Magic twinkled in the air-conditioned Davies Symphony Hall on the crisp Thursday evening of Sept. 23. Seasoned musicians dressed in dapper monochrome exchanged whispers as their audience filed into the auditorium, brimming with palpable, infectious excitement. The San Francisco Symphony kicked off its promising 2021-2022 season with a special event in its concert film series: a screening of Rob Reiner’s classic “The Princess Bride,” accompanied by the San Francisco Symphony and led by conductor Sarah Hicks.
Based on William Goldman’s eponymous novel, “The Princess Bride” is modeled after fairy tales, following the ethereal Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright), her true love Westley (Cary Elwes) and the memorable band of misfits they pick up along their adventure. The film is widely beloved — a few patrons even came in costume — and is known for its playful wit, fantastical performances and optimism.
While many celebrate the film’s genius, the conversation around its accolades is unlikely to include the score composed by Mark Knopfler from the British rock band Dire Straits. Yet, the San Francisco Symphony saw marvel in the music, bringing this feature to the forefront of the crowd’s attention. The show was insistent upon and illustrative of its brilliance.
By some magic or careful practice, the symphony and the silver screen were never in competition, always in graceful harmony. As the film was projected on a large screen, the gifted players in the pit accompanied the passages of dialogue before an all too giddy audience. Prior to the film’s opening, Hicks set the tone for “The Princess Bride,” encouraging all spectators to cheer and boo and heckle and laugh “as you wish.” The audience eagerly obliged: They hissed at the nefarious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), applauded at the star-studded supporting cast and softly cooed at the young lovers.
Members of the audience came armed with enthusiasm. Though his character stands out in every viewing of “The Princess Bride,” Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya was a particular hit with this crowd. Every joke from the Spaniard elicited uproarious laughter that filled the high ceilings. People were eager to laugh, particularly cackling at uncanny jokes about wearing a mask. The crowd responded with such delight that one may recall the lively performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This persistent sense of playfulness — of doing “as you wish” — magnified and enlivened the grandeur of Davies Symphony Hall. It was an exuberant, joyous show that was welcoming to all.
The orchestra captured the film’s quintessential quirky humor in fun pastoral motifs and sustained invigorating momentum through the melodramatic fight sequences. The low instrumental bellows marking the Cliffs of Insanity and the Fire Swamp flourished with memorable dramatic flair. Leaning into the medieval and bard-like influences, Hicks’ direction immersed audiences in the Florin landscape while the orchestra seamlessly moved the plot forward.
“The Princess Bride” is known for many things, and its championing of true love surely rises to the top. The symphony soared during these pockets of sentimentalism, the moments of romance and yearning — the swelling strings when Buttercup mourns her seemingly lost love or the plucked acoustic guitar during quiet contemplation or the crystalline, trilling chimes that seem to glimmer when she and Westley reunite. Knopfler’s original music evokes fairy-tale majesty through gauze-like washes of sound, and the San Francisco Symphony relishes its dreamy, transformative ethos. Any sense of uncertainty laden in the outside world lay momentarily forgotten, tucked beneath the comforting sheets of a bedtime story.
If “The Princess Bride” is like a precious gem, then Hicks and the San Francisco Symphony are expert jewelers; as if rotating the stone under a glass eye, the performance reveals new dimensions and unanticipated genius by merely redirecting attention to another element of the prism. “The Princess Bride” restores hope in a dazzling night of wistfulness and wonder, giving viewers a real-life happily ever after.