Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
(b. Lawrence, Massachusetts, August 25, 1918; d. New York City, October 14, 1990)
On the Town
Composed in 1944.
Premiered on Broadway on December 28, 1944.
In April 1944, Leonard Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free was introduced to great acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera House. The plot of the ballet, according to the composer, concerned three sailors "on leave in [New York] and on the prowl for girls. The tale tells of how they meet first one, then a second girl, and how they fight over them, lose them, and in the end take off with still a third." The ballet's setting and characters were the inspiration for Bernstein to try a new piece in a form that he had not previously broached — musical comedy. Soon after Fancy Free had been launched, he enlisted lyricists Adolph Green and Betty Comden to write the book and words for the show, which they titled On the Town. The collaborators devised a story, perfectly suited to those War years, about three sailors in New York who are determined to see everything in the city during their 24-hour leave. On the subway, one of the sailors falls in love with the poster picture of Miss Turnstiles, and the boys set out to find her. Their efforts take them all over the city until they finally discover Miss Turnstiles in Coney Island, where they learn that she is not the glamorous girl they expected from the poster, but a belly dancer. On the Town had a two-week tryout in Boston before opening at New York's Adelphi Theater on December 28, 1944 with Comden and Green in leading roles. It was a hit, running for 463 performances on Broadway; Arthur Freed made it into a superb movie starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin five years later. The show has been revived several times for Broadway, most recently in a Tony-nominated production in 2014.
The Overture is a medley of some of the show's best-known melodies, including New York, New York, Lucky to Be Me, Lonely Town and I Can Cook Too.
Gabey, the sailor infatuated with Miss Turnstiles, sings that without a companion New York is a Lonely Town.
Chip tries to speed up his tour around town by catching a cab driven by the aggressively love-starved Brunhilde Esterhazy — Hildy, for short. Hildy talks Chip into coming back to her place and catalogs her domestic virtues for him in the hot swing number, I Can Cook, Too.
In the final scene, the three sailors — Ozzie, Chip and Gabey — head back to the ship after their big day in the city when they encounter another trio of sailors just heading into town, whom they join in a rousing reprise of New York, New York.
Trouble in Tahiti
Composed in 1951-1952.
Premiered on June 12, 1952 at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, conducted by the composer.
Several of Leonard Bernstein's most important works, including Fancy Free, The Age of Anxiety and Mass, are cautionary tales about the lack of personal communication, which manifests itself as loneliness and self-doubt. This element of Bernstein's creative personality is the emotional engine driving his one-act opera of 1952, Trouble in Tahiti. Bernstein classified Trouble in Tahiti as a "comic operetta," and said that it was "a lightweight piece. The whole thing is popular-song inspired and its roots are in musical comedy, or, even better, the American musical theater." The stuff of comedy, however, hardly provides the substance for Trouble in Tahiti. The story, to a libretto by the composer, concerns Dinah ("a suburban housewife in her early thirties," according to the score) and her husband, Sam; it is set in "any American city, and its suburbs." Sam and Dinah, however, despite their social status, material success and apparently enviable "little white house" in the suburbs, have fallen out of love after ten years of marriage. (The title is taken from "a terrible, awful movie" of South Seas romance called Trouble in Tahiti the couple goes to see for diversion.)
The work opens with a vocal trio ("a Greek Chorus born of the radio commercial") that hymns the charms of suburban living to a slick shuffle beat.
For diversion, Dinah goes to see a film, a South Seas romance called Trouble in Tahiti, which she recounts on her visit to a hat shop later that day.
Trouble in Tahiti closes with Sam and Dinah at home in the evening, trying to talk and failing. The vocal trio observes the poignant scene (Evening Shadows) as the couple, unable to connect but frightened of giving up hope, decide to avoid the issue by going to the only show in town — Trouble in Tahiti.
Composed in 1953.
Premiered on February 25, 1953 in New York City.
Wonderful Town is the story of two sisters from Columbus, Ohio who move to New York City to further their careers as a writer (Ruth) and an actress (Eileen), and find there a series of humorous misadventures and broken love affairs. The characters originated in Ruth McKenney's series of essays for The New Yorker, which she and writers Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov turned into a successful play and movie under the title My Sister Eileen. Rosalind Russell won an Oscar in 1942 for her portrayal of Ruth in the Columbia film, and when the play was turned into a musical in 1953 (with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green), she was enlisted to recreate the role on Broadway. Wonderful Town opened at the Winter Garden to excellent reviews on February 25, 1953 (George Abbott directed), and ran for 559 performances; the show won a Tony as Best Musical.
