Working with Maestro Bernstein on West Side Story in 1957, some 25 years after we had met growing up in Boston, was an experience I savor to this very day. Sitting next to him at the piano and listening to him passionately explain and analyze what he was performing filled me with wonder and admiration. He would play and sing all the parts, laughing at Officer Krupke and declaring ‘pure Schumann’ as he revealed certain musical structures within the score. It was vintage Bernstein: brilliant composer, formidable pianist, exuberant teacher. This hardly surprised me, however, since I had witnessed this type of bravura performance countless times during our teenage years in Boston.
Leonard Bernstein was born of Russian immigrant parents in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918. He grew up in comfortable circumstances and went to the prestigious Boston Latin School and then on to Harvard and Curtis Institute. At thirteen, Lenny was a handsome and muscular young man, who wore a vest and kissed the hand of young ladies when introduced. At parties, he would sit at the piano and play the popular tunes of the day. He was extremely articulate and ready to explain music to anyone who would listen.
As a youth Bernstein’s piano technique was inspired and his sight-reading was astounding. He was capable of playing the most difficult scores at sight and would transpose complex passages with ease. These talents, among others, endeared him to famed conductors Fritz Reiner, Serge Koussevitsky and Artur Rodzinski. His gift for composing became evident and his “serious” works include three symphonies: Jeremiah, The Age of Anxiety and Kaddish. He also composed two ballets, Fancy Free and Facsimile, both with choreography by Jerome Robbins, who would later direct and choreograph West Side Story. His opera credits include Trouble in Tahiti, Candide and A Quiet Place. In 1971, he composed a controversial theatre piece, Mass, to inaugurate the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His first Broadway hit was On the Town, a musical based on the ballet Fancy Free with a libretto by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, two of Lenny’s oldest and staunchest friends. In 1952, he again collaborated with Betty and Adolph on Wonderful Town. It is interesting to note that Lenny briefly studied the violin before switching to piano when he was ten. In 1954, he premiered his Serenade for violin, strings and percussion as well as the score for the prize-winning film On the Waterfront.
In 1951, Lenny married Felicia Montealegre, a beautiful Chilean actress and that marriage produced three wonderful children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina.
Much has been written about Lenny’s multifarious talents. He has been lionized for his abilities as concert pianist, conductor, composer, author and teacher. Others have argued that his diverse musical interests prevented him from reaching his full potential as a serious composer. It was his extraordinary versatility that enabled West Side Story to elevate musical theatre to new heights. The ability to combine serious ballet music and classically constructed fugues with memorable popular melodies, jazzy, finger-snapping tunes, heart wrenching love songs and vaudevillian humor could only have come from one man, the true Renaissance musician of the twentieth century.
During the preparation of West Side Story we had what Lenny called “pre-orchestration” meetings. Although he was a master orchestrator in the true classical tradition, the modus operandi in Broadway theatre was to utilize musical arrangers. The arduous demands of the theatre did not allow composers the necessary time to orchestrate and arrange their own music. Irwin Kostal (my co-orchestrator) and I would meet with Lenny and examine every measure of the score in detail, discussing all orchestral possibilities. Although the sketches were very complete, he encouraged and welcomed all suggestions, especially the more popular musical embellishments that may not have occurred to him as a classicist. Irwin and I would return with our scores a few days later for a “post-orchestration” meeting. Red pencil in hand, Lenny would delete or add to our scores. When we had, in moments of inspiration, contributed ideas that had not been discussed, he would either say “Bravo!” or “Now, why did you do that?” Irwin and I would sometimes question Lenny about the ranges and limits of certain instruments that he suggested we use. As Broadway arrangers and orchestrators we were instinctively cautious about the ability of theatre musicians to play what Lenny wanted. He would invariably say, “Of course they can play that!” And he was right: they always did.
Orchestrating for the theatre is exhilarating but, at the same time, exhausting and, on occasion, confusing. West Side Story was orchestrated in a total of three weeks. Every show seems to have one number that needs constant rewriting and re-orchestrating. That distinction went to Something’s Coming. It was common for shows to have out-of-town runs in cities such as Philadelphia, Toronto and New Haven: in this case we were in Washington, D.C. Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer, didn’t particularly like the orchestration. Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist, was not thrilled, either. We kept rewriting and reworking for several days and finally, in desperation, we went back to the original version. Suddenly, everyone approved.
