Arranging West Side Story for Manchester Royal Exchange has been an emotional experience for Jason Carr, who learned piano playing Leonard Bernstein’s music. He tells Chris Bartlett why the musical is relevant today, his special relationship with singer Maria Friedman and honouring the composer’s intentions
When composer, arranger and orchestrator Jason Carr started playing piano as a child, one of the first pieces of music he tried to master was Leonard Bernstein’s complex, much-loved and – some would say – matchless score for West Side Story.
Which is why he found himself getting more than a little emotional while working on the orchestrations for the Royal Exchange’s latest revival. “As I heard it, I suddenly found myself tearing up,” he says, during a break from rehearsals in the Manchester theatre’s music room.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia for me because I sat at a piano as a kid trying to bash my way through it. But there’s also a part of it that bypasses your brain and goes straight to your gut. Although it is very classical and academically written, it has a direct access to our emotions. So much of it was inspiring to me.”
Although the score had been a childhood favourite, Carr hadn’t worked with it in his professional life. “Masterpieces aren’t always as fascinating as slightly uneven, lumpy pieces,” he says, by way of explanation. So before his meeting with Royal Exchange artistic director Sarah Frankcom – who’s directing the production, which is her first musical – he looked at it with fresh eyes. And was blown away by what he found.
“It’s still unprecedented, there’s still nothing else like it,” he says. “His music is so vital. The energy of it. He’s full of love and passion. It grabs your brain and your insides. You only have to hear a few seconds and you recognise it as his voice.”
Yet Carr is undaunted at the prospect of reworking the music from one of the best musicals of the 20th century, a task bordering on sacrosanct. “I try to only orchestrate music that I’m very fond of,” he says.
“I’m not necessarily throwing my ego at these shows. I’m throwing my geeky, very deeply held love at them. I want the me that obsessed over Broadway albums as a teenager to be happy when he sees it.”
This 1950s-set, Romeo and Juliet-inspired, tale of star-crossed lovers and inner-city racial division has never stopped being relevant, but Carr believes this production is particularly timely. “It feels like it’s a good time to be performing this piece,” he says. “What’s horrible is that with all the knife crime in the news, it feels completely relevant and pertinent. So I hope we get lots of young people who don’t know it. But if you do know it, I hope it can still surprise and move you.”
It is the first time the estate has allowed Bernstein’s arrangements – not to mention Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography – to be reworked. But then, for the last few years, the Royal Exchange has been making a speciality out of reshaping classic musicals without losing the essence of what made them popular in the first place. April’s West Side Story follows hot on the high-kicking, foot-tapping heels of its well-received productions of Sweet Charity, Guys and Dolls and The Producers.
And, although this is the first time Carr has been involved in an Exchange production, that ethos remains the same. Carr’s role is to honour the spirit of the original while bringing it new life. “I wasn’t asked to rethink it, or put a new spin on it,” he says. “I’m making the score achievable in the scale we’re aiming for.”
On this front, Carr’s take is remarkably pragmatic. The days of theatres boasting 20 or 30-piece orchestras as standard are long gone, so he is reworking the material so it can be played by 11 musicians and a non-playing musical director – the largest band the theatre has ever had – while still producing that unmistakable, sense-jangling sound.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I’m pleased to say I haven’t had one. I’ve been very blessed.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The first paid job I got after leaving college was as musical director for The Wizard of Oz in Chichester in 1989, with Joanna Riding as Dorothy.
What’s your next job?
I’m orchestrating a new musical called The Station Master at Chichester University in June. Then I’m back in Manchester later in the year for Mame at Hope Mill.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Say yes to everything (almost) and don’t let showbusiness make you angry.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I did 17 plays for director Steven Pimlott – first at the Royal Shakespeare Company and then at Chichester – and being in the rehearsal room with him for all those productions was so inspiring. He was a real maverick and, professionally, he is very responsible for my taste and way of collaborating with people.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really. Unless being nice to the stage managers counts. Put it this way, I wouldn’t want to walk under a ladder if I hadn’t been nice to them.
