The Power Of Music And Dance

The Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins Centennials

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Legendary American composer, conductor, pianist, educator, and humanitarian Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) once said, “I can’t live one day without hearing music, playing it, studying it, or thinking about it.” Audiences and museum visitors are having multiple opportunities this year to hear Bernstein’s music and think about it. In March, Princeton University’s Richardson Chamber Players presented “Bernstein and Friends: A Centennial Celebration.” Institutions such as Symphony Space and the National Museum of American Jewish History also will celebrate the maestro’s centennial. Aficionados of the work of choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) will have similar opportunities.

On May 19, Symphony Space will present “Wall to Wall: Leonard Bernstein” at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, a venue located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I felt it appropriate to celebrate the work and life of this quintessential New Yorker,” says Andrew Byrne, the artistic director of Symphony Space.

“‘Wall to Wall’ is one of those unique events that allows an in-depth exploration of a musician’s work,” Byrne continues. “Over eight hours, we will include favorites from West Side Story and other musicals, as well as lesser-known works for choir, chamber ensembles, and voice. We also will touch on his achievements as an educator and conductor, as well as his political advocacy.”

From March 16-September 2, Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History will present “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music.” Ivy Weingram, the curator of the exhibition, says, “There are about 100 objects, drawn from public and private collections, including that of the Bernstein family—his children lent family heirlooms that haven’t been seen by the public before—as well as a number of objects from the Library of Congress, which holds the Leonard Bernstein papers.”

“[We display] the tools of his trade—the pencils he used to markup scores, one of his pianos, a baton, a conducting suit—to a lot of his writings, and (marked-up) scores and scripts,” Weingram continues. “There are behind-the-scenes stories about particular shows he worked on, which allow someone to [discover] how those productions came to be, and what made them special.”

To celebrate the Jerome Robbins centennial, Deborah Grace Winer is presenting A Jerome Robbins Centennial Concert on May 8 at Feinstein’s 54 Below. The event will be directed and hosted by Broadway choreographer/director Kathleen Marshall.

In addition, the New York Public Library, whose Dance division is named after Robbins, is planning an exhibition that will open on September 25, and “focus on Jerry’s relation to New York,” says Allen Greenberg, a director of the Jerome Robbins Foundation. “We feel good about [the exhibition, which] will demonstrate the diversity of his artistic genius.” Greenberg was a financial advisor to Robbins, and is now a trustee of the Robbins Rights Trust.

BERNSTEIN MUSICALS

Just as Bernstein occupied the worlds of musical theater and classical music, Robbins “is the only artist I can think of who excelled in, and helped transform the two distinct disciplines of musical theater and ballet,” Greenberg asserts. The first Bernstein-Robbins collaboration was the 1944 ballet Fancy Free. The idea of expanding the ballet into On the Town was that of scenic designer Oliver Smith, who produced the musical. The book and lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. In his biography of the composer (Doubleday 1994), Humphrey Burton observes that Comden and Green “tilted the center of emotional gravity away from the men, who are always center stage in Fancy Free, toward the women.”

“The exhibition really delves into how On the Town broke ground in a number of ways,” Weingram says. “It cast African Americans, ethnic Americans, and women in roles in which they had not previously appeared—as meaningful characters with strong personalities. Peggy Clark, who served as a stage manager for that production, will show her script and costume swatches. How did the African American press respond? They took note of the integrated cast for which Bernstein and his collaborators were responsible. Everett Lee, who became the conductor awhile into the show’s run, was the first African American to conduct a Broadway pit orchestra.”

With choreography by Wallace Seibert and Anna Sokolow, Bernstein’s musical Candide opened in 1956. “We have his sheet music for ‘I Am Easily Assimilated’ from Candide,” Weingram enthuses. “At one point, it was called ‘The Old Lady’s Jewish Tango.’ He wrote that it should be sung ‘hassidicamente.’ That is a word Bernstein made up to reflect the Klezmer/Latin beat that he was looking for in the performance of this music. Bernstein loved words and wordplay, and he made up this word to refer to that mix of musical styles.”

Candide will be presented by the Washington National Opera from May 5-26. Directed by Francesca Zambello, this production from the Glimmerglass Festival is part of the Kennedy Center’s “Leonard Bernstein at 100” celebration. The musical’s overture will be performed by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Xian Zhang, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center from June 7-10.

Conceived, directed and choreographed by Robbins, West Side Story gave its lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, his Broadway debut in 1957. The book was by Arthur Laurents, who previously had collaborated with Robbins on an early version of the 1948 musical Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! (though Laurents had subsequently left that project). West Side Story’s most recent Broadway revival was in 2009, with some of the Puerto Rican characters’ lyrics translated into Spanish by Hamilton composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“‘Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music’ includes a number of artifacts and images related to the stage production, and we have clips from the 1961 film,” promises Weingram. “We also have [Bernstein’s] audition notes [and] scene sketches. The star artifact may be Bernstein and Robbins’ copy of Romeo and Juliet, which they annotated in the margins as they were starting to think about transforming it. It initially was conceived as a story of gang rivalry between Jewish and Catholic teens on the Lower East Side, set on the eve of Passover and Easter. First [the characters are] at a Seder, then they’re at a drugstore. So visitors will truly feel like they’re in the writer’s room as they explore these objects.”

