August 26, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Yesterday would have been the 98th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. With two years to go before his centenary, some major celebrations are in store, so why not get started now? This composer/conductor led a life in the arts that is equal to none. If anyone deserves fireworks in their honor, it is he.
Born August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein was (naturally) a child prodigy. As the story goes, when his Aunt Clara needed a place to store her piano while going through a divorce, the ten-year-old was fascinated by the instrument, but his father wouldn’t pay for any lessons. The desire to play the piano was so strong, it drove Bernstein to seek odd jobs in order to pay for lessons on his own. Over time, his father recognized his son’s talents and for young Lenny’s Bar Mitzvah and thirteenth birthday, he purchased him a baby grand piano. The young maestro was on his way.
Private schools for music, Harvard University and important apprenticeships contributed mightily to Bernstein’s education. As a result, throughout his career he was always giving back, especially to young people. Although a composer and conductor of the first rank, if Bernstein were only known today as the television host of his groundbreaking Young People’s Concerts in the 1950s and ’60s, it would be enough to guarantee him a place as an important force in the world of music. These lectures, thankfully preserved on black & white videotape, were specifically designed to bring classical music to young people as the vibrant and living thing it is. Watching them all these years later, they continue to inspire and celebrate the joy of music from the perspective of a man whose life was music. If you don’t believe me, check some of them out on YouTube:
Between the years 1944 and 1957, Bernstein composed the scores for On the Town, Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, Candide and West Side Story. There are still musical theatre fans who can’t forgive him for leaving the theatre for what was close to twenty years (his return was the quick flop, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which ran one week in 1976). In his heart, he was a classical composer and conductor, and the theatre’s loss was opera and symphonic music’s gain. His renowned talents in every area of entertainment would have made for a hell of a movie. That is, in the days when composers were deified on celluloid and many films were produced based on their “so-called” lives. The full biopic treatments made in the 1940s and 50s of George Gershwin or Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, as just two examples, were sanitized and dull. Though no one’s done it yet, Bernstein’s life would make for a fascinating film (if it were told truthfully). Not for a minute would that story be dull. Not with the life he led.
Take one story (totally true) that is almost too hard to believe if it were told on screen. It is about the time he dramatically stepped in at the last minute for Bruno Walter, on the night the great conductor was to lead the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Then sixty-seven, Walter fell ill, and on quick notice, it fell to his twenty-five-year old assistant conductor to perform the concert. And it having been broadcast live on radio, it was heard by millions and Bernstein caused a sensation. That night a star was born — just like in a movie.
But no matter how the picture is painted, Bernstein’s work energy, his focus and his prodigious talent always took center stage. There were many side shows to his long and illustrious career: his famous parties, his natural flamboyance and his affairs with men (on top of a devotion to his wife, Felicia Montealegre, to whom he was married for twenty-seven years until her death in 1978). The notoriety he and Felicia received when they held a fund raiser for some jailed members of the Black Panther Party, a socialist organization, then at the height of its radicalism in January of 1970, was so intense they received hate mail and death threats. The gathering was at their home on Park Avenue and the whole affair was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s bitchy essay “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” which appeared in New York Magazine five months after the event. Wolfe took the Bernsteins to task for what he perceived as their insincerity and faux “chic.” In fact, according to information on line at the official Leonard Bernstein website, “The angry letters and hate mail sent to the Bernsteins were orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence program. The Jewish Defense League protesters outside the apartment were heavily infiltrated by F.B.I. operatives. And the relentless assault by the press was in part instigated by the FBI’s carefully placed confidential news leaks to their cooperative press contacts.”
Colorful? Certainly. A genius? Definitely. All one has to do is listen to his recordings to take his measure, be it his own compositions, or what insights he brought to the works of Mahler or Copland. He was a giant among men and his enthusiasm and joy of life was contagious. Even as a spectator, he would engage with complete and total abandon. It is not for nothing, that as one of the very first recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, the image of Bernstein standing in his box and receiving his tribute is always shown at the start of every broadcast since the awards began in 1977. He spreads his arms, luxuriating in the love and affection in an open and unabashed way that is truly infectious. Or watch him on the PBS Broadcast of his 70th birthday celebration at Tanglewood for his reactions to all his friends on stage paying him tribute. At the time, he is seated beside his eighty-nine-year-old mother, and the mutual rapture they share is a sight to behold.
Yes, only two more years till the 100th birthday celebration of Bernstein’s glorious life. I’m sure there will be concerts, reminiscences in print, and screenings of his greatest moments captured on video and film. I, for one, will be taking part. It’s the least I can do to show my appreciation for all he gave to the world.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email any comments or questions to Ron@ronfassler.org.