“The score has helped to blend atmospheres, to provide continuity, or to add a dimension by telling an inner story not overtly articulated in the dialogue or the action.”
Stephen Sondheim on Leonard Bernstein’s ability to work music into theater.
From Reaching for the Note, Dir. Susan Lacy, 1998.
“That is what I feel I write best, what I ought to do and what I most enjoy.” These were Leonard Bernstein’s thoughts on composing for the theater in 1953. Only nine years previous, just after he finished composing his first musical, Bernstein sounded far less convinced: “On the Town represents a six-month period out of my life. I’m primarily a conductor. It’s not as easy to grow as a conductor when you’re diverting your energies in so many other directions.” Bernstein’s ambivalence about how to direct his musical energy never entirely vanished. At age 38 he joked, “Someday, preferably soon, I simply must decide what I am going to be when I grow up.”
Whatever doubts Bernstein had about the legitimacy of composing for Broadway, he seems, in retrospect, to have been ideally suited for the task. Not only did he thrive in collaborative settings, …
It was originally supposed to be about Catholics and Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but they decided to update it by moving the setting to the Upper West Side, which was then experiencing Anglo-Puerto Rican friction. He admitted he had an ulterior motive for his visit to San Juan: Could I take him to some of the cruddy boîtes I had boasted of frequently in my letters so that he could hear some authentic native music? So off we went to the cruddiest boîte I knew. It featured a quintet of house musicians who played interesting mambos and such, and every number had a little signature riff by way of introduction. After a while, I noticed that Lenny had jotted down some notes on a napkin.
Two years later, I attended a run-through of West Side Story. Sure enough, as the “Mambo” number began I heard the distinctive signature riff of that San Juan quintet, fewer than ten notes that have since become part of Broadway lore. After the exciting run-through, I charged Lenny with the crime of rank plagiary. He confessed his guilt but he said that he had no idea how to make amends to the unsung quintet, nor did I. He cited similar misdemeanors by Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and, more recently, Copland. I also pointed out that the song “Somewhere” was oddly reminiscent of the Adagio movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. “Alas,” he sighed. So goes art, which is longa.
Excerpted from Leonard Bernstein: American Original, by Burton Bernstein and Barbara B. Haws (HarperCollins, August 2008).
Excerpt from Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (Mambo. Presto)
New York Philharmonic / Leonard Bernstein, Conductor. Sony Classical SK 63085.
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By Burton Bernstein— former New Yorker writer and Leonard’s brother—and the New York Philharmonic’s historian, Barbara Haws.