Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the musical West Side Story, Tony and Oscar, is a modern-day masterpiece.
Postponed for nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film erased any doubts the musical deserved another cinematic release after the 1961 original received 10 Oscars. The perspective of Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner really reinvents classic material by providing extra character and socio-political development. It also features a new cast of sharp Broadway talent that is both incredibly talented and genuinely refreshing.
But even with the additions that help make the new version urgent and vital, the film’s main stars are the lush and vibrant score by the brilliant Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim. As West Side Story marks Steven Spielberg’s first musical, he needed someone to help guide a classic Broadway show through the process of making a movie.
Enter music supervisor Matthew Sullivan.
Sullivan is no stranger to adapting classic Broadway musicals for the big screen. In fact, he’s worked on over a dozen stage-to-screen adaptations. Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Sullivan talks about the process of collaborating between Spielberg and his extraordinary cast to mold West Side Story into the brilliant art that it is.
Awards Daily: I’d like to start off with, if you describe to our readers what a music supervisor in particular does in a motion picture musical, what do you do in terms of the overall product?
Matthew Sullivan: Great question. There is usually a list of three things we do on films: licensing songs, working with composers as much as composers allow us, and preparing and being on set for live music performances. camera. My job is usually to handle the on-camera performances while casting, writing songs, taking existing material, putting it in the script, working with the screenwriter, initiating a casting with the casting director, and then to prepare everyone. It’s almost like putting on a show on stage and getting ready for opening night, and opening night is an 80-day shoot.
AD: West Side Story is a classic musical. How do you adapt this classical score to ensure resonance for today’s audience?
MS: Well, the story itself has always been relatable. It’s based on Romeo and Juliet, which has been around for a while. The only thing about music is that it’s timeless. We’re not going to take it and update it. It’s still set in the late 50’s. What really gives it more youth is this incredible cast that Cindy Tolan, our casting director, put together with Steven. Their energy, their love for matter and their exuberance on set were key. With 17-22 year olds playing this on camera, people in that age range are really going to like it because they are related to these people. You can see their enthusiasm in making the film.
AD: One of the things I love most about West Side Story is the way it embraces the fluidity of the dance. How dance helps tell the story. What was your influence in the staging of these musical sequences?
MS: As soon as I met Steven, we talked about the difference between making a regular movie or an action movie. My response to him was that music is mathematical. It depends on your tempo, bars and rhythms, and how much music you have available to tell this story. It’s Bernstein’s music, so we can do a little bit of movement and add a little bit here and there. But if the song is 3 minutes long, then we have to tell the story in the shots he wants with the allotted time.
I worked closely with Steven on the storyboards, determining how the camera moves with the music. So we realized pretty quickly that I was going to work with an assistant editor and just take the storyboards and do what’s called an animatic, which is when you animate the storyboards so that you can actually create that at what a camera movement would look like. It’s not really elaborate, but at least he has an idea of what the camera wants to do. Every time we shot a song, I had this animation on my iPad, which played to music. You can actually watch it with the team and show here where it starts, where it ends, or here’s the plan. Then we take a look at the production design and the decor and see how much we can get out of the decor without going into modern buildings. Then you just have to sort out the camera movement and make sure it works with the music every time.
AD: I would like to dive into a few songs more specifically. First off, I know Tony Kushner, Spielberg, and others reworked the placement of some songs in the script. With “Somewhere”, the song is now entrusted to the character of Rita Moreno. Can you talk about making that choice?
MS: I would like to take the credit for it, but I can’t. Tony Kushner came up with the idea that Rita Moreno would take on the role of Doc as his wife after his death. It was an inherited idea that I got into. Then myself and Jeanine Tesori – a brilliant Broadway writer and songwriter herself – met Rita. We asked him, “Okay, how do you approach the song? It’s not a duo here, while sometimes it’s a duo, sometimes not. How are we going to approach this? ‘ Rita said she wanted to sing it a cappella. We thought it was beautiful.
AD: What about the quartet version of “Tonight? “
MS: There are very few changes to the track itself. We added a little bit of engine to start this scene, to get us into the song. It was pretty much the most complicated song we’ve had to compose because at one point it becomes a cacophony of overlapping vocals: the Jets, Sharks, Anita, Tony and Maria. They are all just stacked on top of each other. It’s beautiful, like incredible, incredible writing. But every time you listen to it you hear something different because you are focusing on that character at that point. Steven had very specific ideas about when to mix and shoot, what band or person would be featured at that time.
AD: Also, in more modern versions of the original score, “I Feel Pretty” is often omitted from the libretto, but it is included here. Can you talk about the conversations around this song and why it is included where it is located?
MS: Steven really loves this song, and it was always going to be part of the score. We also worked within the boundaries of the Bernstein organization. Leonard Bernstein’s children and their musicologist asked us to find a place for him. Tony was brilliant putting him where he is, and I love him. This is happening now after the growl, and Maria is unaware of what happened. It’s very bittersweet.
AD: My last question for you: you come from the music industry and have worked on over a dozen musicals. Why do you think 2021 is shaping up to be the year of the musical?
MS: A lot of it has to do with COVID. We were due out a year ago. There is a bit of a backlog of things coming out. But other than that, everyone loves movies. Everyone loves going to see movies. Everyone knows John Williams and Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer – some of the great composers of this period. The public loves sheet music. In addition to these familiar sheet music and music, musicals add to the experience of people singing songs. If we do musicals well, then we feel natural. What I think we did on West Side Story, the dialogue becomes song. Hopefully this is where people don’t get into a musical. They just go with these people who are now expressing their emotions through the song. If we keep doing this right, people will continue to appreciate them and want to watch them.
West Side Story now plays exclusively in theaters nationwide.