Would Leonard Bernstein Want West Side Story Played On Synthesizers?

Would Leonard Bernstein want his the score for his classic musical West Side Story played on synths, instead of an orchestra?

That’s the question asked by a thought-provoking New York Times article that looks at how synths are replacing musicians in the orchestras of not only new musicals, but classic ones.

Violinist Paul Woodiel writes:

I have been fortunate enough to have had a rich and varied career as a theater musician. I’ve toured the world as the fiddle on the proverbial roof, sweltered in a marching band uniform in “The Music Man” and played a languid tango in Norma Desmond’s mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Last year, the stars aligned, allowing me to perform “West Side Story” again, this time at the Palace Theater on Broadway.

Now, after 500 performances, our producers have told us and our union that in order to cut costs they will chop our string section in half, releasing five musicians and “replacing” them with a synthesizer piped in from another room. I don’t think Lenny would have approved.

If all goes according to plan, these songs will be produced by a skeletal string section accompanied by an inert, artificial, electronic device, which an engineer will try to manipulate, hoping to deceive audiences into thinking it’s the real thing. The producers are doubtless betting audiences won’t notice the difference. But if you happen to be listening, as Lenny would have suggested you do, you will notice.

While Woodiel presumes to speak for “Lenny”, it’s impossible to know whether Bernstein would have preferred to have his musical reorchestrated with synths vs having it possibly not be played, because of the cost of the additional musicians.

Virtual instruments are becoming better and better and, at least in some cases, an synthesizer-enhanced orchestra can sound more convincing than a conventional one. It’s become common for soundtrack composers to expand on the orchestras available to them using virtual instruments.

And, if your idea of synth orchestras is the sound of 80’s sci fi movies, state of the art virtual orchestration may surprise you. Check out this version of Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 132, sequenced by Eric Lindemann:


It’s safe to say that well-done synthesizer orchestration could be indistinguishable to show-goers.

Does that mean that musicians like Woodiel are luddites intent on bringing period performance practice to musical theater?

Maybe not.

There’s a difference between Philip Glass or Hans Zimmer’s use of a synthesizer-expanded orchestra and rejigging Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Glass & Zimmer choose to include synths in their work and use them to expand the range of their orchestras. With the updated West Side Story, synths are just being used to replace musicians, and it’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t cheapen the sound.

What do you think? Would Leonard Bernstein want West Side Story played on synths?

Leave a comment with your thoughts!

15 thoughts on “Would Leonard Bernstein Want West Side Story Played On Synthesizers?

  1. i love Bernstein's music! i think he would have liked to hear it from a curiosity standpoint. he would not want it to replace what he worked out for orchestra however.

  2. Yeah – it's hard to think about this without imagining them singing Maria to some cheesy 70's switched on arrangement.

  3. The point that the article makes that emulations have improved misses the point. They might be able to "get away with" substituting emulations, and many audience members won't care or won't know what they are missing. Other improvements (like in sound reinforcement) mean that if there were live musicians, they would sound even better! I can see some schools cutting corners and using recordings or DAW's to cover some parts– maybe even impressively so. But those big productions should be big in the old school way– if they can. We are in economically tough times, so I'm impressed that they are able to make it happen however they can. I just hope they can say– "This is only temporary."

    The more important question, which is where this topic leads us, is "Where is music technology taking us?" I love that question. We look to new musicals and what they might want to try.

    That audio demo? It's impressive, but still sounds fake to me– in the same way that Pixar characters look and sound better, and you can tell what they are trying to be, but it's just different.

  4. I'm going to a live concert to see live musicians doing live music. A computer I got at home, but a really good musician? No.

  5. I once saw Mr. Bernstein giving a general music lecture in which he coined a phrase that stuck with me. He used "the violaton of expectation" in describing part of what your musical goals should sometimes include. He well-understood the value of surprises and sharp turns. I would like to think that he would be open to the new technology and appreciate his work still being played live, but we can no more say that he would not like seeing synthesizers applied to it than we can know what Chopin might have done with Digital Performer. The economics of the situation are frustrating, but I doubt anyone really wants to "fake" it for its own sake. If anyone knows how we can keep live musicians employed to a higher degree in this socio-economic climate, I'd love to hear it. I'd prefer not to see synths "replace" part of a string section, but shall we ban any performances of WSS that use them to make the show economically mountable at all?

  6. It's up to the audience. Do they care enough to avoid a show that "cheats" with electronic instruments? Do they care enough to pay more for a show that uses real ones?

  7. This idea just sounds stupid and cheap.

    I can see using electronic keyboards as a substitute for a few instruments – things like piano, organ or maybe to trigger sampled sounds. But when you use keyboards to do most orchestra sounds, it always sounds fake. Always.

    Does anybody really need to hear sampled strings or saxophone again, ever? Let's throw some orchestral hits in and nobody will notice!

    Using synths like that is completely bass-ackwards, anyway. The whole point of synths is to let you create new sounds, not to copy the past.

    Keyboard manufacturers are partially to blame for this. They focus on making instruments with good imitative sounds but don't spend any time making keyboards that are easy for end users to make original sounds on.

    I'd feel ripped off if I spent a couple hundreds bucks going to a broadway show and the orchestra sounded like a bunch of Casios!

  8. Maybe 'live' show now refers to the audience rather than the performance…
    By all means experiment with technology. That's exciting and, indeed, an 'alive' thing to do.
    But justify it because of economics? And call that progress?

  9. yeah, I think he'd like to use some new tech. but he'd want to write a part or parts specifically for it. he would not like substituting musicians with synths. Only business likes this because it's cheaper and they keep the gain in profits.

    it's up to new musicals, new ideas altogether in any medium to point the way. I love West Side Story, but I wouldn't want an update of it as I like it how it is. I actually think synths could be better for Opera, if you can write interesting vocal parts and the instruments compliment each other.

  10. unless that was the point… if there was 'Kraftwerk – The Musical' then I'd be disappointed if they were substituting synths with clarinets, violins and a couple of tap dancers 😉

  11. Speaking of that – have you heard Senor Coconut's versions of Kraftwerks' songs?

    They do them Latin exotica style, and they're actually pretty good.

  12. The debate is not black and white. What Bernstein might do is irrelevant because it is unknowable (though one might hazard a guess that someone who grew up listening to live people expressing emotion through sound might feel cheated when he heard a simulation). The real issue, as usual, is economics. Yes, the string quartet demo is impressive. So were "Switched-On Bach" and various other gimmicky projects. The fact remains that it is not physically possible to create the same intensity of sound produced by a string or wind instrument by playing a keyboard. There has to be the physical input of a live musician to create those sounds with any emotion.
    We can kid ourselves into thinking it doesn't matter, but we are losing what makes music important in the first place, and we are losing it because of the greed of tone-deaf corporate entities who are willing to trash their own product to save a few bucks. Modern audiences might accept this because they have been trained in recent times to accept cheap imitations and amateurish orchestrations over music performed by humans that may actually move them. On Broadway, this means that theatre-goers are often paying hundreds of dollars for dinner-theatre quality productions, and not even getting a buffet.

  13. While interesting as an exercise, the Beethoven sample offended my string-players' ears. It lacked both the intonational adjustments and emotional inflections of a human ensemble. The same is true of a string section emulation. Financial considerations aside, it's a cheap and sickening diminution of a wonderful sound only achievable by real players.

  14. I saw West Side Story last week and the lack of string power was glaring. Quite frankly I was embarrassed at how thin the string sound was. I was also sitting in the front row so perhaps I couldn't hear the full mix with the artificial strings. The brass and percussion were great but in the truly tender moments much was missing.

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