The curtain rises to show a New York City guide leading a group of gawking tourists along Christopher Street to see some of the bohemian residents and other highlights of Greenwich Village.
Ruth and Eileen, fresh off the train from Columbus, are tricked into renting an abysmal basement apartment that is continuously rattled by the subway passing below. Unable to sleep on their first night in the big city, they sing that they wish they had never left Ohio.
In the story, Bob Baker, a magazine editor, falls for Eileen, and shows up at her apartment along with two other suitors. The painfully awkward attempts at discussion by Eileen, Ruth and the three men who barely know them is portrayed in Conversation Piece.
As Wonderful Town nears its end, Eileen finds a job singing at the Greenwich Village Vortex, where she is joined in the irresistibly infectious Wrong Note Rag by Ruth on stage and the patrons in the audience.
Composed in 1956.
Premiered on October 29, 1956 in Boston.
Lillian Hellman conceived a theater piece based on Voltaire's Candide as early as 1950, but it was not until 1956 that the project materialized. She originally intended the work to be a play with incidental music, which she asked Leonard Bernstein to compose, but his enthusiasm for the subject was so great after re-reading Voltaire's novel that the venture swelled into a full-blown comic operetta; Tyrone Guthrie was enlisted as director and Richard Wilbur wrote most of the song lyrics. Candide was first seen in a pre-Broadway tryout at Boston's Colonial Theatre on October 29, 1956 (just days after Bernstein's appointment as co-music director of the New York Philharmonic had been announced for the following season), and opened at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York on December 1st.
The Overture, largely drawn from the show, captures perfectly the wit, brilliance and slapstick tumult of the operetta.
Cunegonde, driven from her Westphalian homeland by attacks and repeated rapings by the Bulgar army, has washed up in Paris. She becomes mistress to a rich Jew, who enjoys her favors on Tuesdays, Thursdays and his Sabbath, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, who visits her on Wednesdays, Fridays and his Sabbath. Though professing to be sad at heart, Cunegonde finds considerable solace in the extravagant clothes and gems showered upon her by her two unlikely sugar daddies (Glitter and Be Gay).
In Act II, Candide, lost and starving in the Amazonian jungle, discovers the fabled Eldorado. Although he has finally come to a dreamland, he is not happy without his beloved Cunegonde and leaves with some of Eldorado's priceless golden sheep in order to ransom her (The Ballad of Eldorado).
Make Our Garden Grow, the finale of Candide, is one of Broadway's most stirring anthems.
West Side Story
Composed in 1957.
Broadway opening on September 26, 1957, conducted by Max Goberman; the Symphonic Dances were premiered in concert on February 13, 1961 in New York, conducted by Lukas Foss.
West Side Story was one of the first musicals to explore a serious subject with wide social implications. More than just the story of the tragic lives of ordinary people in a grubby section of New York, it was concerned with urban violence, juvenile delinquency, clan hatred and young love. The show was criticized as harshly realistic by some who advocated an entirely escapist function for the musical, depicting things that were not appropriately shown on the Broadway stage. Most, however, recognized that it expanded the scope of the musical through references both to classical literature (Romeo and Juliet) and to the pressing problems of modern society. Brooks Atkinson, former critic of The New York Times, noted in his book Broadway that West Side Story was "a harsh ballad of the city, taut, nervous and flaring, the melodies choked apprehensively, the rhythms wild, swift and deadly." Much of the show's electric atmosphere was generated by its brilliant dance sequences, for which Jerome Robbins won the 1957-1958 Tony Award for choreography. In 1961, Bernstein chose a sequence of dance music from West Side Story to assemble as a concert work, and Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal executed the orchestration of these "Symphonic Dances" under the composer's direction. Bernstein said that he called these excerpts "symphonic" not because they were arranged for full orchestra but because many of them grew, like a classical symphony, from a few basic themes transformed into a variety of moods to fit the play's action and emotions. West Side Story, like a very few other musicals — Show Boat, Oklahoma, Pal Joey, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, Rent, Hamilton — provides more than just an evening's pleasant diversion. It is a work that gave an entirely new vision and direction to the American musical theater.
