Essayist Reflects on Opportunities to Sing Out Loud

September 1, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist: Everywhere in America people are plugged into silent music, on the street, in buses, in airports, walking alone, or even holding hands. Music, music everywhere, and not a note to hear.

We live in the civilization of the ear, not the mouth. We are desperate, for example, for music, but we do not know how to join our voices with others in song. It is a weakness in our society, a measure of how broken we are.

Some Americans still sing in church, though in the newer churches the robust hymn of shared faith is often drowned out by blasts of music that reduce the faithful to silent listeners.

Elsewhere in the world, people sing together. They sing in bars; they sing at athletic events; after dinner and into the night, families sing.

Generations know the same lyrics. Entire nations sing. Most other countries, of course, enjoy the advantage of a singable anthem.

When we Americans sing, we tend to sing by ourselves: in the shower, or in our cars when the windows are rolled up and no one, we think, is watching. Not even the iPod generation dares to burst into song in a crowd.

Which brings me here to the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where a sing-a-long of “West Side Story” is showing. Built in 1922, the Castro Theater gives new meaning to the notion of a neighborhood movie palace. It rises like a secular cathedral over a neighborhood to which homosexuals and lesbians, many of them, have fled from other parts of America.

There is a special relationship between this theater and those of us who were greeted (ph) since childhood of a world that would stop for our song.

PERFORMER: I feel pretty.

PERFORMER: I feel pretty.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: An organ announces the ritual of fantasy. Ladies and gentlemen, “West Side Story,” feel pretty, feel pretty. Sing along.

PERFORMER: … girl who wasn’t me today.

PERFORMER: I feel charming, oh, so charming…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The note immediately struck as ironic, as audience members join their voices with the giant face on the screen. Karaoke goes Hollywood.

“West Side Story,” with sumptuous music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, remains one of the greatest American musicals from Broadway’s last years of towering confidence. But the fact that more Americans ended up seeing the movie version and never saw the play was an indication of the loosening hold that Broadway had on the country in the 1950s.

Still, whether on stage or on the screen, who can deny Maria?

PERFORMER: Maria, Maria, Maria…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Suddenly, irony is the least of our pleasures in singing.

On a summer’s day in 2006, the Castro Theatre in San Francisco is, I suppose, a long way from Shakespeare’s fair Verona; a long way, too, from post-war Spanish Harlem where “West Side Story” updated “Romeo and Juliet.” But lovers remained frustrated in their freedom to love. And love, the wrong kind of love, remains as perplexing to the Capulets and the Montagues as ever.

PERFORMERS: There’s a place for us, a time and place for us…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: So there is poignancy a-plenty to the dream of somewhere, especially for those audience members who know how difficult it is to imagine naming their homosexual love a marriage.

PERFORMERS: Somehow, some day, somewhere…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: But at a time when the country is filled with so many lives plugged in silent music, here is some great freedom: Within camp, within irony, one can join one’s voice with others; one is free, at last, to be in earnest.

PERFORMER, “Maria”: Death won’t part…

PERFORMER, “Tony”: Death won’t part…

PERFORMER, “Maria”: … us now.

PERFORMER, “Tony”: … us now.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I’m Richard Rodriguez.