Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the classic Tony and Oscar-winning Broadway musical West Side Story is a modern day masterpiece.
Postponed nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film erased all doubts that the musical warranted another film version after the 1961 original received 10 Oscars. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s take truly reimagines the classic material by providing addition character and socio-political development. It also introduces a new cast of Broadway-honed talent that are both wildly talented and refreshingly authentic.
But even with the additions helping make the new version feel urgent and vital, the main stars of the film are the lush and vibrant score by the brilliant Leonard Bernstein and 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 stage show through the movie making process.
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 collaborative process between Spielberg and his extraordinary cast to fashion West Side Story into the brilliant art that it is.
Awards Daily: I’d like to start with, if you were describing to our readers what a music supervisor does particularly in a film musical, what do you do in terms of the overall product?
Matthew Sullivan: Great question. There are usually a list of three things that we do on films: the licensing of songs, working with composers as much as composers allow us to, and putting together and being on set for on-camera musical performances. My job typically is dealing with on-camera performances in casting, getting songs written, taking existing material, getting them placed in the script, working with the script writer, casting with the casting director, and then getting everyone prepared. It’s almost like putting on a stage show 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 that classic score to ensure a resonance for a modern-day 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 one thing about the music is that it is timeless. We’re not going to take it and update it. It’s still set in the in the late 50s. What really brings it more of a youthfulness to it is this amazing cast that Cindy Tolan, our casting director, pulled together with Steven. Their energy, their love for the material, and their exuberance on set was key. With people from 17 to 22 years old performing this on camera, the people of that age range are going are gonna really like it because they’re relating to these people. You can see their excitement making the movie.
AD: One of the things I love the most about West Side Story is how it embraces the fluidity of dance. How dance helps to tell the story. What was your influence with the staging of these musical sequences?
MS: As soon as I met Steven, we talked about the difference between shooting a regular movie or an action movie. My answer to him was music is math. It’s dependent on your tempo, your bars and beats, and how much music you have to tell this story. This is 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 that he wants with the time allowed.
I worked closely with Steven on storyboards, figuring out how the camera moves with the music. So we pretty quickly realized 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 you can actually create what a camera move would feel like. It’s not really elaborate, but at least he gets the idea of what the camera wants to do. Every time we we shot a song, I had this animatic on my iPad, which set to music. You can actually watch it with the crew and show here’s where it starts, here’s where it ends, or here’s the shot. Then, we look at the production design and the set and see how much we can shoot of the set without going into modern day buildings. Then, we have to just sort out the camera movement and make sure it works each time with the music.
AD: I’d like to dive into a couple of songs more specifically. First of all, I know that Tony Kushner, Spielberg, and others reworked the placement of some of the songs within the script. With “Somewhere,” the song is now given to Rita Moreno’s character. Can you talk about making that choice?
MS: I would love to take credit for it, but I can’t. Tony Kushner had the idea that Rita Moreno would take on the Doc role as his wife after he’s passed away. That was an inherited idea that I that I walked into. Then, myself and Jeanine Tesori – a brilliant Broadway writer and composer herself – met with Rita. We asked her, ‘Okay, well, how do you want to approach the song? It’s not a duet here when sometimes it’s duet, sometimes it’s not. How are we going to approach this?’ Rita said she wanted to sing it a cappella. We thought that 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 motor to get that scene going, to get us into the song. That was pretty much the most complicated song we had to put together because at one point it becomes a cacophony of vocals is overlapping: the Jets, the Sharks, Anita, Tony, and Maria. They’re all just piled 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 concentrate on that character during that moment. Steven had very specific ideas of, when were mixing and shooting, what group or person would be featured in that moment.
AD: Also, in more modern takes on the original score, “I Feel Pretty” is often omitted from the libretto, but it’s included here. Can you talk about the conversations around that song, and why it’s included where it is?
MS: Steven really likes that song, and it was always going to be part of the score. We also worked within the confines of the Bernstein organization. Leonard Bernstein’s kids and their musicologist asked us to find a place for it. Tony was brilliant in placing it where it is, and I love it. It happens now after the rumble, and Maria is unaware of what’s 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 has shaped up to be the Year of the Musical?
MS: A lot of it is COVID related. We were supposed to be out a year ago. There’s a little bit of a backlog of things that were coming out. But besides that, everyone loves films. Everyone loves going to see films. Everyone knows John Williams and Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer – some of the great composers of this time period. Audiences love scores. On top of those familiar scores and music, musicals add the experience of people singing songs. If we do musicals right, then feel natural. What I think we did on West Side Story the dialogue becomes singing. Hopefully, it’s where people just kind of don’t get thrown into a musical. They just go with these people that are now expressing their emotions through song. If we keep doing that right, then people will still enjoy them and keep wanting to watch them.
West Side Story is now playing exclusively in theaters nationwide.