Thursday, November 30, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "The Haunted House" (on Thomas Adès' opera The Exterminating Angel)

by Douglas Messerli

Tom Cairns (libretto, based on Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel), Thomas Adès (composer), The Exterminating Angel / The Metropolitan Opera’s HD-live production; the presentation Howard Fox and I saw was an Encore production at the Century City AMC movies on Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Let me begin admitting that my relationship to Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel, is rather intense. I taught the film, even before there was a restored version (the one I taught was grainy, badly lit, and with hard to read English-language credits) and even before that I had bought the rights to the script from Buñuel’s sons, and published it in English on my Green Integer press. I wrote a longish review of the film for my World Cinema Review in 2011.

     So when the MET opera company announced that they were planning composer Thomas Adès’ new setting of the Buñuel work as an opera in their 2017-18 season, I was obviously pleased and excited, and immediately ordered up tickets for the HD production.
       Unable to attend the opening day live broadcast (we had other opera commitments), we caught the Encore production of it yesterday at the Century City AMC theater yesterday afternoon.
       I had already read most of the previous reviews which argued, rightfully I believe, that this was the most adventuresome production of the new MET season. For the first time in years, Howard and I were less than impressed by the rest of their season (we have, perhaps seen too many Toscas, La Bohèmes, and Così Fan Tuttis, no matter how excellent these productions might be, to be motivated to attend yet again), although we will certainly attend some of the lesser known of their upcoming productions.
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       As for the première opera, we were of mixed minds. Adès music, despite the singer’s declarations of its preciseness, seemed more interesting because of its lyrical flights of sound, its often strange use of instruments, “slamming doors, clanging rocks, a rattle with bottle caps, cowbells, a salad bowl, some miniature violins and an ondes Martenot” (which sounds somewhat similar to the science fiction regular instrumentation for the Theremin). With Adès, himself, conducting the music often soars into romantic interludes between playful experimentation—that is when the music can truly be heard. Sometimes the orchestral score seemed quite overwhelmed by the constant voiced sentiments of the 15 on-stage ensemble of quite brilliant singers, almost claustrophobically on-stage together for the entire opera.
Image result for The Exterminating Angel Opera      The composer, in turn, gave them an equally wide vocal range, from the bass-baritone pleadings for rationality by Dr. Carlos Conde (Sir John Tomlinson) to the baritone voicings of Alberto Roc (Rod Gilfry) to the tenor intonations of the party’s host Edmundo De Nobile (Joseph Kaiser), the nervous and harried pronouncements of  countertenor Francisco De Ávila (Iestyn Davies), and finally to the super high ranges of the production’s mezzo-sopranos and super-sopranos (Alice Coote and Christine Rice in the former category) and Sophie Bevan as Beatriz, Amanda Echalaz (as the hostess, Lucía De Nobile) and the amazing Audrey Luna, who as the opera-singer, Leticia Maynar, who is asked to reach into the stratosphere for a A above high C, the very highest note ever achieved, apparently, on the MET stage. I have to admit, it’s almost out of hearing range, and sounds more like a high animal bark that a human musical expression—but I believe that may have been what the composer intended, and the fact that she could even accomplish it is quite amazing. This opera is clearly not for sissies, as all of the performers made clear during the brief intermission.
       But what they nearly all expressed, as well, is that Buñuel’s work is basically incomprehensible, that, as a surrealist masterwork, it is not really important to explain it, but to simply experience it.
