyricist Stephen Sondheim. He says, however, it was working with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel that was the biggest thrill.

‘It was John Williams’s idea for me to ask Gustavo to conduct the entire score, and it was one of John’s many master strokes!’, he says. ‘Gustavo led the orchestra onto the movie screen with such insight, heart and dynamism, and his astounding musicianship.’

Read Gustavo Dudamel reviews here.

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