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Revisiting West Side Story 60 Years Later With Bobby Sanabria

Marla Alvarez Torrado


Bobby Sanabria remembers the first time he watched West Side Story like it was yesterday. Accompanied by his parents and sister, Bobby watched the musical at the Loew's Paradise Theater in the Bronx. The lights, colors, and musical arrangements, captivated him. Back then, the musical, a modern retelling of Shakepeare's Romero and Juliet, was celebrating its 10th anniversary and well on its way to becoming an American classic. 50 years later, Sanabria and the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra will honor the legacy of the groundbreaking 1957 Broadway show with a special live performance on February 24th and again on April 10th at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center. This time, however, the music will be a little different. Led by Sanabria, this version of West Side Story will feature new Latin jazz arrangements of Leonard Bernstein’s classic score—and for good reason.

West Side Story is one of the earliest mainstream depictions of the Puerto Rican community in New York. When asked about the impact this masterpiece had on the early Puerto Rican diaspora, Sanabria doesn't hesitate the list of orgullos boricua that were part of the West Side Story project, as well as their contributions to the field of arts in the United States. However, he also remembers with mixed emotions the way Puerto Ricans were often portrayed, forcing these artists to shine despite the constraints of their roles. Rita Moreno, for example, famously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the 1961 film version of the musical. 

Yet even with these problematic depictions in mind, Bobby pivots and makes an interesting observation concerning the music. One can hear songs in the musical influenced by Mexican, Venezuelan, and Cuban styles. However, Puerto Rican music is not part of the original score for West Side Story, which is why Sanabria has taken it upon himself to add some Puerto Rican flavor to the musical. In Bobby’s words, “Latin American music is an incredible kaleidoscope and we want to say to the people: get to know us, we are here”.

By focusing on incorporating more Puerto Rican influences into the music of West Side Story, Bobby seeks to connect Puerto Rican audiences to the musical beyond the plot and actors on the stage. On the night of February 24th, Bobby will revisit the past through the unmistakable flair of West Side Story and for audiences, it's an opportunity that should not missed. Also, this year is a special one for Bobby: don't forget to wish him a happy early 60th birthday!

The event is free and open to the public. For more information on both performances, click here