Leonard Bernstein launched his musical theatre career in counterintuitive fashion: by composing a ballet. In the early 1940s the emerging conductor and composer teamed up with Jerome Robbins, a dancer and choreographer on the rise, to create a ballet about three sailors on shore leave in New York City. Ballet Theatre, the predecessor of American Ballet Theatre, premiered Fancy Free in April 1944, and the ballet—packed with character—was musically rich and startlingly contemporary and became an instant hit. Just eight months later, On the Town, the boisterous musical based on the ballet, opened on Broadway to raves—and gave the city a brash, infectious new theme song: “New York, New York” (“It’s a helluva town”).
The show jump-started Bernstein’s career as a musical theatre composer that only grew from there even as he—the original multi-tasker—would make his mark as conductor, classical composer, and New York Philharmonic Music Director. On New Year’s Eve the Philharmonic celebrates this side of his gargantuan talents with Bernstein on Broadway. In this one-night-only event, led by Bramwell Tovey, Bernstein’s Orchestra will perform Bernstein’s best, joined by leading lights of today’s musical theater scene: Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford (You Can’t Take It With You), Christopher Jackson (Hamilton), Laura Osnes (Bandstand), and Aaron Tveit (Catch Me If You Can).
Bernstein’s musical theatre scores cover a lot of ground, as befits such a multi-faceted artist. The charming Wonderful Town (1953) is in many ways an archetypal 1950s musical: tuneful, fast-paced, and funny. The musically ambitious, dramatically innovative Candide (1956) deftly crosses traditional definitions of opera, operetta, and Broadway musical. Then there’s West Side Story (1957): Its music plunges us right into a brooding instrumental prelude; lively dance numbers transition into soaring tunes; extended dance scenes seethe with tension.
Assistant Principal Oboe Sherry Sylar, who joined the Philharmonic in 1984, remembers Bernstein well. She first met him while a student at Indiana University: “As a 19-year-old kid, I was overwhelmed by this great man. After the concert he led, I went to a restaurant with the soloists and Bernstein. There was a table where a family was having a birthday, and Lenny led the entire room in singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ It was so hilarious. He was an amazing spirit.”
After joining the Philharmonic, Sylar says, she “had the great honor of making music with the man whenever he conducted us.” Then, in 1989, she was invited to play in the highly emotional concert in Berlin that Bernstein conducted to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. “He embodied everything I feel about music, which is that it’s one heart speaking to another.”
To Sylar, Bernstein’s theatre scores stand out. “Oftentimes Broadway shows don’t get the many layers of sophistication that you get with Bernstein,” she explains. “With so many of his works, the musical counterpoint and the sophistication of the chord structure keep you on the edge of your seat. I’m in hog heaven when we’re playing Bernstein, and Candide is one of my favorite overtures to play. It’s in our blood.”
Principal bass Timothy Cobb joined the Philharmonic in 2014, so he did not work with Bernstein. Nevertheless, he says, “Bernstein’s name still reverberates in the building. There’s tremendous respect and esprit de corps among the musicians when it comes to Bernstein. I can honestly say one can feel the tradition—it’s passed on from generation to generation.”
During the recent Bernstein festival, featuring scores like the Jeremiah Symphony and the Serenade, which he calls “tremendous,” Cobb realized that Bernstein was “a fantastic composer in so many different genres. In opera and musical theatre, I love the whole genre of supporting voices and the interaction of the voice and the orchestra. Bernstein was a master at that. Works like West Side Story or the ballet from On the Town are just beautiful. He was able to capture something distinctly American.”
Cobb grew up listening to West Side Story, and his own children, now grown, loved watching the film. “We play the Suites from West Side Story often at the Philharmonic, but even today I can’t play ‘Maria’ without getting choked up. These works are always stirring.”
Robert Sandla is editor-in-chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.