Both Lenny and Jerome Robbins had rigorous classical backgrounds, and observing them working together was like watching two grandmasters play chess. The ballet music, including the Prologue, the Rumble and the ballet sequence between Maria and Tony, were written first. On occasion, Jerry wanted to delete a measure to accommodate the choreography. Lenny was not terribly enthusiastic about the idea but, in most cases, he deferred to Jerry’s wishes. It was only Lenny’s high regard for Jerry’s brilliance that prompted him to adopt the changes. Serious ballet music and memorable popular melodies abound in the score. I marvel at Cool, with the finger-snapping tune and the classically constructed fugue that is intertwined in the routine. I marvel at America, with its mixture of 6/8 and 3/4 and the humor that accompanied it. I marvel at the virtuosity of the brass players in the Mambo playing Lenny’s extremely difficult music.
The début of West Side Story coincided with the appointment of Leonard Bernstein as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic. During previews in Philadelphia, Lenny, Irwin and I had eaten dinner at a seafood restaurant in a remote part of town. Not being able to find a taxi, we hopped on a trolley and went to the back of the car. Spying a vacant stretch of seats, Lenny proceeded to lie down flat on his back and closed his eyes. As I looked at him I thought, “This is the conductor of the New York Philharmonic? Would Toscanini take a nap in the back row of a trolley?” But it was precisely this earthy, pragmatic approach, combined with his all-encompassing musical skills, that made him the ideal composer for the show.
Neither Lenny nor I could have imagined that West Side Story would revolutionize musical theatre. For me, it was an exhilarating journey from our childhood sessions at the piano to the creation of a legendary Broadway musical. I was honored to call Leonard Bernstein my lifelong friend and musical mentor. I witnessed pure genius for which I shall eternally be thankful.
Kenneth Schermerhorn on Leonard Bernstein
This photograph from the halcyon summer of 1955 is a rather watery image of surely one of my life’s most thoroughly thrilling moments. There I was reentering the civilian world after four and one half years of the frustrating, nomadic regimentation of army life, suddenly finding myself in that bucolic haven of music called Tanglewood and swept into the exciting, awe-inspiring presence of the most gifted, capable, fascinating, diverse, scholarly, energetic, successful musician I will ever know. I am still pondering revelations that were exposed to me in that fleeting Festival instant.
Lenny, having just returned from Hollywood and the completion of work on the score for On the Waterfront had accepted me as a student conductor and was at that time, among countless other things, full of the exciting notions and prospects of the imminent birth of West Side Story. Although I had studied conducting here and there in Europe and the U.S., Lenny was my first real and certainly my most important conducting teacher and that summer we journeyed into a lot of unfamiliar and exciting musical territory. So somewhere between the architectonic wonders of the Seventh Symphony of Bruckner and the savage sophistication of Cool, it was one hell of a summer. The premier of West Side Story took place on September 26, 1957 and I was briefly considered to be the conductor. That never happened but now, almost fifty years later, I am having my occasion and what a thrilling moment it is for me!
My experience conducting the music of West Side Story until this production had been confined to the Symphonic Dances, the overture and an occasional song. How unprepared I was to find myself in the midst of all this splendid melodic invention, the inspired cerebral activity of the motives and fragments, the organization, the musical focus of the drama, and the poignant beauty of the lines, not to mention the bathos and the blatant humor. For me the experience was not unlike devouring Macadamia nuts and all the restraint that such a delectation involves. Each of these performances was marked by delicious memories of a distant summer and by the strange spectral presence of the composer, the man, the mentor, and the genius.
West Side Story persists after fifty years and thousands of performances from high schools to opera houses, to be a fresh, and thoroughly vital statement. The musical materials remain both brilliant and beguiling, searing and soaring, the rhythms just as taut and engaging as they were in 1956. and what makes it all so durable and memorable is the magic of Leonard Bernstein.