Bobby Sanabria: West Side Story Reimagined

Bobby Sanabria By

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Peter Gennaro's choreography in this scene is used to exude emotion, and cultural pride. The Puerto Rican Sharks dance the mambo (from our sister island Cuba) with sass, class, and a freakin' Nuyorican attitude. It was the music that our parents fell in love with when they arrived to New York City as at that time all things Cuban were in vogue and the sounds of the aforementioned Machito, along with Nuyoricans Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez ruled the ballroom scene. The dance movements for the Sharks in this powerful scene are used to symbolize defiance and dignity. Notice how Rita Moreno as Anita Palacio lifts her arm with her fellow female Sharks as they arch their heads back with pride marching right up to the faces of the Jets. It's an obvious nod to the Iberian-Arabic rooted side of our culture and a classic FU moment done to the cadence of Afro-Cuban based music demonstrating the multiple layers that make up the New York City Puerto Rican experience.   

In contrast the choreography for the Jets is athletic (Russ Tamblyn as Riff does gymnastic tumbles) while Shark movement is represented by elegance. Maestro Bernstein's music ties it all together in an explosion of sound matched by the kaleidoscopic cinematography. One other aspect of the gym scene must be pointed out that only New Yorkers who have experienced it will realize. It represents the collective joy of the ritual of the dance at the gym. It is the only point in the movie where both groups are experiencing ecstasy collectively as equals. Like the candy store, pizza parlor, and church, the dance provided a neutral ground for these warring tribes. It was a common occurrence in the New York City of the '50s and '60s and one I experienced firsthand growing up in the '70s. And what was the unifying factor? Latin music.  

If the Sharks are suffering the ills of racism with defiance, dignity and grace, the Jets in contrast are continually portrayed throughout the film as a bunch of ignorant, brutish thugs. It is no wonder Tony has matured, outgrown and stepped down as the leader of the Jets. But no one escapes the stress of survival in the neighborhood. The entrance of Lieutenant Schrank in the candy store, trying to find out where the rumble is going to be, demonstrates this. While berating and insulting the Puerto Rican Sharks who have been there having a war counsel with the Jets in order to work out terms for the rumble, he exudes the sentiments that many of our fellow Americans, including our current President, have of us. But the Sharks aren't meek. They cleverly and sarcastically whistle, "My Country Tis of Thee," as they march out of the candy store effectively telling Schrank and mainstream America, "fuck you!" The beleaguered Lt. is now alone with the Jets. He berates them for being the children of ..."the ignorant immigrant scum they come from." Schrank isn't just a bigot, he's an equal opportunity racist. It culminates with him giving them the ultimate insult in the form of a question to one of the Jet members, "How's the action on your mother's side of the street Action?" In the finale of the scene, he states with resignation his own failings, "You try keeping hoodlums in line and see what it does to you."  

It comes to a climax in the scene in the candy store with the attempted rape of Anita which is interrupted, prevented, stopped by the owner Doc, a kind, wise elder who is Jewish. As stated before, traditionally the candy store, pizza shop, along with the dance hall, and church, were always considered neutral ground, demilitarized zones so to speak, in any New York City neighborhood. That sanctity of a peaceful place is broken as the Jets hate of the Puerto Rican Sharks makes Anita a victim of sexual assault in an area where she is supposed to be safe. But she will not be defeated as she rises proudly looking her attackers straight in the eye in defiance and insults their very existence. She is a survivor, like all of us who have grown up in this city.   

