100 Years of Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein became an “iconic voice” of this age, as conductor John Mauceri puts it. While most music lovers associate Leonard Bernstein with his most famous masterpiece West Side Story, he wrote not only hit musicals with unmistakable songs but also full symphonies, ballet suites, operas, song cycles, choral pieces and more. His first hit musical, in fact, came out of a ballet suite he wrote for Jerome Robbins. Fancy Free was so successful in 1944 that it became the source material for On the Town, a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who were nice enough friends to star in the musical too).
Conductor John Mauceri observes about Leonard Bernstein’s extensive body of work: “Exploring his output, one finds the famous and obscure— works that both are reflective of their times and somehow also preserve and encapsulate them. Everywhere one hears his internal struggle to sound inevitable as the tumultuous era of the second half of the 20th century unfolded itself.”
Bernstein is truly a New Yorker at heart, an American in sound, a European in perspective and a Jew in his spirit. Mauceri says, “He has left us an aural image of his time and place and, at the same time, an eternal voice of humanity.”
In the Leonard Bernstein catalogue of musicals, On the Town introduced Broadway audiences to a more sophisticated sound, with such successful songs as “New York, New York,” (not the one Frank sang in the ballfield, the one he sang as a sailor!), “I Can Cook, Too,” “Some Other Time,” and “Lonely Time.” Following the New York theme, Bernstein and his collaborators followed this hit show with Wonderful Town in 1953, which also boasts a fantastic jazzy score, remembered for songs like “Ohio,” “A Little Bit in Love” and “100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man).
The Bernstein operetta (or is a musical?) Candide continues to be one of his most celebrated scores, a musical that has been recorded about a dozen times, despite the fact that it was not a hit on Broadway. The Candide score is beloved for its famous overture, the wildly difficult song “Glitter and Be Gay” (which made Barbara Cook a Broadway star) and its final anthem “Make Our Garden Grow,” one of the most exhilarating compositions to ever originate on a Broadway stage.
Perhaps the Bernstein musical that caused its composer the most consternation was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner (of My Fair Lady fame). This adventurous score is an amalgam of many American styles and attempted to retell the story of the inhabitants of the White House during its first 100 years, from the perspective of the residence’s slaves. America, then, wasn’t ready for such an examination of racial injustice in the nation. The show was reworked into a piece called The White House Cantata and boasts a glorious anthem called “Take Care of This House.”
Bernstein had long struggled with his relationship with his maker. His musical output includes a number of serious works that explore his Jewish heritage, such as the Chichester Psalms, as well as a theater piece called Mass, written in 1971 to celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (JFK was a good friend, and a Roman Catholic, and Bernstein thought this would make an interesting vehicle to question the deity, the Church and faith in general). This fascinating and problematic work was a collaboration with Godspell (and later Wicked) composer Stephen Schwartz. With is jazz-infused, pop, gospel and classical score, it’s a Bernstein work that defies categorization (and doesn’t get produced as frequently as say, West Side Story.)
For the Axelrod PAC’s celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday, we present A Time for Us: The Leonard Bernstein Centennial, featuring the Monmouth Civic Chorus, conducted by Ryan Brandau, along with full orchestra and soloists, including American countertenor Logan Tanner, sopranos Claire Leyden and Andrea Delguidice, tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts, as well as baritone Ken Wasser and alto Heather Varley.