Dallas — An audience-pleasing trend of the past few years is to project favorite movies old and new on a big screen while a live orchestra provides the soundtrack. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra got in on the action this weekend by showing the 1961 film West Side Story while performing Leonard Bernstein’s orchestral score.
Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for West Side Story, set to Leonard Bernstein’s music, is some of the most brilliant musical theater writing ever (Arthur Laurents wrote the book; the film was co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, the original choreographer; all inspired by Romeo and Juliet). The film begins with an iconic dance sequence—members of rival street gangs dance ballet while they fight. As one does. Listening to a live orchestra while enjoying this visual spectacle on the big screen was a rare treat.
Contemporary technologies have made these productions feasible. The conductor uses a monitor that shows him the film with “streamers and punches,” visual cues that show tempo changes and downbeats for each measure. This device allows the precision necessary to synchronize the orchestra’s live performance with the film.
The West Side Story performance included the original taped vocals from the film, which adds an order of magnitude of difficulty to the production. A film such as The Fellowship of the Ring, which the Dallas Pops staged in a similar way a couple of years ago, is a much simpler proposition. If something goes wrong and, say, the orchestra is a beat or two off, it’s no big deal. It’s improbable that anyone will notice.
However, that is not the case with musicals. If the orchestra isn’t perfectly synchronized with the pre-recorded vocals, it’s a very big problem. During the first half, the orchestra and conductor Jayce Ogren were on the mark. However, the musicians were listening to click tracks—audio cues much like metronome beats designed to help them synchronize the music to the film. These click tracks, oddly, were audible to the audience during softer passages in the first half. After intermission, the click tracks were no longer audible, at least not from my seat, but there were some noticeable synchronization problems.
The orchestra’s playing was not quite up to usual Dallas Symphony standards, either, although there were some moments of brilliance. The Dallas Symphony percussion were excellent in a demanding role, as were the brass. Strings sometimes sounded uncharacteristically ragged, however, and the orchestra as a whole wasn’t quite together.
Despite these glitches, the near-capacity audience seemed thrilled by the experience. As we headed for the exits, one audience member was heard to say, “That’s the best thing I’ve been to here.” Synchronization difficulties aside, then, these productions are fan favorites, to be sure.