While Maestro Bernstein's score for the film is an amazing tour de force of kinetic energy, it is juxtaposed with moments of romantic lyricism and humor. This is evident in the songs "Somewhere," "One Hand; One Heart," "Maria," "Officer Krumpke," I Feel Pretty," and the "Epilogue" with its haunting theme of an unanswered question -is the answer to hate really love? The final chord, again based on the intervals created by the tritone, leaves the listener with a foreboding sense of suspended animation. The tritone (sing the first two notes of the three note whistle at the beginning of the show) was considered by the ancient Catholic Church to be the musical interval of the devil. It sets up a mysterious tonal ambiguity from the very start of the show. Known also by musicians as the "augmented fourth" or "diminished fifth," it remains harmonically unresolved as it gives one a feeling of unsettling incompleteness (finally resolving with the third note of the whistle), yearning, foreboding, mystery, and ambiguity. It was the interval that opened the flood gates for modern jazz harmony in the 1940s in what became known as bebop. It is no wonder that the Catholic Church in medieval times forbade its use.  Unsettling, mysterious, ambiguous, foreboding? That is the spirit of Elegua in full force. Bernstein's genius made it the entire musical DNA of the show as it appears constantly in all of the pieces in different forms and permutations. Just listen to the songs "Cool" and "Maria" or the final death scene with its haunting epilogue expanding and contracting, like the final breaths of Tony dying in Maria's arms.  Bernstein's genius in using the tritone was inspired by the calls of the Hebraic ram's horn trumpet known as the shofar. It is used in religious ceremonies and holidays to announce their beginning and its resounding blasts were historically a call to war. Transferred to the whistles of the streets, it announces the foreboding conflict between the Jets and Sharks.  As Elegua opens and closes every Santeria ceremony, these notes are the beginning and the end of the entire show. As stated before, these ascending three notes and their descending three note answer draw one into the other worldliness, mystery and aché that is New York City as they appear in various manifestations throughout the entire score. Three? Even the rhythmic cadence of the prologue is based on an alternating three bar melodic cadence. Guess what Elegua's number is? It sets the stage for something that had never been heard or seen on the Broadway stage.  

Two years ago I began thinking of a new re-envisioning of West Side Story to celebrate its and my 60th birthday in 2017.  A re-envisioning from the perspective of the jazz musician, the Latin musician, a native Nuyorican son who is proud to say he is from the city that defines aché, hipness, and cool. Where the original show was about the Puerto Rican community supposedly encroaching on the white ethnic working class, gang warfare, and two doomed lovers, today it is the so called gentrifiers who are now invading our neighborhoods displacing our communities. Neighborhoods that were abandoned by those working class whites who were fleeing out of fear, ignorance, redlining, planned shrinkage, governmental malfeasance, and political corruption. So this new reimagining flips the script and is now from the perspective of what is happening in our communities today. Communities that today are no longer exclusively Puerto Rican but also Dominican, Mexican, South American, African, and Asian.   

The rhythms and cultures of those communities are now reflected in this new reimagining. For example in the mid-1950s during the creation of West Side Story, Rafael Cortijo had just started to adapt the Puerto Rican bomba style to the dance band format and plena was just starting to be adapted to the big band format by Cesar Concepción. Thus that aspect of Puerto Rican culture wasn't present in the original score. In this new reimagining it is. Puerto Rican bomba xicá, yuba, and plena are omnipresent. Dominican merengue, Venezuelan joropo, Brazilian bossa nova and samba, funk, New Orleans second line, Cuban bolero, son montuno are now included alongside the show's original use of Mexican huapango, Cuban mambo, bolero, cha-cha-cha, jazz, swing, European waltz, and orchestral music. It represents in full force the rainbow that is our collective Latino and African American culture in New York.  With the added rhythmic intensity of the music of the aforementioned cultures, West Side Story Reimaginedhighlights even more-so how our city has been an incubator of culture, but still struggles with the ignorance of hate, fear, racism, sexism, and cultural insensitivity, and yet somehow we still survive and thrive, but through the lens of the Latin jazz musician.   

That Maestro Bernstein was able to capture that intensity, the pulse of this city in his score is a thing of wonder. It is still marveled at by composers, arrangers, musicians, and fans till this day. For me it provides a unique framework for jazz arranging, improv technique and inspiration as individually the pieces stand alone as aural and visual masterpieces.  

And the story? Well it's as timeless and timely if there ever was one. We're still struggling with the question, "How does one fight hate?" I think in West Side Story Maestro Bernstein had the answer: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."   

Happy 100th birthday Maestro.
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