Thirteen years after his death, Leonard Bernstein is the toast of Broadway again and the subject of six CD releases of his work.
By JOHN FLEMING
Published November 30, 2003
NEW YORK - Leonard Bernstein is back on Broadway, and his music brightens what had threatened to be a dim season. A revival of Wonderful Town, with the sparkling score that Bernstein and his collaborators, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, knocked out in a month, opened last week to raves for its leading lady, Donna Murphy.
There is also a batch of Bernstein CDs out that demonstrate anew what a versatile talent he was, crossing over from the New York Philharmonic, of which he was music director, to musical theater with consummate grace.
Broadway had been reeling this fall from a string of less than wonderful new shows, among them the fiasco of the Rosie O'Donnell/Boy George partnership, Taboo, and a leaden take on Wizard of Oz mythology, Wicked.
But then Wonderful Town came along to tell one of New York's favorite stories about itself, how young people from the provinces come to the city in search of fame and fortune. Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt, making her Broadway debut, are Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, sisters from Ohio who land in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village, circa 1935.
Ruth is the brain, a writer; Eileen is the beauty, an actor. Their efforts to make it in the Big Apple were first recounted in Ruth McKenney's short stories in the New Yorker that were collected in a popular book, My Sister Eileen. Then they were the basis of a play and two movies. Rosalind Russell starred in the 1942 movie as well as the original musical in 1953.
Murphy, a two-time Tony winner for Passion and The King and I, is marvelous in a screwball comedy sort of way, delivering her wisecracks with perfect timing, as when she identifies herself as the owner of a typewriter with the "W" missing.
"It fell off after I finished my thesis on Walt Whitman," she deadpans. "I'm the only author who doesn't use a "W.' "
The original play and musical were written for the inimitable Russell, but she was no singer, as documented in recordings from the 1950s of her sometimes screechy performance. Murphy brings a combination of expert singing and comic finesse to the role.
Blade thin in a smartly tailored suit, she acts out songs in delectable fashion, from her riotous Conga! with a group of Brazilian sailors to her touching duet with Westfeldt about throwing in the towel and going back home, Ohio.
In the end, of course, the sisters regroup and vow to conquer New York: "Up and at 'em!" Ruth urges Eileen. "We're going to take this town."
Along with Murphy, the show's other big asset is the 24-piece orchestra positioned on risers that occupy the back half of the stage of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Rob Fisher conducts the Bernstein arrangements in all their infectious, jazzy glory, without any of the pumped-up amplification and synthesizer sweetening that has ruined the sound of many a musical in recent years.
The Wonderful Town revival shares a lineage with the long-running Chicago, which is still playing on Broadway and has spawned numerous tours. Both originated as part of the Encores! series of concert versions of musicals. Like the Kander and Ebb musical, the Bernstein-Comden-Green show has been staged simply, in this case by director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, in the transfer to a full production. Minimal sets depicting the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a jail and other places drop down between the orchestra and the relatively narrow space where the cast performs.
Chicago, with its themes of sex and celebrity, was perfect for our tabloid times, and its Bob Fosse-inspired choreography and punchy tunes delivered an exhilarating kick. Wonderful Town is a more modest show with a score that is superbly well-crafted rather than bedazzling. Perhaps it lacks the high points of Bernstein's Broadway masterpiece, West Side Story, or the artistic ambition of his operetta, Candide, but the charm of a number such as My Darlin' Eileen, with its chorus of harmonizing Irish cops, comes from an age when musicals were more character- than concept-driven.
Bernstein died in 1990, but he continues to be one of the the most-recorded American musicians. No fewer than six releases out this year document his multifaceted career.
Sony has compiled a pair of three-CD Bernstein sets from its back catalog. A Total Embrace: The Conductor includes 29 selections of him on the podium, mainly with the New York Philharmonic, in works by Haydn, Copland, Barber, Mahler, Sibelius and more. For the most part, however, they are excerpts from larger works, and the complete performances with Bernstein are available on other discs.
The other Sony release, A Total Embrace: The Composer, has one disc of concert works and two discs of theater works. Many of these are available elsewhere, but there are several tracks from a 1958 CBS television special of Russell in Wonderful Town, as well as a true oddity, Boris Karloff in a song from Peter Pan.
Naxos has been busy with Bernstein. In one of the budget label's best releases, Marin Alsop conducts Great Britain's Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra in Chichester Psalms, his setting of Hebrew texts for boy treble and mixed choir. It also has a suite from his score for the movie On the Waterfront and three dances from his 1944 musical On the Town.
Another recent Naxos disc is unexpectedly poignant in that it shows off how good the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra could be before money problems forced it to fold last spring. James Judd conducts the Candide overture, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Bernstein's second symphony, The Age of Anxiety (based on a W.H. Auden poem), featuring pianist Jean Louis Steuerman.
Bernstein is also represented in Naxos' project to capture the American Jewish experience in music, underwritten by the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. Leonard Bernstein: A Jewish Legacy includes his only work written specifically for the synagogue, Hashkiveinu.
It's always a treat to hear West Side Story, and there's an interesting re-release of a concert version featuring Barbara Bonney and Michael Ball. Operatic soprano Bonney is a beautiful singer of Mozart and Strauss, but she sounds a bit forced in numbers such as I Feel Pretty. Ball, on the other hand, isn't bad as Tony, and his rendition of Maria is a highlight. Stephen Sondheim has said he now finds some of his lyrics for the 1957 musical smarmy, but they still come across as pretty sharp, especially those in some of the less familiar songs, such as A Boy Like That.
West Side Story remains probably the greatest Broadway musical yet to be reconceived for a new Broadway production. Until that happens, and it eventually will, musical theater fans may satisfy their appetite for Bernstein with this year's excellent revival of Wonderful Town.