Image result for The Exterminating Angel Opera       I would argue, and I have, that this is not quite true. First of all, I’d insist, this Buñuel work is not truly surrealist as much as it is allegorical and even symbolic. It has been perceived as many, including me, as a statement about the wealthy Spaniards in the time of Franco who simply could not act in the time of crisis. Thus these wealthy individuals, despite their moral druthers, cannot even leave the party to which they were invited. Like so many of us, who attend grand events that perhaps we might like to have skipped, they have become imprisoned by their social whirl. And like the animals which the hostess has apparently employed to present an entertaining evening, three sheep and a somewhat terrifying bear, they quickly alternate, once their perceive their own trapped condition, between timidity and dangerous bestiality, turning upon one another and, finally, the host, who has so very kindly invited them, ready to murder him in order to atone for their own inabilities to release themselves from the spell of their wealth and position. These people, as Leticia has been described, are Valkyries, warrior savages who will destroy the entire world in order to survive.
       In Buñuel’s original film, he makes it clear that these near savage beings, unlike the numerous workers they employ, who immediately recognize something bad is coming, walk like blind men into their own trap, unable to learn anything from history. The filmmaker immediately establishes this fact early in the work (and which Adès repeats the scene in his opera), by having the very first scene when the group returns from the opera, play out yet again for a second time, as if in a kind of loop tape, making it clear that they have all emphatically chosen their destinies without even imaging that they might once more be playing out the past.
      Again, in the film, after they are finally magically released from their spell by returning to the beginning—the very positions in which they had stood and sat that very first night which spun them into their somnambulism for several weeks—they return to “normal” life, and determining to celebrate their salvation, attend a church service, from which, when it is time to leave, both the clergymen and congregants are once more unable to exit. Outside we vaguely see Franco’s henchmen rounding up and killing the locals as the clergy and their wealthy parishioners return to sit down in their pews to pray for their release from their own passivity.
        Unfortunately, Adès and his librettist, Tom Cairns, have jettisoned the important final scene, and focus instead on the haunted house aspects of the director’s drama, making it all seem like the whole was simply a magic spell, and heaping much of the evil of the entire group on the one gay (and incestuous) character, the hyperventilating, pill-popping Francisco (a role which The Guardian’s Observer particularly dismissed).  Even as the group makes the ever-so-slight perception that they are destined to repeat events time and again until they comprehend the significance of their behavior, Leticia sings a final aria that seems almost a dedication to a kind of spiritual afterlife (perhaps the composer’s suggestion of their final church-going event). Yet, it muddied the work, simply seeming to redeem their previous savage behaviors, so much so, that my companion Howard, who has never seen the film, whispered, “I don’t get it, did they all die?”
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      Of course, in the end, these people are all dead, even if they feel that they have freed themselves. But since they will never learn from history, they and their ilk will time and again bond to never challenge the horrific authoritarians in their midst. And that, obviously, has great meaning today in the US and other countries. While those of us who sense there is something terrible going on and might bail ship, these men and women will not be able to truly challenge the dictators who arise from amongst our midst again and again. By the time of his film, we must recall, the atheist, Communist-leaning Buñuel had almost abandoned his more aesthetic surrealist experiments for the far more socially oriented studies such as The Young and the Damned and Robinson Crusoe. Yet the group he explores in this work became the center of his later studies in the class warfare and satire of Belle de Jour, Tristana , and That Obscure Object of Desire. The surrealist had become a social commentator.
      That is not to dismiss Adès significant work. This opera, if nothing else, just because of its complex web of ideas and his musical genius certainly does deserve to become part of the standard operatic repertory. Like John Adams’ Nixon in China, also a problematic and not entirely satisfying work, the opera’s very conceptual perplexities are also part of its significance, its challenge to audiences who truly care about serious contemporary opera. And I almost wept tears of joy by the end of the opera, which is perhaps one of the grueling and splendid of ensemble pieces one can imagine. Hopefully, we can look forward to later productions that might more simply clarify the somewhat muddied implications of the current production. 

