Broadway's 'West Side Story' cans musicians and uses canned music


A few weeks ago, the orchestra for Broadway's West Side Story was gutted. In a cost-cutting measure, five violinists were told to clean out their lockers, and their parts were replaced by a synthesizer piped in from another room. Overnight, Leonard Bernstein's lush score, widely considered a masterpiece of American performing arts, went partly mechanical, manipulated by an engineer whose job is to trick audiences into thinking they are hearing the real thing.

The top ticket price for West Side Story is $121.50, but for that skyscraping rate, don't think you're getting a full orchestra. Escalating costs and changing musical tastes have downsized theatrical orchestras to the size of small bands, and in some cases, like the recent [title of show], just a pianist. When the current revival of 1957's West Side Story opened 15 months ago with its full string section and amply-staffed pit, it was a throwback to a richer American musical tradition.

But after it passed the 500th-performance mark, producers decided it was time to stretch the profit a little farther and axed live musicians, just as other Broadway long-runners such as Les Misérables have done before. Doing so may keep it open for a while longer, but at what price to American artistic tradition?

Originally published