The other night, my wife and I walked to the Lake Theatre and saw West Side Story. I should have ended this last sentence with an exclamation point. Because it’s been two years since we went to any cultural offerings in Oak Park!
Culture — throughout the pandemic — has meant Netflix, Zoom meetings, and whatever came across my iPhone. But at The Lake, we went inside, a “congregate setting,” as Dr. Fauci calls it.
The pleasant man who has taken tickets at The Lake for years is still there, now checking vaccination cards. The ticket purchase has been moved to concessions, behind a big plastic screen.
There were five of us in a 120-seat theater. One of them was the usher.
But then the lights went down and the movie started. The new West Side Story movie traces its lineage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to Broadway in the 1950s, with a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a very young Stephen Sondheim.
As a boy in the mid-’60s, I watched the first West Side Story movie on our black-and-white TV. It was an event for my whole family, like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or watching the Wizard of Oz, which gave me nightmares.
I was awed by the dance scenes in the gym where, through some Hollywood wizardry, the screen split into four different shots of the dance.
I didn’t understand then that the cast, except for Rita Moreno, was all white, even though many were playing Puerto Ricans.
But the music … the music was looped in my brain on repeat for decades. Including college, when my Music in the Americas class ended with Bernstein’s score, including the 6/7 time from “I Like To Live In America.” And the bell ringing at the end of the show, telling us to wake up.
This all came back to me at The Lake. And something weird happened. Tears welled at the start of each song in the new movie. What was going on?
Was it Spielberg’s cut? Was it Bernstein’s score? Was it Shakespeare’s premise, that two naifs could fall in love in the midst of warring families? Was it pandemic fatigue?
When he made his first mid-pandemic return to the Chicago Symphony last fall, Maestro Ricardo Muti said art and music can help heal the pandemic wounds. He said music like Beethoven’s is part of our cultural milieu, like air, and we need to breathe it.
The halftime show during the Super Bowl, featuring rappers from the ’90s was part of that same balm.
And Rita Moreno lived long enough to be written into the new movie script as Valentina, the wise elder. She sings — flawlessly — in her ninth decade.
All this to say that we may be coming out of this pandemic. And we’d do well to return to our cultural roots, as modernized and adapted, so that we remember what it means to be fully human.