How the West Side Story’ sound team captured Rita Moreno’s ‘Somewhere’ and the other classic tunes [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

For the acclaimed sound team behind Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” – including frequent Spielberg collaborators and Oscar winners like supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom, re-recording mixer Andy Nelson, and scoring mixer Shawn Murphy, all of whom were recently nominated by the Cinema Audio Society for their work in the film – the challenges of creating the musical were vast. The group, which also included production mixer Tod A. Maitland, had to not only make the transitions between dialogue and song sound uniform but account for numerous musical numbers large and small. But while sequences such as the show-stopping “America” had challenges, it was Rita Moreno’s emotional take on “Somewhere” that proved to be the biggest high-wire act.

“In a lot of ways, ‘Somewhere’ was one of the most difficult because it was a mostly live vocal, it was an arrangement that [arranger and composer] David Newman had done of the original ‘Somewhere,’ which is usually sung off stage – it’s usually a vocal sung off stage in the theater. And it’s sung on camera, in this case, and was mostly sung live on the set and directly after shooting with takes by Rita,” Murphy tells Gold Derby. “And so putting that vocal together, and then kind of making it fit the arrangement because, you know, you can’t ask her to follow a track on the set, she really has to sing it her own way and to make that performance her own. So in a lot of ways, that was one of the most difficult musical moments to get right. And I think ultimately, it really turned out well, but it turned out to be pretty disparate at first, and then it wound up coming together.”

Beyond the musical performances, however, the “West Side Story” sound team had to recreate the noises of New York in 1957 – a task made all the more complicated because, as Rydstrom notes, high-quality recordings from the era are rare.

“Essentially, you recreate traffic with recordings of old cars … we actually had an actual crank siren that we recorded here on Skywalker Ranch sort of reverberating through space,” Rydstrom says. “You do have to recreate the sense of 1957 New York from the ground up. But that’s what’s fun.”

Not that the team didn’t take some creative liberties with the era. For instance, for more than 20 years, New York City subway cars have made an unmistakably sound thanks to a propulsion system that was added to the trains in 2000: the first three notes of “Somewhere.” For Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Rydstrom jumped at the chance to add the unlikely phenomenon, even though it meant including an anachronistic sound. 

“I thought it was amazing, where the current New York subway, when it brakes, has the three notes from the beginning of ‘Somewhere,’” Rydstrom says, noting some journalists quickly picked up on the inclusion. “It is not the way the subway sounded in 1957. But we had to because it’s a little bit of Bernstein hidden in the subway brakes. … But what’s amazing to me is that the three notes are identifiable. Talk about ‘Name That Tune,’ you know, to have those three distinctive notes. Everyone hears ‘Somewhere,’ everyone hears [Leonard] Bernstein in it, so I was happy to use it in the movie.”

Watch the exclusive video interview above.

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