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Bobby Sanabria: West Side Story Reimagined

Bobby Sanabria By

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West Side Story holds a special place in my heart. I first saw the movie as a young boy when my parents José and Juanita took me and my sister Joanne to the luxurious Loews Paradise on the Grand Concourse in my hometown Da' Bronx in celebration of the film's 10th anniversary. At that time there wasn't anything that acknowledged the contributions we had made, let alone the existence of NYC's Puerto Rican community, other than articles about gangs and crime in relation to us. But somehow as a child I knew better. Despite the racism my parents had experienced, and subsequently my sister and I were also were subjected to, we somehow knew that our existence, our historical presence in the city had literally transformed it culturally, stylistically, and of course musically. The authors knew this as well. Yes, gang life in NYC back in the '50s forms the framework of West Side Story, how could it not, it was an undeniable reality) and of course it's based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. But that's looking at things superficially. It's a complex story of romance set in the energy of the inner city amidst racism, bigotry, territorial imperative, and what causes it -fear and ignorance, that's offset by cultural pride, humor, and the spirit of fighting for what one believes in—be it good or bad. In the lovers, Tony and Maria's case, it's about their hopes, dreams, and the ultimate power—love. Setting aside the ridiculous move by the producers to actually spray paint the actors playing the Puerto Rican characters in the film orange—something me and my sister noticed right away, and confirmed by star Rita Moreno in her memoirs—when I first heard the music I was flabbergasted. Maestro Leonard Bernstein had tapped directly into what sets our fair city apart from any other place on spaceship Earth—aché (energy), hipness, and cool.   

West Side Story was a show that almost didn't get made. Its principle producer Cheryl Crawford dropped out six weeks before rehearsals were supposed to begin. Why? The show had three murders, featured warring gangs, an attempted rape, ethnic tensions, and inter-ethnic racial love. Who's going to go to a Broadway show like that? And that was just the beginning of the reasons. Till this date the score is the most complex ever written for a Broadway show combining jazz harmony and arranging technique, Latin styles, orchestral, chamber music, ballet, modern dance, lyric opera, and made listeners ask the proverbial question, "What the hell is a tritone?" the mysterious interval heard between the first two notes of the opening three that are whistled. To top it off the dancing would push the boundaries of modern choreography.  And then there was the biggest question. Where in the hell were you going to get dancers who could not only act, but be able to sing polyphonic contrapuntal melodies and harmony? Although vaudeville and Hollywood had produced specific artists who could do all three of these things, the level of virtuosity required for this show was beyond the norm of the day. It set a standard for Broadway creating what today is known as the triple threat.  

Critics of the film, particularly in the Puerto Rican intellectual community, instantly stated that the film demeans us, that it portrays us as savages, heathens, and gang bangers. Some scholars have even stated that West Side Story is akin to D.W Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Really? Notice the first entrance of Bernardo Nuñez (yes the main characters all had first and last names), the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks. He is clearly the handsomest male character in the film. He walks tall with pride and elegance. Ever notice the colors of the clothes he is wearing when he first appears? They are black and red, the colors of Elegua—the messenger and owner of aché (positive energy), the guardian of the crossroads in the West African Nigerian Yoruba-based religion of Ifá. He represents the beginning (red for life) and the end (black for death). Syncretized with Catholic deities in Cuba, in order to mask it from the authorities, the religion became known as Santeria and today it is the most important and most practiced African-based religious belief system in Latin America, let alone Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York City.   

Its rhythms, along with other African-based religions like Palo, as it is practiced in Cuba and New York City, permeate our Afro-Caribbean culture and music. Elegua is the most complex of the deities (orishas, super beings) in Santeria for he is the gateway and owner of aché, the supreme energy "force" that permeates the Multiverse. Yes, "The Force" Star Wars fans. George Lucas, Star Wars creator, studied the teachings, writings of scholar, mythologist Joseph Campbell and tapped into this for his concept of "The Force" for the Star Wars mythology, but that's another story.   

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