“Gee, Officer Krupke” sung to the beat of Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms. “Somewhere” with the sound of a joropo and an arrangement of “America” that incorporates the national anthems of countries subject to Pres. Trump’s travel ban are among the familiar West Side Story songs that have been revamped by drummer/percussionist Bobby Sanabria for a series of concerts set to take place this month at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.
“The melodies and harmonies that Bernstein provided are an incredible vehicle for jazz musicians and Latin rhythms,” says Sanabria, who will lead his four-time Grammy-nominated Multiverse Big Band for the concerts on Nov. 17, 18 and 19, with the final date to be llive streamed globally and recorded for an album to be released next year.
“We’re making the music even more complex than it is already from a musical standpoint,” he says. “We’re using rhythms from the Dominican Republic like merengue, rhythms from Venezuela, Cuban rhythms like cha-cha-cha and mambo, Brazilian rhythms, New Orleans second line rhythms; we’re using Puerto Rican rhythms like yuba and xica.”
The new tribute to Leonard Bernstein’s groundbreaking score comes on the 60th anniversary of the Broadway production. The enduring film, which won 10 Oscars, was released in 1961. Sanabria explains that his new take on the West Side Story repertoire honors Bernstein’s own love of Latin music. The composer was known to visit Manahattan’s Palladium Ballroom to see the great bands of the mambo era led by his friends Tito Puente and Machito.
“Maestro Bernstein was a very, very hip guy in addition to an incredible composer,” Sanabria says. “He was always hanging out at jazz clubs and checking out musicians. “He wasn’t a native New Yorker, he wasn’t born here, but he became one, and he really epitomized what New York was about. That’s what’s great about West Side Story, it incorporates things that really represents New York as far as I’m concerned: jazz and Latin music.”
Sanabria, who was born to Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx, also just turned 60 years-old. An infant when the show had its premiere run on Broadway in 1957, he saw the movie ten years later.
“My parents took me and my sister to see it,” he recounts during a phone interview from his New York apartment. “I’ll always remember, it was at the Loews Paradise Theater in the Bronx, which is the largest theater in the Bronx; the most luxurious one too. I’ve always loved the music of the show. But I didn’t know anything about music at that time, I was just totally engaged by the dancing and everything else, and by that music that is still considered the most difficult and complex music every written for a Broadway show. It was mind bending to say the least.”
It was also the first time he saw himself reflected on the big screen.
“The fact that they were Puerto Ricans, or actors portraying Puerto Ricans, was just an amazing thing for me,” Sanabria says. “Although my sister, who was three years younger than me, whispered to me, ‘hey Bobby, how come all the Puerto Ricans are orange?’ And then later on I saw an interview with Rita Moreno and she said, ‘yeah they spray-painted us.’”
For Sanabria, his new take on West Side Story is not only a tribute to the show, its music and Bernstein, whom he reveres. He is consciously reprising some of the social themes originally raised by the production. “There’s a subtle social commentary in addition to the social commentary that’s already in the original West Side Story,” he says.
Songs from West Side Story have been recorded and reimagined by diverse artists throughout the years, and some have remained emblematic of the Puerto Rican experience in the public imagination. Most recently, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda referenced “Maria” in his benefit song for Puerto Rican disaster relief, “Almost Like Praying.”
Sanabria, who organized an October Latin jazz all stars concert to benefit the Jazz Foundation of America’s fund for Puerto Rican musicians at New York’s Le Poission Rouge, points to the relevance of the story today in its New York context and beyond.
“Without Latinos New York City would be nothing,” Sanabria stresses. “Particularly the Puerto Rican community. We opened the door for all of the groups of Latinos who have come to New York City. The contributions of Puerto Ricans to New York are monumental... West Side Story was a story about Puerto Ricans encroaching on a working class white neighborhood so now its white people encroaching on Puerto Ricans who live in those same neighborhoods; they’ve flipped the switch. So there’s that subtext as well, and that’s happening in the music.
“West Side Story was based on Romeo and Juliet, but with that spin that it’s dealing with race and ethnicity, and that’s timely today,” adds the bandleader. “We still basically ask the question: ‘is love really the answer?’ And you get that feeling of suspense at the very end [of West Side Story], at the final reprise of ‘Somewhere’ with Maria. Will love really be the answer? Who knows, it remains to be seen.”
During our conversation, Sanabria quotes Bernstein, who said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
“This is all timely now on a lot of different levels,” Sanabria says. “I’m taking it to heart.”