It seems appropriate to begin the patriotic month of July with a story about an American classic. This weekend fortune blessed me with two friends and four tickets to attend a one-time showing of the American classic, West Side Story. It all caught me by surprise.
The first surprise was the air-conditioned underground showroom at the cabaret-like Bal Blomet. My joke about French air-conditioning is that it’s a fan, or just an open window. The joke is not really funny, in any way whatsoever. But this was real air-conditioning, and I welcomed it on this hot summer’s evening.
Next surprise? I’m shaking hands with David Stern. The man is a mover, shaker, and leader in the music world. He conducts, teaches, and plays in Paris, Shanghai and Palm Beach. He founded and directs Paris’ Opera Fuoco. He also happens to be the son of Isaac Stern. Things like that happen in Paris, you shake David Stern’s hand, and then meet his wife, Katha. You would talk and say more, but you have to continue on; there is more to come and you must keep moving (especially if you want a good seat.)
The third surprise was the talent on the stage. The show was the culmination of their workshop with Mr. Stern; it was not a full-blown Broadway performance; it was a workshop version of the show. No props, not all the songs, not all the characters, but double the talent. Up there with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and nothing to hide behind, the talent better come through, or the audience will see all the flaws. We only saw and heard talent. No false notes, no slip-ups, and no nonsense, Office Krupke, just the talent and that special energy that only the young can give.
Introducing the show, Mr. Stern talked about striving to keep music relevant; so did Bernstein. Romeo and Juliet and the Sharks and the Jets were contemporary themes for a 1950’s audience - and they still are today. And not just the storylines, but also the lyrics. The songs, America and Officer Krupke, dropped the dramatic pressure but if we listen clearly, a very contemporary darkness underlines those songs:
Many hellos in America;
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America!
You gotta understand:
…Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
With all their marijuana,
They won't give me a puff.
They didn't wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
The italics are mine and I need not go into the contemporary details, but Puerto Rico’s legal status still confuses some and junkie mothers and alcoholic fathers confront us everyday on TV and newspapers. All I can say is, Maria, this is still the stuff of contemporary life in America.
Why this essay? I chose to write this story because I really did not want to see this show, I’m not a fan of Broadway showtunes. I said yes because I knew I should say yes and get out of my rut: do something different. I learned some fun facts and met some really very interesting people, but most of all, I heard and rediscovered some beautiful music. I saw WSS when I was in my twenties and didn’t really care. I dismissed it like I dismissed everything else when I was in my twenties. For a few hours, thanks to those brilliant performers, I forgot all my troubles and cares and about all this darn hot summer heat.
What does this have to do with Lifelong Leaning Abroad? Events like this are the kinds of things we do in Paris with you. We see shows. We go to places you have never been. We get out of our ruts. We do things that we have not done since our twenties. We discover that things are not what we thought they would be like. And sometimes, we just forget all our troubles and cares. Think about it.
I would like to thank each of the performers for their incredible performance: