There are fewer more innovative and stylistically broad composers than Leonard Bernstein. Not only did he write musicals, symphonies, operas, incidental music, ballets and film scores; he was as famous a conductor and pianist as he was a composer. Just a year after his legendary hit musical West Side Story hit Broadway, he took on the role of Music Director of the New York Philharmonic – both career highlights and an unusual bedfellow in the classical music world.
Bernstein was a great collaborator, having put his name to numerous musicals over the years with various lyricists and playwrights. Here we select some of his best.
Learn more about the the life and music of Leonard Bernstein here.
People are probably most associated On the city with the 1969 MGM film with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin as the three main characters, but BernsteinThe music was only a small part of this film. Even if the story was the same, only four of the BernsteinSongs from came into the film. Its stage version was truly groundbreaking when it hit Broadway five years earlier, with a multiracial cast (with black and white characters on stage in equal roles), a black concertmaster (Everett Lee, who became musical director of the show) and Japanese. American dancer Sono Osato in the lead role.
Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins began their long-term collaboration on Fantasy Freewho gave the idea of On the city. It was their first fling together in their mid-twenties. The film acts as a love letter to Bernstein’s New York City and shows real promise in Bernstein’s penchant for the musical – moreover, it was the first time a symphonic composer turned to the musical theatre, something Bernstein made a name for himself throughout his career.
Learn more about the Bernstein’s story On the city here.
Bernstein Best Recording On the city:
London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
West Side Story introduced Shakespeare to modern New York and remains Bernsteinthe most recognizable musical score from, landing on Broadway in 1957. It was adapted into a film four years later to critical acclaim, even winning ten Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Musical. In recent years, iconic filmmaker Steven Spielberg has turned to musicals, tackling West Side Story for his debut in this genre. The film is slated for release in December 2021, exactly 60 years after the release of the first film adaptation. The films simply helped cement the cult status of what was already a beloved score for many. Nicholas Kenyon mentioned West Side Story as “a unique example of a work of genius, halfway between musical comedy and opera”. He brings together such a wide range of influences to create a musical melting pot of Puerto Rican beats and fifties bebop.
BBC Music Magazine appointed West Side Story as one of Bernstein’s Best Works.
Learn more about the Bernstein’s story West Side Story here.
Bernstein Best Recording West Side Story:
Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Leonard Bernstein Orchestra and Chorus/Leonard Bernstein
Peter Pan (1950)
Originally conceived as a complete musical, Peter Pan ended up including only five Bernsteinthe original songs of. The composer had minimal production involvement compared to many of his other musicals, due to the fact that he was in Europe for much of the production period. In her place, Trude Rittman was hired as a “music coordinator” to translate Bernstein’s longer musical scores into shorter songs. In fact, the original cast recording used new music by Alec Wilder rather than Bernstein. Peter Pan remained in obscurity until conductor Alexander Frey revisited the work in the late 1990s and early 2000s, restoring the cuts that had been made for Bernsteinthe scores. He produced the first recording of the complete score in 2005 after discovering the existence of additional musical material.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976)
BernsteinThe last original Broadway score was for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a production considered a flop, lasting only seven performances. With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, the musical tells the stories of the occupants of the White House from 1800 to 1900, focusing on race relations at the time. The script was predicted by critics, but BernsteinThe score was considered a success. Despite this, the composer walked away from the production so far that he refused the release of a distribution recording due to poor public and critical reaction.
After BernsteinOn the death of , a concert version of the score was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano and released as ‘A White House Cantata’. Considered one of his most “classic” scores for Broadway, this piece has been widely performed since. This is not the only example of this score being adapted for other works – during his lifetime, Bernstein even included part of the song “To Make Us Proud” in its 1981 Olympic anthem.
Bernstein Best Recording 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Wonderful Town (1953)
Bernstein once again teamed up with writing staff Adolph Green and Betty Comden to wonderful cityfollowing their collaboration on On the city nearly a decade earlier. wonderful city was an adaptation of the hit comedy My sister Eileentelling the story of two sisters in New York, who dream of being a writer and an actor respectively. My sister Eileen began life as a series of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney in the new yorker in the 1930s, before being turned into a play.
Although he doesn’t have the iconic and instantly recognizable tunes of West Side Story, wonderful city is a light and twisted comedy that has been dazzling audiences since its arrival on Broadway. It went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. A man who has always liked deadlines, Bernstein would have written the score to wonderful city in just four weeks.
Bernstein Best Recording wonderful city:
Danielle de Niese, Alysha Umphress, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Simon Rattle
Discover our timeline of Bernstein’s life here.
Learn more about the world of musical theater here.
Did you know? You can visit Leonard Bernstein’s house in New York. Learn more here.
Top image: Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim working together on their musical West Side Story in New York in 1956 (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)