Remembering the Musical Genius of Leonard Bernstein

The American legend would have been 100 this month, but he was far more than just a great conductor or composer

Leonard Bernstein, who was born in August 1918. His centenary year is being marked by some 2,500 events worldwide.
Eran Wolkowski

While on summer vacation with family and friends in the Jewish community of Sharon, Massachusetts, a young Leonard Bernstein decided to stage an impromptu production of “Carmen.”

“It just seemed terribly funny that I, out of sheer ego, should play Carmen, and that my girlfriend at the moment Don José,” he later recounted to his journalist brother, Burton. “Since most of the people we could find for the chorus were girls, we had what turned out to be an all-male chorus sung by females, costumed as little old men wearing yarmulkes.”

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The songs, meanwhile, were performed in English and Yiddish. “Carmen” in drag at the Singer’s Inn in Sharon was the beginning of a remarkably creative career.

In all the theaters he worked and in all the works he composed, Bernstein challenged norms and tried to change the world order. August 25 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth (he passed away in 1990 at age 72), with over 2,500 events being held around the world this year to celebrate his work.

Two movies about the composer-conductor are in the early stage of production: “The American,” which is being developed by Jake Gyllenhaal; and “Bernstein,” which is set to be directed by and star Bradley Cooper. And Steven Spielberg announced plans earlier this year to remake Bernstein’s acclaimed musical “West Side Story,” with a script by Tony Kushner.

“Wrong Note Rag” from the 1953 musical “Wonderful Town” – in which Bernstein wrote the music for his talented lyricist friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green – provides another charming example of Bernstein’s legacy. The whole song expresses an off-key sense of ecstasy, although in moments of respite from the ecstasy, it sounds more like a plea: “Please play that lovely wrong note / That note is such a strong note / ... Don’t play that right polite note / Give me that new and blue note.”

Leonard Bernstein: "If I don't become Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky when I'm conducting their works, then it won't be a great performance."
Terhune / AP

Bernstein’s unusual visual presentation was his trademark as a conductor. He conducted an orchestra with his entire body, a style that led to much criticism and derision over the years.

Composer Gunther Schuller, for example, wrote that Bernstein was “one of the world’s most histrionic and exhibitionistic conductors” and that his podium antics were “wonderful for audiences and television.” Schuller saw Bernstein as a musician with “very little discipline and no shame.” And in Bernstein’s interpretation of Brahms’ First Symphony, Schuller saw “too much of an ‘oy-vay’ Weltschmerz to be bearable.”

Orin O’Brien, an American double bassist, provides arguably more credible testimony as she saw Bernstein on both sides of the stage. As an usher at Carnegie Hall, she told radio host Robert Sherman that she “found it difficult to take some of Bernstein’s gyrations and dancing around the podium.” But after joining the New York Philharmonic in 1966, she understood that “his movements weren’t put on for the audience’s benefit, but that he was simply living the music that he believed in so deeply.”

Bernstein’s conducting style came from watching the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, whom he first met in 1937 and whose work he closely followed during his studies at Harvard.

From Mitropoulos he learned the meaning of true closeness between a conductor and their orchestra. Under his influence, the art of conducting in Bernstein’s eyes turned into what he once defined as an erotic act.

In an interview for the documentary “The Love of Three Orchestras,” released three years after his death, Bernstein said: “It is a love affair in which you [the conductor] and a body are breathing together, pulsing together, lifting and sinking together. I’m making this sound too lurid or too sexual? It is sort of sexual, but it’s with a hundred people.”

Most difficult task

Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa in Albert Maysles' 1968 film "A Journey to Jerusalem."
Albert Maysles

Being a conductor came easy to Bernstein, but he saw composition as his main mission. In her honest and sensitive book “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (HarperCollins, 2018), his daughter Jamie said that sitting at the piano in an attempt to come up with a composition was the most difficult task for him. Here he would be isolated from applause and his lovers – and he craved constant attention.

At the same time, Bernstein himself once said of composition, particularly for the theater: “That is what I feel I write best, what I ought to do and what I most enjoy.”

Of all his works (and certainly among his musicals), “West Side Story” is the one Bernstein is best remembered for, largely due to the musical fabric he wove. Mambo, jazz, opera, Broadway, Stravinsky, Mahler – it has it all.

But “West Side Story” owed a large debt to two previous Bernstein musicals: “On the Town” (1944) and “Wonderful Town.” The city depicted in all three is New York.

A poster for the 1961 film version of "West Side Story." Steven Spielberg is currently working on a remake.

And though “West Side Story” is seen as a breakthrough work for its “serious” tone – the focus being a racial struggle that leads to murder, and its message is a clear call for tolerance – his two previous works also reflect strong social and political awareness, even if they are wrapped in a traditional musical-comedy format.

Lyricist Betty Comden later explained: “A musical can be a mere diversionary entertainment, or it can be a great deal more. It should always be entertainment but in the best sense of that word. It can be serious, of course, and concern itself with big topics but if you mean by entertainment something that picks one up and reveals something new and leaves one feeling good – then of course it must be that, too.”

“On the Town” tells of three sailors, the women they meet and go out with during a day’s furlough during World War II. Most of the music composed by Bernstein for the musical was based on jazz – not only because that was the popular escapist music of the day for soldiers, but also to shed light on and encourage the changes that were taking place in the status of women in general, and singers in particular.

