Insider gives her take on play

Jamie Bernstein
New Haven Register

NORTH HAVEN - Students from North Haven High School, who have spent weeks and weeks preparing for their production of "West Side Story," took in some last-minute pointers Friday from someone who had a key insight into the man who wrote the music.  Thanks to Jamie Bernstein, daughter of the late composer Leonard Bernstein, the students now know more about the emotion behind the music of the Broadway musical and motion picture about star-crossed lovers and the gangs that tore them apart.

The play was presented Thursday and Friday night and will continue at 2 and 7 p.m. today in the high school auditorium, 221 Elm St.  Bernstein was brought to the school by Michael Sbabo, a 1978 North Haven graduate who is the vice president of business affairs for The Leonard Bernstein Office Inc. in New York.

Sbabo is a son of former high school Assistant Principal Leonard Sbabo, who now lives in Florida.

Bernstein was animated as she talked about her famed father and his music and sang notes to demonstrate their meaning. Students were equally animated and engaged, reacting to what she was saying by snapping their fingers and dancing in their seats while Bernstein played parts of the score from a boombox.

"It's amazing how the music tells the story" of Tony and Maria, the modern versions of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," Bernstein said. "The notes tell the story and his deepest feelings about the world. ... He never gave up on his goals of brotherhood and world peace."

She said her father claimed not to have done it consciously, but three notes - a tri-tone - are repeated in "endless arrangements," and depending on how they're played, signify a different meaning in the play. For example, the tri-tone played one way signifies the lovers, and at another time, the discord of the street gangs.

"It's all about the rhythm ... have the most fun ever," she advised.

She also read excerpts from letters her father and mother sent to each other in summer 1957, when Bernstein was in Washington, D.C., preparing for the premiere of the play. The letters outlined the tremendous pressure Bernstein was under when others involved in the show wanted music changed.

When August 1957 came, Bernstein was excited that the show would actually be a hit. "This show may yet be worth all the agony," he wrote.

Students involved in the production were excited about Bernstein's visit and said her talk would help them add a new depth to their performances.

"I thought it was very informative. I learned a lot about the music and how it represents the emotions the characters are feeling," said Kelly Shea, 18, the senior who plays Maria.

"I thought it was great. She inspired me," said Nick Balzano, 18, the senior who plays Bernardo.

Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere, 17, a senior who plays double bass in the orchestra, said Bernstein "gave a lot of insight, not only to her father's music as a creation, but also into the play itself and the actors' portrayal of it."