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Lenny and Me

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I don’t believe in ultimate superlatives. I won’t say that X is the best musical ever written, or that Y is the finest actor of all time. And yet, somehow, I have a favorite theatre composer: Leonard Bernstein. He has taken me on quite the journey.

I knew individual songs before I became acquainted with the man who wrote them and the shows from whence they came. My mother, a feisty New Yorker (by way of England) transplanted by marriage to the arid terrain of suburban Cleveland, used to sing “New York, New York” from On the Town at the drop of a hat. I don’t remember not knowing that song, though Gwen sang the bowdlerized version (“a wonderful town” not “a helluva town”). The 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story came out when I was seven, so my parents deemed me too young to see it. That didn’t stop me from becoming familiar with hit tunes such as “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight,” and “America,” all of which I heard on the radio. And you couldn’t live in Ohio without knowing “Ohio” (“Why oh why oh why oh?”), though most people probably didn’t know it was from Wonderful Town.

Finally, a favorite recording from the age of four was the Boris Karloff–Jean Arthur Peter Pan. It contained a few songs but was really a spoken word recording that told the story, which was why I listened to it. I really didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the man who wrote the songs was named Leonard Bernstein.

I was first aware of Bernstein the man as a celebrity conductor. Though I was too young to have seen his TV appearances demystifying classical music on Omnibus (I was seven months old when he debuted and two weeks shy of my fourth birthday when he finished), Bernstein was so ubiquitous in American culture that you couldn’t miss him. Also, my mother believed in giving her two boys a decent arts education, so we did things like attend children’s concerts given by the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall (with George Szell conducting). I also took a musical appreciation course in junior high school where we listened to classical compositions, and maestro Bernstein regularly appeared on the curriculum.

I admired classical music more than I liked it. I was, and still am, too much of a words person to be quite as enthralled by a symphony or concerto as I am by a musical or an opera. However, when music steeped in classical composition techniques is successfully wedded to language to tell a story and make theatre, I am a goner. As I once told my English nephew Taylor, who toils as a pop singer-songwriter and record producer, my three Bs are not Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but Blitzstein, Britten, and Bernstein.

I became serious about forging a career in musical theatre around the age of 14 and started collecting cast recordings with purpose. One of the first I bought, probably because of my love for “New York, New York,” was Bernstein’s 1960 studio recording of On the Town, which reunited most of the show’s original Broadway cast. When the musical premiered in 1944, OBCRs were not standard practice, so only a few selections had been recorded, two of which (“Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me”) were sung by Broadway star Mary Martin, who was not even in it. (You can hear her recording of the latter on Composers on Broadway: Leonard Bernstein.)

The jazzy, complicated (at least to my ears), muscular score floored me, and I enjoyed the ballet music as much as I did the songs. I didn’t know that On the Town’s director, George Abbott, had referred to Bernstein’s music approvingly as “that Prokofi-eff stuff,” but it was immediately clear to me that this music was different from the musical theatre composers I already knew and admired, principally Richard Rodgers and Frederick Loewe. I loved the size of it, the swagger, the unpredictability. Even when it was lighter than air, it had scope and weight.

Not too long after acquiring On the Town I saw a re-release of West Side Story at the Detroit Theatre in Lakewood, Ohio. To say that it devastated me would be an understatement. I think it was probably that one-two punch that sealed the deal for Lenny and me. Naturally, I bought the soundtrack immediately thereafter. I didn’t acquire the OBCR until much later, and while I recognized its quality and iconic performances, I had bonded with the film too closely for it to supplant the soundtrack in my affections.

I soon got around to Wonderful Town, which was a lot of fun but seemed to me a slighter, more conventional work, and finally to Candide. That was thanks to my best friend, Bill Sisson, a violist and classical music buff (who also introduced me to Samuel Barber’s lyric rhapsody “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and Aaron Copland’s ballet “Rodeo,” among many others). Candide intimidated me at first, I think because it was the most classically oriented of Bernstein’s musicals, and I knew that I wasn’t getting a lot of the inside jokes. But I persisted, and though I’m sure I still don’t get all the references, I came to embrace it thoroughly. My final Bernstein discovery was his 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. I liked it, but even though it did indeed play Broadway in 1955 as part of a triple bill called All in One (alongside a revival of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and a dance play by and starring Paul Draper), it wasn’t like getting a full-blown Broadway musical.

And that’s where it stopped. It seemed that Bernstein had abandoned Broadway after 1957’s West Side Story. (I didn’t find out until years later that in the 1960s he tried to write two Broadway musicals but gave up on both.) I think perhaps the exclusivity of his output on the Great White Way, and what seemed the unlikeliness of his adding to it, may have factored into his favorite status with me.

