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Brandeis Alumni College Discussion

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

After taking a break from writing for the Musical Notes blog during August and September to focus on leading High Holiday services at Joliet Jewish Congregation, I’m back in blogging business.

Before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) took place in September, Alumni Weekend at my alma mater, Brandeis University, occurred from June 8-10 and included a roundtable on, who else? Leonard Bernstein.

It covered one of the musicals he wrote, West Side Story, and opened with a beautiful live performance of the song, “Somewhere,” by Theater Arts colleagues Adjunct Associate Professor Nancy Armstrong on vocals and accompanist Todd Theriault on piano. This was followed by a panel discussion among Neal Hampton, Associate Professor of Music and Director of the Brandeis University Orchestra; Carina Ray, Interim Chair and Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies; Robert Walsh, Associate Professor of Theater Arts; and moderated by Ingrid Schorr, Director of the Office of the Arts at Brandeis University.

Hampton raved about West Side Story, and provided a detailed description of its music. Walsh commented largely on the choreography in the musical. Ray’s analysis of the musical was a good balance to the positive reaction to West Side Story by the other two panelists, as she commented on interracial relationships in a colonial context, and how the musical included a story of immigration, the unequal relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S., a turf war, women as property (how Maria “belongs” to Bernardo), and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein’s small amount of actual research into Puerto Rican music (besides going to a gym where a social organization was trying to bring two opposing gangs together).

Ray commented that depictions of Puerto Rico and its citizens in West Side Story have been a cultural touchstone for those in the United States, regarding how they have come to think of Puerto Rico and its citizens during the 60 years that the musical has been in existence. Discussing the disastrous Hurricane Maria that hit the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, killing 3,057 people, Ray noted that the minimal reaction to the hurricane by the U.S., the nation it belongs to, can partly be attributed to images of Puerto Rico as “backwards” in works such as West Side Story. “They can ‘literally’ be matters of life and death,” she said. She then quoted Oscar Wilde, who once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”

If you’re interested in viewing the roundtable online, click here.