Los Angeles, November 30, 2017
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2017).

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Architecture Saves the Day" (on Annie Gosfield and Yuval Sharon's opera War of the Worlds)

by Douglas Messerli

Annie Gosfield (composer), Yuval Sharon (adaption and director), War of the Worlds, conducted by Christopher Roundtree (conductor) / the performance Howard Fox and I attended was the matinee  at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on November 18

As a 7-year-old child, my husband Howard walked the few blocks from his Margate, Atlantic City house to the local movie theater to watch the film, War of the Worlds. Suddenly he found himself in the midst of a fantasy that utterly terrified him, and hid himself (in the 1950s school-taught procedure of “duck and cover”) under the theater seat in horror of what he was seeing on the screen. On the way back home he actually “saw,” so he believed a Martian in the neighbor’s back yard, and for weeks after had horrifying dreams.

      Yesterday’s matinee performance of the opera at the Walt Disney Concert Hall of War of the Worlds, with music by Annie Gossfield, and directed by Yuval Sharon was neither that scary nor even eerie, except for its occasional strains of Joanne Pearce Martin’s Theremin playing.
      Introduced by actress Sigourney Weaver, the small orchestral ensemble begins almost as a riff on Gustav Holst’s The Planets, with what even the program suggests is a “sweet piece” subtitled “Mercury,” to be interrupted midway by Weaver’s return to report to the audience some “breaking news”: “It seems that several unexplained explosions were observed in the sky over Los Angeles.” “Don’t panic,” she adds, “it doesn’t appear to be a terrorist attack, but scientists are describing it as explosions of incandescent gas originating from the planet Mars….”
      The performance of “Mercury” completed, the orchestra moves on to “Venus,” until suddenly there is a heavy rumbling overhead, followed with another Weaver interruption and a piped-in interview with a Professor Pierson giving first hand evidence of the “invasion” from across the street at the Tinkertoy Parking Lot (there were at least two other locations around town, centered about spots in which the director and composer had found pre-existing city sirens, which were brought back to life and took the concert-hall music to the streets).
      The professor describes that the rumbling sound that we had just heard has emanated from the object before him, which may have something to do with the previously noted activity on Mars.
      After the conversation, Weaver again leaves the stage, and the orchestra continues with “Venus,” until it is again interrupted—although continuing quietly in the background—this time for a another on-the-street report with Dr. Melissa Morse, KCRW’s head meteorologist, who interviews a Spanish speaking citizen named Mrs. Martinez, who has evidently witnessed the crash of another of the Martian spacecrafts.
Image result for War of the Worlds opera review
      More rumbles occur, as the orchestra continues with “Earth,” as well as more interruptions, this time from a General Lansing and, soon after, a message from the Secretary of the Interior, who not only reports that several of Martian crafts have been discovered around Los Angeles, but have also begun appearing in other states such as “Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania” (to which the concert audience heartily laughed, recognizing that these were the very states that helped Trump win the election). Bells begin ringing, and Pierson reports that the streets “are all jammed” (which indeed, at least on Bunker Hill, they had been pre-performance, forcing us to park in the very same Tinkertoy Parking Lot from which he was evidently broadcasting). Even Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti cannot do anything to save the city. And only the titanium cover in which Frank Gehry wrapped the theater in which we sat, saved those of us within. It appears that in this version of H. G. Wells’ fable, architecture, not oxygen, has saved the day.  
       Throughout these interchanges, a bit higher up from where the orchestra is playing behind an inexplicably Plexiglas-covered box, a Martian-like creature (the stunning Hila Plitmann), who sings in an incomprehensible language at the very highest ranges of her soprano voice while dressed in a bright-red cocktail gown. Her ability to draw in the words into a marvelous mumble-jumble of sounds, reminded me some of the performance I had seen the previous night sung by Joanna Dudley in William Kentridge’s opera, Refuse the Hour; and this opera, as well, is very much about time and space.
Image result for War of the Worlds opera       Yuvall argued that what he and Gosfield were attempting to do in adapting the original Orson Welles radio production of War of the Worlds was to bring up the issues of fake and real news—a notable project for our very confusing times, when it appears an American election might have been decided by the willingness of numerous naïve US citizens to believe Russian propaganda and outright campaign lies.
     Yet, it would be hard to imagine that anyone, at least sitting in the large audience at the Walt Disney Hall, was convinced by the so-called “hoax.” As a presumably polite and informed company of Los Angeles citizens, we could sit back and enjoy the ploys of the fiction. And this, in turn, took away much of the serious drama of both the original broadcast—during which hundreds of people did, in fact, panic, and run into the streets—and the film which terrorized the boyhood of my companion. This time around, War of the Worlds seemed more comic than terrifying, and the sci-fi fictional quality of the original was almost meaningless.
      But, one does have to admit, as a contemporary opera it is still a “blast” into a time and space to the where audience obviously was quite pleased to have traveled.

Los Angeles, November 19, 2017
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2017).

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Undoing, Unsaying" (on William Kentridge, Philip Miller, Dada Masilo, Catherine Meyburgh, and Peter Galison's Refuse the Hour)

by Douglas Messerli

William Kentridge, Philip Miller, Dada Masilo, Catherine Meyburgh, and Peter Galison Refuse the Hour / the performance I attended was at UCLA’s Royce Hall, November 17, 2017

Image result for Refuse the HourDescribed as a multimedia chamber opera, South African artist William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour explores various notions of time while querying if one mightn’t “hold our breaths against time.” But as Henri Bergson has long argued, time is life itself, an inexorable force that no matter what we attempt to do will ultimately swallow us up. Strangely, Kentridge makes utterly no mention of Bergson in his narration of shifting notions of time, beginning with the mythic story of Perseus.
       In the Perseus myth, if you recall, the King of Argos, Acrisius, having borne only a daughter, consults the oracle of Delphi, who warns him that in the future he will be killed by his daughter’s son. To protect himself, Arcrisius keeps Danaë in a bronze chamber, but Zeus, nonetheless, visits her as a shower of gold, impregnating her and producing a son, Perseus. After killing the dreaded Medusa and accomplishing other marvelous deeds, the young hero stops by for athletic games in Larissa, instead of returning to Argos. There he throws a quoit that happens to hit and kill Acrisius, who unexpectedly is visiting the events, and thus the prophecy is fulfilled. In short, time here is inevitable simply because the gods have willed it. Coincidence, so suggests Kentridge, is everything and cannot be held back.
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      Soon after, behind a set that includes Leonardo da Vinci-inspired diagrams, bike wheels, megaphones (presumably representing the possibility of amplifying time through sound), and numerous other time-related images by scenic designer Sabine Theunissen and machine designers, Christoff Wolmarans, Louis Olivier, and Jonas Lundquist, Kentridge as narrator explores various other developments of time, including three giant metronomes, a  brief discussion of how photography and film both stopped and captured time, and the imposition on native cultures of Western-based time with the establishment of international time zones and the synchronization of clocks, which, as one black singer cries out, wipes out their sun, forcing various native cultures to, quite literally, get “in sync” with the very cultures that will later destroy them.
      Later, Kentridge hints of Einstein’s theory of relativity and discusses how time will ultimately come to an end when the earth is swallowed up by a black hole—all the while presenting himself as a procrastinating artist pacing back and forth with indecision.
Image result for Refuse the Hour     All of these frolics are played out with several marvelous video images by Catherine Meyburgh, the music of composer Philip Miller, and the stunning dances of Dada Masilo, who at one point, standing on a small turning pedestal holds megaphones on her arm, head, and legs simultaneously, while bearing the weight of the narrator on her back.
     Singer Joanna Dudley takes music is various directions, sometimes singing lines backwards in a puff of undoing/unsaying, the way we might read images that are being quickly rewound. The wonderful Ann Masina sings short arias that imitate everything from Berlioz to set poems of English Romanticists such as Keats to snippets of Gilbert and Sullivan, all accompanied by a small quintet of percussion (Tlale Makhene), violin (Waldo Alexander), trombone (Dan Selsick), piano (Vincenzo Pasquariello), and tuba (Thobeka Thukane), their instruments, quite inexplicably, also hanging from the theater’s ceiling.
      Highly enigmatic, a bit overlong even for its 80 minute running time, and not nearly as profound as it wants to be, Refuse the Hour is, nonetheless, a joyful riff on how mankind set a mad world into motion without the ability to undo its imperious forward movement. My only wish is that rather than “refusing” time or demurring to its hectic forward rush, that Kentridge might have found a way to show us more clearly how to simply live in the moment. His often humorous and lushly melodious antics, however, certainly give us a clue of how to enjoy ourselves in our brief time on earth.  

Los Angeles, November 18, 2017
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II | Bali Ha'i from My Favorite Musical Theater Songs by Douglas Messerli

Bali Ha’i

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II from the original cast performance of South Pacific, 1949

Performer: Juanita Hall

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Performer: Peggy Lee, 1949

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II from South Pacific

Performer: Juanita Hall, 1958

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II from South Pacific

Performer: Muriel Smith (dubbing Juanita Hall in the movie version), 1958

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Performer: Kim Criswell (BBC Proms), 2010

Image result for South Pacific movieWhat can one say about the most alluring tune in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. In this piece the original Bloody Mary, perceiving the young Lieutenant Cable (William Tabbert in the original Broadway production, and the handsome John Kerr in the movie) as “saxy,” the production surrounded him by equally sexy young Seabees in a song that seduces him to take the voyage to the island of Bali Ha’i, where he will meet and fall in love with Bloody Mary’s beautiful daughter, Liat—despite his angry inability to marry her because of her island racial ethnicity.
      Except for his later song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” it is the most fraught racial song ever sung. In the original the amazing African-Asian singer Juanita Hall quite literally opens him up to a new world of possibilities, of his “own special island,” with:

Your own special hopes,
Your own special dreams,
Bloom on the hillside
And shine in the streams.
If you try, you'll find me
Where the sky meets the sea.
"Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me."

