by Gary Axelbank
August 12, 2018
On Friday night the Bronx was on center stage at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors theater as Damrosch Park was electrified by West Side Story Reimagined, an innovative reworking of Maestro Leonard Bernstein’s score by Bobby Sanabria and the Multiverse Big Band. They’ve revived the familiar 60 year-old melodies and at the same time defined a new New York, one transformed by rhythm, music, and harmony by people over the world.
“I’ve been working all my life to get this band to where it represents who we are as New Yorkers, which is a multicultural, multi-diverse, multiracial society,” Sanabria told thisistheBronX the morning after the command performance that was attended by more than 5,000, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “Despite the trials and tribulations we go through as New Yorkers, we somehow come together and are a shining example of what the world should be like.”
The original West Side Story plot, that was of course based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, told a tragic tale of ethnic hate between rival gangs. Sanabria’s modern version, however, takes the view that the City is a beacon of multicultural possibilities. In fact, everything about the 21-piece Multiverse Big Band, the West Side Story themes, the range of music styles in the Reimagined score, and the diverse composition of the enthusiastic throngs who attended the event on a warm summer night, speaks to that vision of harmony.
Even the location of Friday’s performance was harmonious. The West Side Story movie was filmed on the plot of west side land that was to become Lincoln Center.
The evening started with edgy spoken word performances from Rich Villar and La Bruja (and her daughter who accompanied her in a soulful reimagining of ‘Maria’) who boldly articulated the historic struggle that Puerto Ricans have faced to survive and thrive in New York.
“My whole purpose in doing this is to dignify and honor the Puerto Rican community in New York for the way they’ve transformed this city into a cauldron of rhythm, vibrancy, and caribbean culture with our art, our culture, our music, our theater, and our dance,” Sanabria said. “Bilingual education started with the Puerto Rican community. Activism in terms of Latino rights started with the Puerto Rican community. We paved the way for every person, everything.”
For some, Sanabria’s musical vision is an attempt to right some wrongs in the portrayal of Puerto Ricans in the original West Side Story.
“Bobby has basically reclaimed the narrative, which has always been problematic for Puerto Ricans because of the movie,” NY Times columnist David Gonzalez said just before Sanabria’s band took the stage. “What Bobby has done is vividly brought out the Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean roots that influenced Bernstein. It’s indisputable. It’s a masterpiece.”
For his part, Sanabria understands the frustration, but appreciates the Puerto Rican representation in West Side Story.
“If you notice, the Puerto Rican characters spoke in complete sentences,” he said. “They had jobs; Maria worked in the dress shop. And despite the racism, bigotry, and cultural insenstivity, they walked tall.”
That stature, that ethnic pride comes through in spades in Reimagined. While Sanabria’s score takes significant liberties with the arrangements and instrumentations, it’s the irresistible West Side Story riffs created by Maestro Bernstein that weave it together. As Bernstein did decades ago, Sanabria includes rhtythms, sounds, and stylings from far and wide. Music from Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Africa, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, New Orleans, and American jazz and hip hop are all featured in Reimagined.
On BronxTalk last month, Bernstein’s daughter Jamie gave this version of West Side Story her late father’s endorsement. “I wish he were still around to hear this. I think he would love the inventiveness of it and the appreciation of his own music that you can hear in every bar of how Bobby and his orchestra reinterpreted it. It’s all so true to the original and true to the spirit of the score that I’m sure my father would have thought it was the coolest reimagining possible.”
Friday’s performance offered Bronxites an added treat, a visual reimagining they couldn’t help but relate to. Rather than utilize images from the all-too familiar Academy Award-winning movie, the Lincoln Out of Doors performance included a slide projection of hundreds of photographs from ‘Seis del Sur‘, the six renowned Bronx photographers who, through their brilliant work over a period of years, captured south Bronx life as so many knew it then and now. This master stroke of creativity took Bernstein to a new level and turned it into a modern multiracial, multimedia experience.
The next morning on Facebook, a Lincoln Center volunteer, provided an enthusiastic review:
Gale Citron Hey, Bobby Sanabria! I volunteer at Lincoln Center & just gotta tell you: the line to get in wrapped around the block several times; the park area was full & people were standing & paying attention, not kibbutzing. The V.I.P tent was the fullest I’d seen all summer. And EVERYONE: every multi-culti one of us was peaceful, calm, gracious & loving it! The guys in the bar kiosk were dancing. It was THE best concert of the summer! Bravo to your amazing band. Great job!
The next stop for West Side Story Reimagined is the Kennedy Center. Sanabria and the Multiverse Big Band will perform there on January 18 with hopes of taking their undeniable message of unity to America’s power base.
“When you go outside of New York,” Sanabria said, “you see the real America and you see the anti-immigration and anti-Latino sentiment and the hypocrisy of people who themselves are descendants of immigrants. I want to bring everybody together in unity.”
The release of the double CD of West Side Story Reimagined by Bobby Sanabria and the Multiverse Big Band coincides with the celebration of Maestro Bernstein’s Centennial. It includes a 16-page booklet with detailed liner notes and rare photos. Proceeds from the sale of the CD go to rebuilding projects in Puerto Rico.