Of course, Mass came along in 1971 to open the Kennedy Center, but it wasn’t a book musical with proper characters and it didn’t play Broadway. I enthusiastically bought the recording and liked a lot of the music, but it was a different animal from the one I wanted. There was also director Harold Prince’s revised version of Candide in 1974, which was recorded completely on two LPs and which I caught in its closing weekend on Broadway and went bonkers for. It had musical material I didn’t know in it, including some freshly contributed lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, and I adored Hugh Wheeler’s totally new book and Prince’s freewheeling production, but it wasn’t really a new musical.

And then, amazingly, it was announced that Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner would bring 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Broadway for the bicentennial year of 1976. My favorite theatre composer working with the man whose musicals had made me want to be a playwright-lyricist. And on a piece of political theatre triggered by Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. I was beside myself with anticipation. I followed the show’s out-of-town tryouts with increasing dismay, as the reviews started out bad in Philadelphia and only got worse in Washington, D.C. The critics annihilated it on Broadway, and it closed in one week in May (I remember hearing the news of its demise over the radio while working the counter taking orders at a McDonald’s in Evanston, Ill.) I moved to NYC in October of 1976, and the marquee was still up at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. I walked by it regularly on my way to work in the theatre district, and I would always stop for a moment, look at it sadly, and wonder what in the hell happened.

It took me a number of years to find out. I acquired whatever script material I could from actors I met (Reid Shelton) or worked with (Lee Winston) who had been in the show. I tracked down live bootleg tapes from Philadelphia and Broadway (a D.C. tape existed too, but I never got a copy until only a few years ago). It was clear from these tantalizing pieces that it had been a serious, somewhat experimental work of great ambition that was fundamentally betrayed by commercialism. The score was sensational, both music and lyrics.

I finally got the full picture when the Bernstein estate hired me not long after his death to reconstruct the authors’ original version of the musical. Bernstein had saved every scrap of paper from the show’s gestation, and I virtually relived the writing of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a little servant’s apartment high in the Dakota with windows overlooking Central Park. It was the room in which Bernstein composed most of the show’s music.

Ultimately, I was asked to direct a workshop of my reconstruction using students from Indiana University’s opera department, which went so well that it was turned into a full production and booked into the Kennedy Center for several performances after its run in Bloomington, Ind. This time audiences and critics reacted largely positively to essentially the same show that had been so reviled in 1976. The production utilized a full orchestra, and staging brilliant Lerner-Bernstein songs supported by those glorious Sid Ramin–Hershy Kay orchestrations was, indeed, the thrill of a lifetime. If Bernstein had ever been in danger of losing his status of favorite with me, that danger vanished forever after that experience.

1600 was not recorded in 1976. Neither Bernstein nor Lerner wanted it memorialized in the form in which it ended up, so the planned OBCR on Capitol Records was canceled. Deutsche Grammophon’s A White House Cantata contains much of the score, but the most political material has been omitted, rendering the story senseless, and the decision to cast opera singers rather than Broadway singer-actors is damaging. The best recorded versions are conductor John McGlinn’s account of “The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March” and “Duet for One,” sung by Davis Gaines and Judy Kaye, respectively, and Bruce Hubbard singing “Seena,” a love song for the leading character of Lud Simmons, a free black servant in the White House. It’s on his CD For You, For Me, no doubt because Hubbard was in the chorus of 1600 and also sang the small role of Reverend Bushrod.

Bernstein’s last theatre hurrah was the opera A Quiet Place, a sequel to Tahiti. It premiered in Houston in 1983 on a double bill with Tahiti, in effect forming the evening’s second act. Poorly received, it was revised with the help of conductor John Mauceri, interspersing Tahiti into the opera as flashbacks and cutting some material for length. This version was recorded in 1986 and finally got its Big Apple premiere in a largely well-reviewed New York City Opera production in 2010. Indeed, as head critic for Back Stage, I was one of the aisle-sitters. It was my first time seeing it (though I had certainly bought and listened to the recording), and reviewing it felt like a coda to my Bernstein journey.

Now A Quiet Place has been revised once more. In 2013 Garth Edwin Sunderland removed all the Tahiti material, restored some discarded character arias, and cut down the orchestration from more than 70 players to a mere 18, creating a chamber opera version. Conductor Kent Nagano’s recording, released in June by Decca, has been getting praise, and it will be on my Kindle as I leave tonight for a two-week vacation in a cabin by a lake in northern New Hampshire. Though the supply is now sadly finite, I can never get me enough Bernstein.

 


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