During that period, white female singers were absent from jazz clubs, and those who did perform usually got the gig due to their looks more than their talent. This was not the case for black female singers, for whom jazz was considered part of their culture and there were no raised eyebrows over black women going out to work.

In “On the Town,” two of the women the sailors hook up with are working white girls, and this reflects the spirit of socialist groups at the time such as the Popular Front. Bernstein’s support for such organizations generated a thick file at the FBI, which officially started monitoring him from the age of 21, in March 1949.

The women in the musical break with stereotypical gender roles and, in the spirit of women on the home front during the war, don’t hesitate to express their sexual desires via music not seen as their “natural domain.”

In the song “Come Up to My Place,” taxi driver Hildy Esterhazy convinces Chip the sailor – who raves about New York’s attractions – to choose the most exciting attraction of all: her apartment. Once there, she emphasizes that she is blessed with another talent: “I Can Cook Too” (which, due to its content, was omitted from the 1949 film version starring Frank Sinatra as Chip).

When before had a woman ever played a leading role as a taxi driver in a musical? Or an anthropologist with an obsessive interest in researching about men? Her name was Claire de Loone, and she was played by Comden herself. Her sailor was Ozzie (played by Green), and together they sang “Carried Away.”

No more musicals

Bernstein used other elements to advance his social causes in 1944. “On the Town” was the first musical in which blacks and whites appeared on stage together as part of the same group; an African-American conductor, Everett Lee, conducted a white Broadway orchestra; and a Japanese-American actor (Sono Osato) was cast in the lead role of Ivy – a particularly bold decision at a time when the Japanese were considered a bitter enemy.

Leonard Bernstein, center, in Albert Maysles' documentary "A Journey to Jerusalem."
Albert Maysles

Bernstein’s colorful music for “On the Town” and the entire production earned rave reviews (“The freshest and most engaging musical show to come this way since the golden clay of ‘Oklahoma!’” Lewis Nichols wrote in The New York Times). But Bernstein’s mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, was enraged to see a fellow conductor with such vast potential “wasting” his talent. Bernstein promised Koussevitzky that after “On the Town,” he would never write another musical.

Indeed, in the years following “On the Town,” Bernstein was primarily focused on building his career as a conductor – though he did not abandon composition completely. He wrote a couple of songs for a 1950 stage adaptation of “Peter Pan,” as well as the one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti” (1952), continuing his trend of promoting the female voice.

Bernstein agreed to resume his collaboration with Comden and Green and pen the music for “Wonderful Town” largely because, due to production and budget constraints, he was given just four weeks to do so. “He always liked deadlines,” Green later explained, “and four weeks to write a score was an irresistible challenge.”

“Wonderful Town” is based on Ruth McKenney’s autobiographical short story “My Sister Eileen,” which follows Ruth’s attempts to make it in New York as a writer, and her sister Eileen’s attempts to make it as an actor.

Near the start of the musical, Comden and Green’s lyrics and Bernstein’s music beautifully convey the sisters’ feelings in the duet “Ohio.”

Acclaimed British conductor Simon Rattle became fascinated by the lyric “Why oh why oh why oh / Why did I ever leave Ohio” when someone cited it as one of the funniest or smartest rhymes in a musical. After studying the score more closely, he came to consider “Wonderful Town” a musical masterpiece and decided to mount a concert production with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. (He also recorded it in 1999 with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.)

“Wonderful Town” diverges from other musicals of the period not only because its plot revolves around two women rather than a heterosexual couple, but because these women are actively seeking professional fulfillment. Romance comes second.

Sean Connery, left, Phyllis Newman and Leonard Bernstein chatting at the U.S. premiere of "Dr. No" in New York, 1963.
AP

A week after the musical opened in February 1953, tickets were already sold out for the following New Year’s Eve. Theater critic John Chapman wrote in the Daily News, “There hasn’t been anybody around like him since George Gershwin for jauntiness, tricky and intriguing modulations, and graceful swoops into simple and pleasant melody.”

Though “Wonderful Town” was constructed as and sounded like a musical comedy (though, as always with Bernstein, it had a bit of everything, including jazz), some praised Bernstein for having composed a new American opera. “Ohio” came before the powerful female duet that Bernstein wrote for “West Side Story” – “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” which is one of the musical’s most unforgettable scenes. It’s a climactic and powerful moment of sisterhood: Two women sing to each other, listen to each other, teach each other and change each other.

“If Leonard Bernstein had not deprived himself of a spectacular career by becoming conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the musical stage would have been richer,” lamented Brooks Atkinson, a prominent New York Times theater critic in the 1930s and ’40s. But Bernstein was much more than a composer and conductor. He seemed to have a boundless supply of energy, which he channeled into myriad endeavors – playing piano, conducting, teaching conducting, writing music for television, writing about music, composing classical music and composing for theater.

He spent the few hours that were left in the day ruing the fact there weren’t enough hours in the day. This feeling was perhaps best expressed when he accompanied singer Eileen Farrell on piano and they sang “Some Other Time” from the finale of “On the Town” – when the characters realize they haven’t accomplished half of what they planned. We can only imagine what they would have given us in Bernstein's next musical.