Bernstein at 100. An appreciation.

First in a series.

By Denis Whitaker

“Darling, I have gone mad over your back muscles. 
You must come and have dinner with me.”
Tallulah Bankhead to Leonard Bernstein, after he conducted a concert at Tanglewood.  

“To be a success as a Broadway composer, 
you must be Jewish or gay. I’m both.” 
Leonard Bernstein

“West Side Story is not only a classic musical, it is also one of only a handful of landmark shows that fundamentally changed the form of musicals.” 
Library of Congress website

“One of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” 
Music critic Donal Henahan.

Leonard Bernstein was fabulous before fabulous was a thing. He looked exactly like what a dashing young conductor should look like. He hung around with the Kennedys, and was a frequent White House guest. He was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, the first American-born conductor ever to reach that plateau. He was the first American to conduct at La Scala — Cherubini’s Medée, with Maria Callas. His Young People’s Concerts on CBS gained him an enormous following and made him a TV star. He was a prolific composer in a variety of forms, including, of course, the Broadway musical. He was much in demand all over the world as a pianist. He was also a life-long champion of liberal causes, and it was common knowledge that he was gay. This was the era of McCarthy’s witch hunts, when it was both illegal and very dangerous to be homosexual.

Bernstein with Jacqueline Kennedy

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI kept a dossier on Bernstein. 
In 1951, on the advice of friends, and to put a halt to the gossip that could have destroyed his career, he married the Chilean-born American actress Felicia Montealegre. We know from her letters to him that they had … an arrangement. They also had three children, and by all accounts a happy marriage. When Felicia died in 1978 he mourned her deeply. But as Arthur Laurents said years later, “(Lenny was) a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”

According to his obit in the New York Times: “He pronounced the name in the German way, as BERN-stine, and could no more abide the pronunciation BERN-steen than he could enjoy being called ”Lenny” by casual acquaintances.” A life-long chain smoker, he had suffered from emphysema from his mid-50s. His friends begged him to quit, but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. He died in October 1990, at the age of 72, five days after announcing his retirement. On the day of his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, calling out “Goodbye, Lenny.”

Bernstein with Michael Tilson Thomas

It was recognized from the start that the four men who created West Side Story—composer Leonard Bernstein; director and choreographer Jerome Robbins; Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book; and the young lyricist Steven Sondheim were all Jewish. What took longer to seep into the general consciousness is that they were all gay. But it wasn’t all that unusual if you think about it. Virgil Thomson was gay; Cole Porter, Marc Blitzstein, and Billy Strayhorn were gay; so were Ned Rorem, John Cage, David Diamond, and Samuel Barber and his partner, Gian-Carlo Menotti — and that’s just in the U.S.

Aaron Copland was his friend and mentor; Ned Rorem was his great friend and former lover; Steven Sondheim was his friend and protégé; Betty Comden and Adolph Green were his friends and collaborators for more than 50 years. This is excellent company to keep!!

Another of Lenny’s protégés, Michael Tilson Thomas, wrote recently, “… it’s unquestionable that some of these perfect songs… strike us as iconic, stake out a territory that we recognize as important to our inner lives. Some of these slow major-minor things in dance sequences in On the Town or Fancy Free; a song like ‘Some Other Time’ or ‘There’s a Place for Us.’ It’s music that haunts all of us.”

We’ll be singing “Some Other Time,” from On the Town, as well as four songs from West Side Story: “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” (What! But… Because we can; that’s why!), and, of course,
   There’s a place for us,
   A time and place for us,
   Hold my hand and we’re half-way there.
   Hold my hand and I’ll take you there,

Lenny & Friends will be a kaleidoscopic trip through some of the most exciting, fun, moving, and beautifully crafted songs in the American Songbook, drawing from Bernstein in all his moods, and featuring songs by his hugely talented friends. It’s not a concert to be missed!

“It is the artists of the world, the feelers and the thinkers who will ultimately save us; who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing and shout the big dreams.”  
Leonard Bernstein


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