In 1938, Bernstein, still in his teens, visited New York from Harvard to see Marc Blitzstein’s controversial music drama The Cradle Will Rock. He was so impressed with the work that he persuaded the Harvard Dramatic Club to mount a production and, with the confidence of youth, invited Blitzstein to see it. It was the start of a lifelong friendship, one that led Bernstein in his search for a meaningful music drama of similar impact.
Mambo from Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances
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Years later, after he had begun to achieve fame as a musical wunderkind, Bernstein found what he was looking for, West Side Story, completing the piece that brought together a group of unlikely collaborators. The book was by Arthur Laurents, who had previously written several serious plays and screenplays; Stephen Sondheim, a young, up-and-coming composer who had studied music within the ivy tower at Princeton University, wrote the lyrics; Jerome Robbins was a classically trained dancer and choreographer who extended his interests to Broadway; and Oliver Smith, whose moody sets created the perfect New York backdrop, had started out as a studio painter. It was, perhaps, the amalgamation of these collaborators that created the distinctive theatrical masterpiece—and helped Bernstein realize his youthful artistic goal.
Paul Myers, a classical record producer for more than 40 years, is the author of several books, including a biography of Leonard Bernstein (Phaidon).