West Side Story is not only filled with unforgettable music, but explores issues of prejudice and racism,” Byrne observes. “The themes of this musical are as applicable today as they were in 1957, when the musical first opened.”

CRISIS OF FAITH

“We knew that Bernstein’s centennial was coming up, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for us, as the National Museum of American Jewish History, to examine his life and work through a lens that hasn’t been explored in a museum exhibition before: the crisis of faith,” says Weingram. “Bernstein often said that if there was one central theme to his body of work, perhaps the most significant would be the search for a solution to the 20th-century crisis of faith.”

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah uses texts from the Book of Lamentations. Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, which the composer dedicated to the memory of President Kennedy, refers to the Jewish prayer that is chanted for the dead. By contrast, Chichester Psalms is a choral work whose texts include Psalm 100’s exhortation to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

Chichister Psalms will be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center on April 5-7; and by the Monmouth Civic Chorus, under the direction of Dr. Ryan James Brandau, at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center on April 21 and 22. The piece also will be presented June 2, in a concert that will conclude Trinity Wall Street’s Bernstein celebration, “Total Embrace,” at Trinity Church in New York City.

“[Bernstein] was deeply grounded in Jewish tradition, and a strong Jewish identity. But he also thought about faith in terms of the relationships between human beings,” Weingram continues. “So the exhibition’s artifacts relate to specific moments or works that show him wrestling with faith. During a conducting tour in May 1948, Bernstein was asked to take a side trip from Munich to a displaced persons camp to conduct a small orchestra of Holocaust survivors. In the exhibition, we’ll show a film in which the survivors from that orchestra talk about what it meant for Bernstein to conduct them.”

Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers was composed to be part of the September 1971 opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The libretto combined the liturgy of the Roman Mass; texts by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz; and a short verse by Paul Simon. Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton notes that the piece expressed “Bernstein’s familiar theme concerning the difficulty of finding and sustaining faith in God at a time of recurring wars and countless instances of man’s inhumanity to his fellow men.”

“Lenny wanted there to be a dramatic arc,” Schwartz tells Carol de Giere, author of Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked (Applause, 2008). “I mostly worked with him on shaping the dramatic structure.” Schwartz’s contribution also included the lyrics for songs such as “A Simple Song” and “Things Get Broken.”

Byrne observes, “At the time, many were confused by the mixture of pop and classical music, but today Mass is regarded by many as a pioneering work that broke down boundaries and anticipated the postmodern music of today.” Schwartz agrees; on his website he writes, “When it first premiered, the…use of Broadway and pop styles was considered vulgar and somehow beneath ‘classical’ music. Now much of contemporary classical music makes use of those combinations, which seems to indicate that Lenny was ahead of his time in that regard.”

Mass has a big moment in our exhibit, in our exploration of the ‘crisis of faith,’ including a filmic piece, as well as a number of artifacts,” adds Weingram. “I don’t know if it’s more relevant than it was in 1971, but it certainly speaks to today’s audiences in a powerful way.”

In contrast to Bernstein, Robbins “was not religious. I think he clearly identified himself with the ethnic aspect of being Jewish, but I can’t say he was a religious person at all,” Greenberg offers. “He did celebrate holidays like Passover, [but] he wrote in diaries that he was uncomfortable, with his faith or with being Jewish. But working on Fiddler on the Roof clearly moved him.” Robbins directed and choreographed the 1964 musical, about a Jewish father who struggles to maintain his religious and cultural traditions, as they are threatened by external events in Czarist Russia.

In 1974 “[Robbins] did a ballet, Dybbuk, that was choreographed to [original] music by Bernstein,” Greenberg continues. Based on a Yiddish play by S. Ansky, the ballet concerned the possession of a young woman by her fiancé’s ghost; a rabbinical ritual is performed to expel the spirit. Dybbuk was premiered in 1974 by the New York City Ballet, which will present the work at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater starting May 4. Fancy Free and West Side Story Suite also will be on the program. Titled “All Robbins No. 1: Bernstein Collaborations,” the event runs through May 20 and is a part of the company’s “Robbins 100” festival celebrating Robbins, the company’s co-founding choreographer. The festival will present 19 of his works created over the course of 40 years, as well as two world premiere ballets.

LEGACIES

“What’s interesting is how Robbins’ works— theater or ballet—just hold up,” Greenberg says, when asked about Robbins’ artistic legacy. “His work was very integrated, with so many other aspects of his life—his photography, his art work, and his writings. I’d say in part, what keeps his work alive is its diversity, and complexity.”

“In the early 21st century, it’s perhaps [Leonard Bernstein’s] social activism that would most resonate with audiences of any age,” Weingram offers. Among his humanitarian efforts was the establishment of the Felicia Montealegre Bernstein Fund of Amnesty International USA, in honor of his late Chilean wife. “If young audiences today aren’t as familiar with his compositions, or his leadership of the New York Philharmonic, I think that it’s his role as a social activist that we all can look to, and recognize, at his centennial.”

Byrne adds, “Bernstein was a protean figure who seemed to excel at everything he turned his hand to: as a conductor, a composer of Broadway musical theater and concert music, and an educator. For him, it was all about making connections and making sure that the arts played central role in people’s lives. He was the great communicator with an optimistic belief that the arts could foster understanding and tolerance, and make the world a better place. I think this is certainly something to celebrate, especially in these contentious times.”