From the opening whistles and finger snaps to the soaring notes of composer Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria,” “West Side Story” is one of America’s most recognized and beloved musicals. A half century later, an acclaimed Latin jazz musician “reimagined” the score, creating a mostly instrumental album that has been drawing rave reviews and raising funds for an island dear to his heart.
“Two years ago, I came up with the idea of re-arranging the music from Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, ‘West Side Story,’ and performing it with my Multiverse Big Band, but in a way that has never been done before: a complete Latin jazz reworking of the entire score in celebration of the show’s recent 60th anniversary and Maestro Bernstein’s centennial,” said bandleader and Latin jazz percussionist Bobby Sanabria, about his two-disc compilation, “West Side Story Reimagined.
“Besides paying tribute to the composer and music, I saw this as an opportunity to give back and help my ancestral homeland Puerto Rico,” he said.
Sanabria, 61, who has garnered seven Grammy nominations, was 15 when he was first introduced to “West Side Story.” Inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the 1957 musical revolves around a forbidden romance amid the racial tension between two New York City gangs: the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican. The musical was written during a time in U.S. history that saw a wave of Puerto Rican migration to the mainland, the “The Great Migration” of the 1950s.
The musical was later adapted to a film of the same name in 1961, which won ten Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Music.
“On the 10th anniversary of the film, in 1971, my parents took me to see it in a Bronx theater,” Sanabria told NBC News. “I was completely flabbergasted. I had a love affair with the music and how it dealt with the themes of hate and bigotry… It was very unique how it was done, but the music blew my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
Sanabria was born in 1957, the same year as the musical’s creation. Growing up in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, he said he could relate to the rhythms — as well as the larger themes of ethnic tensions and prejudice.
“On any given summer night, you’d hear drums in the park…Salsa was the gospel of the masses at the time,” said the jazz musician about his formative years. “My mother was from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, and my father from Guanica, Puerto Rico, and they met in New York City – in a house party in the Bronx.,” he said.
“New York was very territorial back then. My parents experienced that, and so did my sister and I,” said Sanabria, speaking of the prejudice Puerto Rican families felt.
“They were American citizens, but they [white New Yorkers] just feared them out of ignorance. Those whites abandoned those neighborhoods. Now the sons of daughters of the whites that fled want those neighborhoods back,” said the musician, referring to the changes in recent decades that have brought many young whites to New York City neighborhoods that had been seen as primarily ethnic enclaves for decades.
ITS THEMES AND MUSIC STILL RESONATE
The themes of “West Side Story” are more timely than ever, said Sanabria. Coincidentally, Steven Spielberg is currently working on a new adaptation of the film.
“In certain parts of this country it’s very dangerous to be Latino right now,” said Sanabria. “This CD is an affirmation of all the great contributions we’ve made to art, theater music, poetry, and activism. It all started with us in New York City. It’s also an affirmation for Latino culture in general and what we’ve contributed to the United States.”
New York City now, said Sanabria, is much more ethnically diverse; neighborhoods that used to be primarily Puerto Rican now have many Mexican, Dominican, Haitian, Indian and Brazilian families compared to 1950s New York.
“When my ancestors came from Puerto Rico, mambo was the biggest thing, but Bernstein didn’t know about the bomba and plena, so I incorporated that — as well as Dominican, Brazilian and funk sounds,” said Sanabria.
Originally published on NBCNews.com.