The 1970s saw a number of religious rock musicals, notably Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s Godspell; Bernstein was so impressed by the latter that he invited the writer, 23-year-old Stephen Schwartz, to provide lyrics for Mass. Once again, as he had with West Side Story, he was reaching beyond his own world of classical music for a collaborator to create a large-scale piece of music theater.
Excerpt from Bernstein’s Mass (“A Simple Song”)
Leonard Bernstein, Conductor; Alan Titus, Baritone. Sony Classical SK 63089.
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Mass was Bernstein’s most ambitious theater work. Despite its adaptation of the Latin text, interspersed with songs, “numbers,” set-piece choreographic sequences, and symphonic interludes, the work is ecumenical in nature and does not fall into any specific category. Perhaps the most accurate description is “pageant.” With approximately 200 performers, including dancers, singers, boys chorus, rock and blues singers, actors, and two orchestras, as well as a marching band that plays through the audience, it is both a musical and theatrical “experience.”
There is no question of Bernstein’s sincerity, but the 51-year-old composer was not really in touch with contemporary popular music. He believed he was taking a “youthful” stance, hoping that he could reach a younger audience by talking to them in their own language. Nevertheless, the scope of his vision, the grand spectacle, parts of the score (some of which were salvaged for the concert hall), and the intensity of the peace message ultimately made Mass an important—if flawed—theatrical experiment.
Paul Myers, a classical record producer for more than 40 years, is the author of several books, including a biography of Leonard Bernstein (Phaidon).