Seduction was never more beautiful and successful than in Hall’s incredible rendering of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s haunting tune and lyrics.
       Unfortunately, by the time of the movie, Hall’s amazing voice had begun to waver a bit over the higher registers of that song, and despite a truly credible recording which I’ve included above, and 900 performances on the Broadway stage, the imperious Richard Rodgers, who had always preferred the English performer, Muriel Smith’s version, insisted that they dub the performance. Smith clearly does a credible job, but Hall’s somewhat rougher cut gives a remarkable edge to the performance which I truly prefer.
      Others, Peggy Lee, even Frank Sinatra and Perry Cuomo later performed it, sometimes, particularly in Lee’s case, quite credibly, despite the sentimental Hawaiian and other orchestral flourishes in Sinatra’s and Cumo’s version. But even the wonderful 2008 revival with the wonderful Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot, which I saw at Lincoln Center, with Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary could not come close to Juanita Hall’s rendition. And like the film director Joshua Logan has admitted, I wish they’d kept Hall’s voice in the film; but then, hardly anyone in the film was not dubbed, Hollywood presumably unable to trust some of their casts’ singing voices, Giorgio Tozzi dubbing the voice of Rosanno Brazzi.
      Personally, I hated the colored lenses of Logan’s film, but in “Bali H’ai,” which turns the landscape from a sunny day to a deep purple wonderment, it’s nearly perfect. Who wouldn’t want to visit that “special island.”

Los Angeles, November 11, 2017

Friday, November 3, 2017

Douglas Messerli | The Architectonics of Love (on Benjamin Millepied's LA Dance Project performance at The Wallis)

by Douglas Messerli

Benjamin Millepied, artistic director L.A. Dance Project / Beverly Hills, Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts / the performance I saw, with Pablo Capra, was on November 2, 2017
Beverly Hill’s Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts has accomplished a stunning coup in teaming up with noted dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s exciting L.A. Dance Project, presenting not only two sets of performances during the 2017-2018 season, but working with the company through the institution’s art education program.  
       Last night, I attended the first set of these quite remarkable dance performances, which featured Millepied’s 2006 pas de deux, Closer, with music, Mad Rush for piano by Philip Glass; the Noé Soulier-choreographed Second Quartet, with music by Tom De Cock; the multipart Millepied work from 2017, In Silence We Speak, incorporating two David Lang songs, you will love me and you will return; and ending with the stunning 2017 ensemble piece with film, Orpheus Highway, accompanied by a beautiful score by Steve Reich, Triple Quartet. This was a varied and exhausting display of Millepied’s demand for athleticism and precision from his dancers, performed with such gifted skill that all pieces absolutely delighted the sold-out theater audience.
       Closer, long a favorite piece in Millepied’s growing canon, featured David Adrian Freeland Jr. and Janie Taylor in a piece, basically without narrative meaning, but nonetheless suggestive of a growing relationship between the couple that clearly has its ups and downs before finally being resolved in a series of loving embracements.
       Throughout the early part, the two dancers astonishingly lift and pull at one in jutting angles that seem to reveal the absolutely awkwardness yet natural draws of their attraction and attachment. Some of their gestures almost represent a kind of salute to the 1920s “apache” dance as they push and pull, at a couple of points Freeland even dragging his partner by the hair across the stage. They may be in love, but is a rough love, a love of male dominance, a kind of “mad rush,” that finally cools down into a sweet, more normative or, at least, more tender series of motions. But like the “apache” dance lovers these two are a forceful duo, who reveal Millepied’s amazing representation of the angularity of his dancer’s body parts, almost portraying an architectonics of dance.
      Second Quartet also relied, partly, on nearly impossible positionings of the human body, as Soulier demanded the ensemble to rush with and against each other, dropping, with regularity, into almost comical positions of the floor, suggesting their complete exhaustion in their romantic couplings. Yet, this “chase,” in its constant shifts of gender pairings was not truly as romantic as it was a kind postmodern presentation of the madness and rush of trying to pair up with the right person or persons. The knocking percussion of De Cock’s piece suggests the crazy series of encounters these busy, apparently urban, would-be lovers endure,  reminding one a bit of Robert Longo’s often violently floating images of his “Men in the Cities,” but without the more obvious references to that work made by the Ezralow Dance company (also recently performing at The Wallis). Here, Soulier almost seems to be mocking these figures’ frenzied attempts to find a match.
       This was followed by a far sweeter and tender—yet not without its flare ups of significant rebellion and declarations of independence—of what basically is a love duet between the two female dancers Rachelle Rafailedes and Janie Taylor. This lovely 15 minute piece might almost be seen as an antidote to the fast and furious more comic pairings of the Soulier piece. Composer David Lang is one of my very favorites of contemporary composers, and his songs “you will love me” and “you will return,” utterly interlink with the entwining and patterned movements of this female pas de deux.
       Perhaps the most rousing and significant of Millipied’s recent dances (also from 2017) was the last work of the evening, Orpheus Highway. Although only 16 minutes in length, the work, both dance upon film and an ensemble piece danced before the screen told a vaguely familiar version of the Orpheus myth, played out this time in rural America, with images of highways, restaurant stops, and, grain silos (conflating the myth of “not looking back” with Lot’s wife, but this time around without the pillar of salt but with a silo of corn). The Reich music is so perfectly matched to the problematics of Orpheus and Eurydice’s love (Orpheus here played by Aaron Carr, Eurydice by Rachelle Rafailedes) accompanied by the exuberant performers, dancing both in sync and out of sync with their cinematic representations, filmed in the almost desert-like landscape of Marfa, Texas, makes for a deeply profoundly narrative—if often inexplicable work (this is no literal telling of the tale)—that one experiences it more like a dream than a retelling of a story of the Gods and their strange ways.
      I can’t wait for the return of L.A. Dance to The Wallis this upcoming fall.
Los Angeles, November 3, 2017