In the story, Riff, leader of the Jets, an "American" street gang, determines to challenge Bernardo, head of the rival Sharks, a group of young Puerto Ricans, to a rumble. Riff asks Tony, his best friend and a co-founder of the Jets, to help. Tony has been growing away from the gang, and he senses better things in his future, but agrees. The Jets and the Sharks meet that night at a dance in the gym (Mambo), where Tony falls in love at first sight with Maria, Bernardo's sister, recently arrived from Puerto Rico (Maria). Later that night, Tony meets Maria on the fire escape of her apartment (Tonight). The next day, Tony visits Maria at the bridal shop where she works, and they enact a touching wedding ceremony. Tony promises Maria he will try to stop the rumble, but he is unsuccessful and becomes involved in the fighting. He kills Bernardo. Maria learns that Tony has slain her brother. Tony comes to her apartment, but she cannot send him away, and they long for a place free from prejudice. Tony leaves, and hides in Doc's drugstore. Maria convinces Anita, Bernardo's girl, of her love for Tony, and Anita agrees to tell Tony that the Sharks intend to hunt him down. She is so fiercely taunted by the Jets at the drugstore, however, that she spitefully tells Tony that Maria has been killed. Tony numbly wanders the streets, and meets Maria. At the moment they embrace, he is shot dead. The Jets and the Sharks appear from the shadows, drawn together by the tragedy. They carry off the body of Tony, followed by Maria.
Composed in 1969-1971.
Premiered on September 8, 1971 in Washington, D.C.
Bernstein's Mass, subtitled "A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers," was composed at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and premiered there on September 8, 1971. The Mass, like Benjamin Britten's War Requiem of 1961, uses a traditional Roman Catholic service as its framework but interpolates into the ancient structure additional texts that comment upon the liturgical words. Britten took his glosses from the powerful, anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen, the gifted English writer killed in France just seven days before the Armistice ended the First World War on November 11, 1918; Bernstein wrote his own verses with the help of 23-year-old Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist of the hit Broadway rock musical Godspell. Composed at the height of the national furor over the Vietnam War, Mass took a strongly anti-authoritarian position against both church and government, and excited much heated commentary. About the impact of the work as a piece of theater, however, there was no doubt. As could perhaps no other composer of his generation, Bernstein juxtaposed a wildly eclectic mixture of opera, jazz, blues, pop, folk, rock, sacred and Broadway styles in a manner that made Mass a virtual microcosm of the musical crosscurrents of its time.
Some 200 singers, dancers and instrumentalists under the musical direction of Maurice Peress took part in the first performance of Mass. The orchestra was split between the pit (strings, percussion and two organs) and the stage (brass, woodwinds, electric guitars and a variety of keyboards); the stage musicians were in costume and acted as members of the cast. There was a "chorus of street people" consisting of singers and dancers, and a choir in robes seated in pews on both sides of the stage. Mass opens in darkness with an elaborate and increasingly frantic setting of the Kyrie for six solo voices and percussion played through speakers placed at the four corners of the stage. The Celebrant, the main dramatic figure of the work (sung by Alan Titus at the premiere), steps before the curtain in street clothes, silences the increasing din with a chord from his guitar and sings the quiet and lyrical Simple Song.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Composed in 1976.
Premiered on May 4, 1976 in New York City.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with book and lyrics by Broadway veteran Alan Jay Lerner (Paint Your Wagon, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Camelot, On a Clear Day, Gigi), was Bernstein's contribution to the United States Bicentennial Celebration in 1976. The musical opened on May 4, 1976 at Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theater after try-outs in Philadelphia and Washington but ran for just seven performances ("Well, you remember the Titanic …" was Lerner's wry summation), and it has remained among the least accessible of Bernstein's works. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, subtitled "A Musical About the Problems of Housekeeping," traces a series of presidencies in the White House as seen through the eyes of the domestic staff.
The original hymn-like Prelude (which was replaced by a traditional medley-overture when the show opened on Broadway) was recomposed as the setting for Walt Whitman's To What You Said in Bernstein's 1977 Songfest.
The setting for the good-natured President Jefferson March is a buffet luncheon on which that distinguished host includes several of the dishes he discovered while serving as minister to France before he was elected to the White House.
The finale of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was provided by the inspirational anthem To Make Us Proud, which Bernstein reworked as the Olympic Hymn for the opening of the International Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden on September 23, 1981.
"Some Other Time"from On the Town
During the sailors' adventures in the big city, Chip hooks up with Hildy and Ozzie with Claire de Loone, an anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History who thinks he resembles a prehistoric man she's been studying. When the boys have to head back to their ship and their day with Hildy and Claire is ending, they all express their regret in the bittersweet Some Other Time.
©2017 Dr. Richard E. Rodda