In ‘West Side Story Reimagined,’ a Jazzy Version of the Iconic Score Also Helps Puerto Rico

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“West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined” album was recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City in November, 2017 with Bobby Sanabria and entire 22-piece orchestra. (Photo/ Sarah Escaraz)

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.

"West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined" performs at the Lincoln Center Center Out of Doors on August 10, 2018."

“West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined” performs at the Lincoln Center Center Out of Doors on August 10, 2018.” (Photo/ Maria Traversa)

“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.

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Rita Moreno reveals all in her new memoir

Rita Moreno (Courtesy Rita Moreno Archives)

Rita Moreno (Courtesy Rita Moreno Archives)

Rita Moreno, at 81, says she might return to taking flamenco classes now that she has finished writing her book, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” which hit shelves this week.

The first Latina to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Anita, the tough girlfriend to the Sharks’ gang leader in “West Side Story”), was also one of the few artists to also win an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony Award. The Puerto Rican-born actress has been breaking down barriers in Hollywood for more than 50 years, and last year, she concluded a sold-out run of her one-woman show, “Life Without Makeup,” in Berkeley, Calif. In her book, she talks about all of it, including her love life in between.

“I got inspired by doing a play about my life in Berkeley where I live,” says Moreno about what made her write her memoir now. “It had so much success with audiences, I figured a book would be better, because I could include a lot more material — that’s how it started.”

She says her love for performing and dancing began at a very young age.

“I started dancing for grandpa in Puerto Rico when I was 3 or 5,” says Moreno. “He’d put on some music — I’m sure it was salsa, and I’d shake my little booty and everyone thought it was adorable. I loved the attention. It’s also another way of being appreciated…through an audience.”

The very graceful actress with a feminine voice and manner, was also born very headstrong. She says she felt an incessant pull to audition for her first play at just 13 and asked her mom to take her.

“It was very interesting, because I had never been in a theater,” says Moreno, who had at the time been taking dance lessons. “Doing a play was exotic. It was a wonderful experience, but the play [“Skydrift”] closed the very next day. That gave me the taste of how cruel show business could be…”

She says the business changed a lot since she started her acting career. Moreno says it’s still not really great for Latinos in film yet, but at least the door is ajar.

“It really was impossible,” she remembers. “There were no Latinos anywhere, and if there were, they would play Indians. [Today,] Jennifer Lopez is able to talk like herself. When I did films, I always had to do an accent.”

But the memory that will always bring a smile to her face, she says, is getting an Oscar.

“It was my very first award and still the greatest of all,” she says. “I was really in disbelief. I couldn’t believe I beat Judy Garland. I didn’t have a speech ready. It never occurred to me…I was so unprepared.”

She says she played back the video of that moment in time, many times, to her two grandsons who are now 14 and 12. She can still recite it by memory.

“‘I don’t believe it…pause…Good Lord, I don’t believe it…pause…I leave you with that,’ That was it!” laughs Moreno. “That sure was poetic, huh? It certainly shows I was very surprised.”

Besides her award-winning career, what it was like moving to New York City, and leaving her brother in Puerto Rico at age 5, Moreno also writes openly about a short fling with singer Elvis Presley and her tumultuous 8-year love affair with actor Marlon Brando — which at one point dragged her low enough to almost commit suicide. Since then, she’s learned a lot about herself, and love.

“Love is a great deal about respecting the person you’re with,” says Moreno, who later had a happy 45-year marriage with Leonard Gordon. “That’s what makes a lasting relationship. Romantic love is all based on fantasy. The people who dream of the handsome prince are in for a big surprise.”

Instead of fantasizing, she says she’s learned it’s more practical to follow your instinct and ask yourself, “Is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?”

She says that was one of the biggest questions she’s ever asked herself, but she ultimately chose her husband because she felt he offered her “enormous protection.”

“I had too many frauders in my life,” says Moreno. “Also, he a sense of humor — he really made me laugh — that has always been very important. We met through a mutual friend who just felt we were meant for each other.”

She concurs their gut was right. They had a daughter and spent many happy years together until his death in 2010.

Just last night, she says excitedly that Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to her book party at the house of the producer of HBO’s controversial series, “Oz,” from which she won an ALMA Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series in 1998, 1999 and 2002.

“I loved it,” says Moreno about Sotomayor’s book, which she narrated for audio tape. “It’s a wonderful book and she’s a remarkable woman.”

On March 7, there will be a special screening of “West Side Story,” and a book signing of “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” at New York’s Cinema Arts Centre.

“It’s the whole business of presenting my life to an audience,” she says. “I hope people will be moved by it…cry at the sad stuff…laugh at the funny stuff…”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com