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So Many Greats

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Has any other major Broadway composer written so many great shows and so few shows?

Let’s have a look at the shows, shall we?

Lenny, as his compatriots called him, hit Broadway with a huge hit, On the Town. Bernstein himself was thrilled with the show’s reception writing, “the reviews are fantastic raves…it’s thrilling!”

The legendary producer/director/author George Abbott wrote the composer, “please don’t let yourself be distressed by minor criticism from some of your pals. It is a wonderful score.” Then Abbot himself gave Lenny a bit of minor criticism about the score, “—a bit to profligate perhaps, too many fresh melodies thrown in where developments of existing ones would have done.”

Following the success of On the Town, book writer–lyricists Comden and Green were anxious to do another show. They got the aforementioned George Abbott on board and asked Lenny to write it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t available and so another musician definitely in the classical camp wrote the score—Morton Gould. And the result was Billion Dollar Baby, a failure.

Abbott approached Lenny in 1949 asking if he would be available to write music for another new musical, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Again, someone else, namely Arthur Schwartz, wrote the score and a glorious score it is.

Bernstein finally returned to the Broadway theatre in 1950 with a production of James M. Barrie’s classic, Peter Pan. Bernstein provided both music and lyrics for few charming songs and the show ran nine months and 321 performances. Marc Blitzstein worked on the production (uncredited) and served as the eyes and ears of the production while Bernstein was off on other projects. In fact, when a reprise of the song, “Who Am I?” was needed for the finale it was Blitzstein who provided the lyrics. Blitzstein wrote Lenny, “two days before the first preview, the production seems generically right (if you like Peter Pan at all), but specifically right almost nowhere.” Blitzstein summed it all up by writing, “Who knows? It will probably turn out to be the hit of the century.”

And in 1952, Bernstein and his Blitzstein considered collaborating on an opera about the life of Eva Peron. Obviously, that also did not come to pass.

Comden and Green still wanted to write with Lenny and in 1950 they had proposed “a kind of modern Boheme—the girl a smart 1950 tramp and the guy a writer or musician.” That one never materialized either, but the team worked wonders again and Wonderful Town opened in February 1953 to raves.

Later that year, playwright Lillian Hellman approached Lenny about making some sort of lyric production out of Candide. Hellman herself admitted, “I think it could make a really wonderful combination of opera—prose—songs. It’s so obviously right that I wonder nobody has done it before, or have they?” And in January of 1954, Lenny decided he would write the music. But the road to Broadway was rocky. In 1954 he wrote, “We have had big lyricist trouble in Candide, and have only now this minute…made a final and utter break with Mr. LaTouche (sic). At the point of the break the show was less than half-finished.”

It took until December of 1956 for Candide to open. Dismissed at the time it has been re-tinkered with trying to make it work on stage.

Only a year later, perhaps his greatest theatrical work, West Side Story, opened on Broadway. Working with the very young, very green Stephen Sondheim was a delight especially after the horrors of Candide. Bernstein had been in touch with librettist Arthur Laurents  and Jerome Robbins beginning in the spring of 1955. Bernstein wrote about a meeting that took place with Laurents in Hollywood in August of ’55. “Had a fine long session with Arthur today, by the pool… We’re fired up again by the Romeo notion, only now we have abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh, and have come up with what I think is going to be it: two tenn-age gangs as the warring factions, one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’ Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses, and—most of all—I can sort of feel the form.”

West Side Story was to be Bernstein’s last success on Broadway. Along the way was a version of The Skin of Our Teeth in 1964 that never got beyond drafting stages.

Finally, Bernstein was convinced to write a musical for the country’s Bicentennial. The result, written with the peripatetic Alan Jay Lerner was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lerner was inspired by the horrors of the Watergate scandal and wrote that the piece was about “those moments when people tried to take the White House away from us.” Even that early in the conception of the piece Bernstein and Lerner didn’t see eye-to-eye. The composer responded to Lerner’s idea, “This play has nothing to do with the contemporary scene except in the minds of those who choose to see it there.” But it wasn’t just Lerner’s concept that failed the project. As Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Lenny had a bad case of important-itis.” And so did Lerner. Together as director Frank Corsaro later stated they had such a vaunted feeling about themselves they had “so high-powered their attitude was that they could do no wrong.”

And with the four-performance failure of 1600, Bernstein’s musical theatre career ended.

Of course, there were many revivals and rethinkings of his works. Even 1600’s score is celebrated. And today, as mentioned at the top of this essay, no composer has written so many great shows and so few shows.


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