Leonard Bernstein was a theatre god, a superstar, by the time I met him in 1972 when the Chelsea Theatre Center was ensconced in the Brooklyn Academy of Music and opening it’s wildly revised Candide under the direction of Hal Prince. I was 23. I would make my Broadway debut in it the following year and go to The Tony’s where we copped 5 Tony Awards, no less. We were a very young cast, and I can still hear our cheers and screams from our seats in the balcony Hal had gotten for us. Hal was very proud of us and of this show, and so was “Lenny.” (Everybody called him that, but I never could.)
I recalled those days yesterday morning meeting for the first time with Paramount’s design dream team to discuss our Season Five closer, West Side Story. Sitting down to coffee and pastries alfresco on the patio at Two Brothers, we talked about Bernstein’s music influenced by Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin. The jazz and latin influences blend with his classical symphonic background. A brutal, percussive punctuation dissonant, chaotic turns playful, athletic and lyrical, melodic, exquisite. Nothing else sounds like Bernstein in musical theatre. It stands alone, singular, complex and beautiful and All-American. Even Bernstein’s classical orchestral compositions feel like theatre. It comes from his need desperate to communicate with his audience. We have much to serve here. The tragedy of racial divide. The what-have-I-got-to-lose stakes of street gang life. It ends in jail or the grave. Juliet and her Romeo. Tony and Maria. Like the kids we read about in headlines today. As much as it’s changed since the 1950s, the more it has stayed the same. Or worse.
Referencing the contemporary artists of the period we found ourselves riffing on the fine art of the Abstract Expressionists, the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko. For me, this group of masters gives visual inspiration that matches Bernstein’s scored violence and danger and bring color and texture to the massive crush of the canyons of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. We begin to get a taste for the giant physical environment cold, invulnerable, eternal. The threat and danger of shadows dark, deep, dense contrast with the blinding light of the hope of youth and true love…”There’s a place for us. Somewhere, a place for us.”
Love & thanks