Saturday, August 25, 2018

Leonard Bernstein's Centennial

It's Saturday, August 25th.  The late, great composer Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago today.  The skies are overcast, light rain is falling and I had planned to cover up and take a walk outside.  That is, until I discovered that HBO is airing WEST SIDE STORY.  The Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1961 with Oscars also going to Rita Moreno for Best Supporting Actress and George Chakiris for Best Supporting Actor.  Based on the Broadway hit of the same name, this is one of my all-time favorite movie musical adaptations with that wonderful music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
I've seen WEST SIDE STORY in revival theaters on a big screen and it always left me in awe.  If it was playing on a wide screen at a local theater right now, I'd pay full price to see it.  Visually, musically, the acting, the dancing, the direction, editing and other production values all make it a cinematic work of art.  I was a little boy when it was released nation-wide but I can still recall how popular it was.  Songs from the score such as "Tonight," "Maria," and "Something's Coming" were covered by top vocalists are getting lots of radio airplay.  The soundtrack was popular.  The times were right for its release.  We were in the turbulent, critical, early years of the Civil Rights movement.  Racial discord and white privilege run through the film's storyline.  Think of the white police lieutenant who bluntly states that he can get away with his racist comments because he's got a badge and the Puerto Ricans have nothing.  The cop doesn't care about brown immigrants.  The lovers, Tony and Maria, are separated when he is shot and killed by a rival gang member.  Tony quit his position as leader of the white gang to seek a new, non-violent life.  In loving Maria, he embraces racial harmony.  In the same decade not long after WEST SIDE STORY had won 10 Oscars, we would lose non-violent leaders we loved to a bullet from an assassin's gun.  President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.  Again, WEST SIDE STORY was released in 1961.
Fast forward to today.  A year ago, our fellow Americans were devastated.  A severe hurricane crippled Puerto Rico.  Electricity was out for months.  Puerto Ricans needed food, medical attention and other services.  Trump paid Puerto Rico little attention.  When he finally did fly over to speak to local politicians while press cameras were rolling, one of the first things he did was remind Puerto Rico that it owes us money.  Then, in casual wear, he tossed out rolls of paper towels to a crowd of Puerto Ricans as if the damage had been a minor leak from a washing machine in a basement.  He did not help at all in the clean-up or feeding effort.  He's not been back to Puerto Rico since.
With that in mind...enjoy the "America" number, still a showstopper, from WEST SIDE STORY.  Catch the great rhythm of Leonard Bernstein's memorable music -- and pay attention to how timely the Sondheim lyrics are in this age of Trump.

Never underestimate the power of the fine arts.  Thank you, Leonard Bernstein.

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