WEST SIDE STORY (1961) 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 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 my sister and I 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 pushed 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 were 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 writings of scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell and tapped into this for his concept of “The Force” for the Star Wars mythology, but that’s another story.
Elegua has many “caminos” (roads) and is considered so complex by his followers that he can never fully be understood. He is ultimate mystery, and as I stated before, the owner of and gateway to aché. Revered in Cuba but feared in Brazil in one of his manifestations known as Eshú, in any ceremony, after first honoring ones dead ancestors, he is the first orisha that must be praised. In Africa he is represented by a young child with an erect penis for he is pure energy and always ready for action. But in Cuba he was syncretized with St. Anthony or El Niño De Atocha, again in order to mask from the authorities that he was being worshiped by devotees. He is forever present, particularly at crossroads, in the corners of every room, for he is the spy of the gods (orishas).
Ever notice in the film what Riff Lorton (leader of the Jets) walks by in the opening scene before Bernardo’s entrance? It is a young child drawing concentric circles in chalk on the playground cement. A young child? Concentric circles? These are images associated with Elegua and his infinite energy and mystery. Like a scene out of the Twilight Zone, from the opening haunting whistle you know you are entering another dimension of sight and sound that is beyond the norm — it is New York City. It leads to Bernardo’s majestic entrance as he leads the Sharks, as an Elegua-based warrior, into the volatile territory of the Jets. Did the filmmakers know about these West African/Afro-Caribbean cultural references? Knowing Maestro Leonard Bernstein’s familiarity with Latino culture, a strong case can be made for it. But It doesn’t matter, in the mythology Elegua is always present whether one knows it or not.
Since West Side Story is essentially a modern ballet, movement is used as an identity marker between the two gangs. Jets dance choreography is in stark contrast to the Puerto Rican Sharks. The Jets movements are athletic, acrobatic, almost brutish and animalistic in its power representing their dominance of the neighborhood. It is their turf and they will fiercely defend it. It is juxtaposed with the long elegant lines of the brilliant choreography Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro came up with for the Puerto Rican Sharks. Don’t believe me? Look at the scene on the roof as “America” is sung by the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Also notice the unique lyrics as the point vs. counterpoint case is made by Anita and the rest of the Shark debs (debutantes, girlfriends) for living in America over their previous life of poverty on the island. They embrace the American dream and all its amenities right down to having a washing machine to which they sing, “Everything’s all right in America!” to which Bernardo and the rest of the male Sharks answer with the ultimate reality check by singing sarcastically, and truthfully, “If you are all white in America!” It’s all done to the rhythmic cadence of Mexican huapango. Those who criticize composer Bernstein’s choice of this musical style don’t get it. Members of the Puerto Rican community in New York City were fans of the Mexican-made films that permeated Spanish language movie theaters in New York City at that time. Our parents were exposed to that culture and its music and became fans of it just as much as they were of the jíbaro music of the island from where they had migrated.
The case could even be made that composer Leonard Bernstein was part of our community. Certainly the Jewish community in New York City were fans of all things Latin — from the music and dance to the food — and they were the only ones who would rent housing to us. Bernstein was fluent in German (a language once spoken in Mexico), Yiddish, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish. His wife, actress and pianist Felicia Montealegre, was born in Costa Rica and raised in Chile. They frequently would go to the Palladium Ballroom — The Home of The Mambo on West 53rd Street and Broadway — to soak up the sounds of Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez. He was as cosmopolitan as they come. In other words, he was hip!
His intimacy with the Latin dance music scene in Manhattan through his frequent visits to the Palladium is demonstrated in the gym scene where Tony and Maria meet and fall in love at first sight. It is yet another example of how we are presented with majesty and elegance in the film. In the opening circle dance, the master of ceremonies (the well-meaning social worker Mr. Glad Hand) asks the couples to form concentric circles, boys on the outside and girls on the inside. He instructs them to go round and round in opposite directions until the music stops.
Once it does they are to dance with whoever is in front of them. Riff, leader of the Jets exits out first and just nods his head, literally ordering his deb, Gina Trikonis, through this silent gesture to join him on the floor. In effect he owns her. Bernardo, leader of the Sharks exits next. Instead of ordering his girl Anita to join him, he motions with an outstretched arm. He’s not ordering her but in a chivalrous manner inviting her like a respectful consort to join him as an equal on the dance floor. She accepts with her left hand in his right and makes one promenade around him elegantly holding out her skirt with her left hand. It is a movement that anyone who is familiar with the Puerto Rican danza or Cuban danzón knows well and a direct visual demonstration that the Puerto Ricans have class. The circle breaks when the music stops and both Sharks and Jets realize they must dance with each other but to no avail. War on the dance floor ensues as the mambo explodes and the warring tribes face off by dancing.
The Maestro Leonard Bernstein.
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 again 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 and dignity, 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 stating the American dream is based on hypocrisy. 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 tries to justify 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 (the singing of 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 sounds unresolved and incomplete thereby leaving the listener uneasy and in suspense (finally resolving with the third note of the whistle), yearning, foreboding, mystery, and ambiguity. It was the interval that opened the floodgates 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 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 Reimagined highlights 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 so it does not consume us?” 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.
Bobby Sanabria is a seven-time Grammy nominated bandleader — drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, educator, documentary film producer, multicultural warrior, activist, and Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage center. He is a native Nuyorican born and raised in NYC’s South Bronx. He is unique in that he has performed and/or recorded with every major figure in the development of what today is known as Latin jazz. From the genre’s acknowledged creator, maestro Mario Bauzá, to Mongo Santamaria, with whom he started his career, to Tito Puente, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Paquito D’Rivera, Larry Harlow, Candido, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis “Perico” Ortiz and many more.
His versatility and scope of musical influence as both a drummer and percussionist has extended to other forms of music working with such genre-bending artists as composers David Amram, Henry Threadgill, and poet Sekou Sundiata. A noted educator and clinician, he is is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and the New School Jazz & Contemporary Music where he directs both schools’ acclaimed Afro-Cuban jazz orchestras. In 1975 he was the first student of Puerto Rican descent at the famed Berklee College of Music graduating with his B.M. in 1979. Bill Milkowksi of Jazz Times has written “Bobby Sanabria is equally adept at the swinging big band sounds of drummers Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson along with with another boyhood hero, fusion pioneer Billy Cobham and timbale titan Tito Puente.”
He can be reached at email@example.com.