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim | America by Douglas Messerli from his My Favorite Musical Theater Songs



Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Performers: Chita Rivera and cast (original Broadway recording), 1957


Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Performers: Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Yvonne Wilder, Suzie Kaye, Joanne 

   Miya and others (in the film version of West Side Story)

One of the wittiest, most charming and problematic—it’s difficult to even talk about it, given the recent devastating hurricane to hit Puerto Rico and the government’s basic ignorance of the immense destruction—has to be Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s song “America” from West Side Story.
      In the original musical, it’s basically a dialogue between the Shark gang’s women, a kind of musical lark; but in the movie version it grew into a major statement of the differences between the gang-males and their far more assimilated girls. But it was still, and remains today, a dialogue between their love of their homeland and the problems they face in the US, despite the fact that Puerto Rico, we must reminds ourselves, is part of the US.
      There are so many painful reminders of the difficulties of living in this Caribbean paradise, “the hurricanes blowing,” “the money owing,” that are still so relevant today, that it’s almost difficult to talk about this incredible piece of music (and dance, which I discussed previously in my profile of the best film dance numbers in My Year 2000).
       I grew up, from age 15 on, loving this song, so, I suppose, it’s difficult even today to speak of it coherently. The incredible musical rhythms that Bernstein gave it, the hot Latin emphatic rhythmic patterns which emphasize words that would never be accented in English (“I,” “Be,” “America” of the phrase “I Like to Be in America, etc.) The Jets suddenly appear to be straight as apple pie after this incredible concoction. This song, more than any other, gives you a sense of what it is to be Spanish (as the singers themselves put it, “a Spic” in Manhattan). They are so more vital in their singing and dancing that the audience must simply lay down any prejudices and realize the very vitality of their culture. The Jets just can’t get up this kind of energy, even in their later Jazz-inspired dance number.
       And, despite, what I always thought a terribly bad introductory lyric by Sondheim, “I like the Island Manhattan  / Smoke on your pipe and put that in!”—presumably a Spanish-language mangled version of “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”—by and large it’s one of the best back-and-forth arguments ever presented in musical theater. It’s so much more profound than a song like Irving Berlin’s “I Can Do Anything Better Than You,” even if it involves, like that song, a one-up-man-ship pattern (in the original all-woman presentation):

Puerto Rico . . .
You ugly island . . .
Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing . . .
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan.
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev'rything free in America
For a small fee in America!

I like the city of San Juan.

I know a boat you can get on.

Hundreds of flowers in full bloom.

Hundreds of people in each room!

Automobile in America,
Chromium steel in America,
Wire-spoke wheel in America,
Very big deal in America!

I'll drive a Buick through San Juan.

If there's a road you can drive on.

I'll give my cousins a free ride.

How you get all of them inside?

All of this banter ends, finally with the wonderful interchange:

I like the shores of America!
Comfort is yours in America!
Knobs on the doors in America,
Wall-to-wall floors in America!

When I will go back to San Juan.

When you will shut up and get gone?

Everyone there will give big cheer!

Everyone there will have moved here!

Too bad the original Jerome Robbins dance didn’t perceive that the same debate was so much more powerful when the males spoke about return and the females about their love of the new country. Isn’t that what the entire Shark battle is all about; they can’t quite adapt to their new country, and they must fight to create their territory. The women, on the other hand, have already completely assimilated. Sondheim’s lyrics had already established that, and the movie version brilliantly expresses their survival in the new world. Yet the Broadway, all woman, cat-fight is wonderful is well.

Los Angeles, November 1, 2017