“Often it’s a case of re-voicing and shrinking,” he says. “For this, the loud bits still need to be loud, and the mambo sections still need to sound exciting, but it also has these quiet, sustained sections. I was very mindful that the same band had to do both.”
But he says he’s also there to honour the intentions of the man himself. “My role is to be Lenny’s representative in the room,” he says. “It’s my job to defend him, but also to look at what we were doing and say: ‘Yes, it’s okay to cut those six bars or extend that bit.’ I know his music pretty well. I’ve lived with it a long time.”
Carr’s credentials as a Bernstein expert are well-earned. As a student at London’s Guildhall in the mid-1980s, Carr performed as one of hundreds in the chorus of Bernstein’s Mass and came into contact with the composer himself when he attended a performance and had a Q&A with the students – an appearance, Carr says, that “energised and invigorated us all”.
His 30-year career includes composing musicals and creating the music for more than 60 plays, and he has worked widely as an arranger and musical director, including three years as Chichester Festival Theatre’s associate composer. He won a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination for his orchestrations for the Broadway transfer of Sunday in the Park With George. Throughout this glittering career, Bernstein’s work has loomed large.
He orchestrated Bernstein’s version of Candide at Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013 and last year, as part of celebrations for the centenary of the composer’s birth, co-devised and performed in Bernstein Revealed, a musical revue with broadcaster Edward Seckerson and singer Sophie Louise Dann. “So I’m pretty steeped in it,” he chuckles.
Carr’s skills as a pianist were sharpened from an early age – “very little, probably in single figures” – while playing at his mother’s dance school in his family home in Leeds. “There was always a piano being played, so music for me was always attached to people doing other things,” he says.
The young Carr was often drafted in as relief pianist if his mother’s regular accompanist was detained. “Because of that I’m loud and rhythmic,” he laughs. “When you’re playing for 30 children doing tap you have to be loud to drive it.”
It was there that he learned that some things were more important than accuracy. “It’s what you communicate. It’s breathing with the people you’re accompanying and making something together.”
These formative experiences also laid the groundwork for one of his parallel careers, as an in-demand accompanist for the likes of Michael Ball, Kitty Carlisle and, most regularly, classical singer Felicity Lott and cabaret mainstay
Carr first saw Friedman perform on stage in Oklahoma! during a 13th birthday trip to Leeds Grand. In 1988, he accompanied her in a fundraising concert celebrating the songs of Noel Coward and Cole Porter at the Barbican and a bond was formed that has lasted three decades.
So what makes them click? “It’s often mysterious with singers,” Carr says. “With Maria it’s always been very easy making music together. We don’t have to talk very much. Our instincts match. I find it hard to put it into words, but then that’s the whole point of music – you don’t have to put it into words. When it works it speaks for itself.”
Born: 1967, Leeds
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
• Born Again, Chichester Festival Theatre (1990)
• The Water Babies, Chichester Festival Theatre (2003)
• Six Pictures of Lee Miller, Chichester Festival Theatre (2005)
• A Christmas Carol, Chichester Festival Theatre (2008)
• Indiscretions, London’sNational Theatre and Broadway (1995)
• A Doll’s House, National Theatre and Broadway (1997)
• Chariots of Fire, Hampstead Theatre and West End (2012)
• Sunday in the Park With George, Menier Chocolate Factory, London (2005) and Broadway (2008)
• A Little Night Music, Menier Chocolate Factory (2008) and Broadway (2009)
• La Cage Aux Folles, Menier Chocolate Factory (2008) and Broadway (2010)
• Vivian Ellis Prize for young writers of musicals (1988)
• Drama Desk Award for orchestrations for Sunday in the Park With George (2008)
West Side Story runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until May 25. Go to royalexchange.co.uk for more