- Courtesy of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic
Hamilton may feel revolutionary, both in its subject matter and execution, but the wildly popular Broadway production has always worn its timeless influences on its ruffled sleeves. From Stephen Sondheim to Biggie Smalls, actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda spared no effort to pay homage to his favorite hip-hop icons and Broadway legends.
And none more so than Leonard Bernstein, the composer, activist and visionary who redefined the American musical landscape during the latter half of the 20th century.
According to interviews in Playbill and other publications, Miranda was in the sixth grade when he first watched West Side Story with his mom in preparation for his role in an elementary school production. The future Hamilton creator was fascinated by the unlikely blend of jazz, Latin and operatic influences in Bernstein's groundbreaking 1957 musical.
Being of Puerto Rican descent, Miranda also was taken by its tale of star-crossed lovers from rival Puerto Rican and white gangs on the streets of New York. His connection with the musical was so strong that he would direct his high school production of West Side Story and, a decade later, translate its original Sondheim lyrics from English to Spanish for the musical's 2009 Broadway revival.
Exactly what makes Bernstein and his legacy as poignantly relevant today as six decades ago?
"Leonard Bernstein turned Broadway upside down," says Nathan Newbrough, the president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. "He absolutely opened the door to Broadway for a whole generation of new writers who didn't feel they had a place there before he came along."
During its 2017-18 season, the Philharmonic will return the favor, to the degree that's possible, with an ambitious centennial celebration called "The Best of All Possible Worlds: Leonard Bernstein at 100." (The full season will be announced this Saturday at the Philharmonic's Pikes Peak Center performance.)
"We knew it was a big year, we knew it was an important anniversary, and we knew we wanted to do something," says Newbrough of the spring 2018 undertaking. In addition to educational events and gallery installations, the celebration will include a series of five Philharmonic concert weekends, culminating in a full West Side Story screening featuring live Philharmonic accompaniment.
"Through the magic of technology, the orchestra music has been removed from the film," explains Newbrough. "So Natalie Wood and the rest of them will be singing onscreen — in high definition with the screen above the stage — and the musicians of the Philharmonic will play the music."
Newbrough anticipates that the local programming will stand apart from Bernstein centennial celebrations taking place in other cities.
"We're going far beyond just the music," he says. "UCCS and Colorado College will be working together to put on a symposium during the festival. It will center around Leonard Bernstein, yes, but also around the themes of social justice and anti-violence. Those threads will run throughout the festival."
Those same themes also run throughout Leonard Bernstein's work, which still sets a high standard for social commentary.
In fact, if Bernstein had been born 50 years later, it would be all too easy to imagine Donald Trump taking late-night potshots at him on Twitter. ("After overrated West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein now consorting with anti-U.S. militants. Shameful!")
Actually, that wouldn't be all that different from the attacks Bernstein sometimes received nearly a half-century ago. Consider, for example, this passage from "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's," a 1970 New York Magazine article penned by then-journalist Tom Wolfe after he crashed an event where Bernstein and his wife Felicia had invited members of the Black Panther Party:
"Does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in fact — is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia's perfect Mary Astor voice. ..."
You get the idea. There's a certain unintended irony to the idea of Wolfe — who was well on his way to becoming a rich white man with a penchant for tailored white suits — portraying the Bernsteins as the epitome of white guilt. And while it's tempting to dismiss Wolfe's contempt as thinly veiled envy, there was likely more to it than that. The fact is that Bernstein's artistic accomplishments were unassailable. So being unable to dismiss the music itself, disgruntled critics were left with few options other than to make ad hominem attacks on the man and his politics.
Still, Bernstein's reputation as a compassionate artist and human rights activist remained largely untarnished. In 1948, at the age of 29, he led 17 former concentration camp inmates in an orchestral performance at Feldafing, a German displacement camp largely populated by Dachau survivors. He presented annual New Year's Eve Concerts for Peace at Manhattan's St. John's Cathedral, and devoted time and energy to the cause of advancing music and arts education.
He also mentored a generation of extremely gifted young artists. Among them were Marin Alsop, who would go on to become the first woman conductor of a major American orchestra, as well as Lawrence Leighton Smith, who would become the conductor and music director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.
"Larry described him as God-like," recalls the late conductor's wife Leslie Smith, who is also second flautist with the Philharmonic. "The connection between them was mutual respect. Both were talented, hard-working and humble ... at times."
- Courtesy of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic
- From conducting Dachau survivors to composing West Side Story, Bernstein was larger than life.
Bernstein's social conscience is also evident in even the most cursory examination of his works. In his groundbreaking 1971 work Mass, he sets passages of Hebrew and Latin religious texts to music that combines elements of opera, rock and blues. His 1976 musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue examines institutional racism from Thomas Jefferson forward.
A documentary in PBS's American Masters series leaves us with very different impressions of Bernstein from those depicted in Wolfe's writings. That sense of cultural elitism is nowhere to be found in the footage of Bernstein's funeral procession through the streets of New York in 1990, as workers at construction sites remove their hats and call out, "Goodbye, Lenny."
In an era when our president-elect promises a great wall to keep out immigrant populations, Bernstein's most enduring work — the one that inspired Miranda to create Hamilton — invites us to break down the divisions between our cultures. West Side Story has also made unparalleled contributions to the Great American Songbook, from the heart-wringing "Maria" ("all the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word") to the sharp-witted, show-stopping "America" ("Life is all right in America / If you're all white in America.")
"As much as I love Rodgers & Hammerstein's work," says Newbrough, "you don't hear that same heartbeat, you don't hear that same raw emotion come through. So if you want to draw a connection between West Side Story and Hamilton, for me, it's the rhythms. Jazz music was the hip-hop of its day."
And that same heart and soul could be found in the composer's more "serious" repertoire. "You can already hear some of the West Side Story melodies in his First Symphony. Long before West Side Story ever took the stage, those melodies were already inside him."
Fortunately for future generations, Bernstein was generous enough to share them.
"Some composers are rhythmic, some composers are melodic, some composers bring their own unique harmonies," says Newbrough.
"But he was the entire package."