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On the Light Side Program Notes

BERNSTEIN: Celebrating 100 Years
Our program notes will guide you through all the major works being perform at this year's On the Light Side: Bernstein. We hope you will learn something about this fascinating composer, conductor, performer, and educator!

Candide (1956). In 1953 the renowned playwright Lillian Hellman proposed to Leonard Bernstein that they adapt Voltaire's Candide for the musical theater. Voltaire's 1758 novella satirized the fashionable philosophies of his day and, especially, the Catholic Church whose Inquisition routinely tortured and killed "heretics" in a ghastly event known as an "Auto da Fé" ("act of faith").  She began her adaptation of Voltaire's Candide with lyricist John LaTouche and Bernstein, who wrote numerous musical sketches.


Before long, LaTouche was replaced by poet Richard Wilbur. Hellman, Bernstein, and Wilbur worked periodically over the next two years but labored in earnest through 1956, a year when Bernstein was simultaneously composing West Side Story. By October 1956, Candide was ready for performances in Boston, where Dorothy Parker contributed lyrics to "The Venice Gavotte" while Bernstein and Hellman had also added lyrics of their own to other numbers.


The original Broadway production opened at the Martin Beck Theater in New York on Dec. 1, 1956 to mixed reviews and closed on Feb. 2, 1957. Fortunately, the original cast album was recorded by Columbia Records, so the music thrived. The recording sold well, and Bernstein's score gained a sort of cult status. A full-scale production opened in London, England on the West End at the Saville Theater on April 30, 1959.


In the United States, there was no major production until 1966, when Gordon Davidson directed Candide for the Center Theatre Group at the University of California at Los Angeles, with Carroll O'Connor in the role of Pangloss. In 1971, the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association mounted a production in which Sheldon Patinkin attempted a complete revision of Hellman's book with a substantial shuffling of musical numbers. This version was performed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and later at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It is probably at this time that Mr. Bernstein wrote the song "Words, Words, Words," which includes a bitter reprise of "The Best of All Possible Worlds." Though this production was not successful, it seems to have stirred up interest in Candide.


In 1973, Harold Prince and Hugh Wheeler devised a new small-scale version which drew the ire of Lillian Hellman, who at this time withdrew her original adaptation of Voltaire. Thus, the 1956 version of Candide is no longer available for performance. This new version opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Chelsea Theater in December, 1973. Harold Prince directed a free-wheeling single-act production, which included some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a 13-instrument orchestration by Hershy Kay.


When this production moved to the Broadway Theater in Manhattan, the theater itself was rebuilt from the inside out: walkways and platforms were constructed around the auditorium, and the audience sat on wooden benches, right in the middle of the action. The audience was even invited to eat peanuts during the show, adding to the circus-like atmosphere. The young and lively cast, and spirited musical direction by John Mauceri, helped make this production Candide's first critical and popular success. (Known as the "Chelsea" version, this is the earliest version of Candide available for performance.)


In October 1982, New York City Opera (Beverly Sills, general manager) presented Candide in its first version for an opera house. As a full length two-act production, a great deal of music that had been cut in 1973 was reinstated, under Mr. Bernstein's supervision, by John Mauceri. New scenes were adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, and once again Harold Prince directed.


Harold Prince continues to direct Candide: in 1994 he directed the New York City Opera version (1982) at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and in the Spring of 1997, Mr. Prince directed Candide for Livent, on Broadway. It had been more than twenty years since Candide had a Broadway production. This was also the 1982 New York City Opera version, with yet more lyrics supplemented by Stephen Sondheim. In 1994, the engraving of the Scottish Opera version became available from Boosey & Hawkes, in a piano/vocal as well as in a full score (with engraved orchestral parts).


While this publication encompasses the complete score, it by no means reflects a final, frozen show. Like its hero, Candide is perhaps destined never to find its perfect form and function; in the final analysis, however, that may prove philosophically appropriate. There are five versions of Candide available to license; however, the original 1956 version is no longer available for performance.


World Premiere:  (New York City Opera Version) Oct. 13, 1982 | Harold Prince, director / New York City Opera / John Mauceri, conductor.






I Hate Music!: A Cycle of Five Kid Songs (1943) is dedicated to Edys Merril, a friend of Bernstein's, as well as an artist and his flat mate in the 1940s. Apparently, when fed up with hearing Bernstein constantly coaching singers and playing piano, she often uttered the title phrase. Premiered at soprano Jennie Tourel's American Debut in New York, the cycle was heralded by Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune “witty, alive and adroitly fashioned”.


Bernstein states at the beginning of the song cycle: “In the performance of these songs, coyness is to be assiduously avoided. The natural, unforced sweetness of child expressions can never be successfully gilded; rather will it come through the music in proportion to the dignity and sophisticated understanding of the singer.”  


World Premiere: August 24, 1943. Public Library, Lenox, Mass. / Jennie Tourel, soprano / Leonard Bernstein, piano. 






MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971). By the late 1960s, the country had become polarized over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. These turbulent times produced a restless youth culture that hungered for a trustworthy government and for spiritual authority that reflected their values. MASS gave them a voice.  Six months before the scheduled premiere, MASS was far from completion. Needing a collaborator, Bernstein decided to ask the young composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz to work with him on the text. Schwartz had recently proven his ability to transform religious stories and rituals into contemporary theater with Godspell, his hit musical based on the Gospel of St. Matthew. The two writers hit it off and worked briskly to meet the deadline.


Bernstein and Schwartz envisioned MASS not as a concert piece, but as a fully staged, dramatic pageant. They took the Tridentine Mass, a highly-ritualized Catholic rite meant to be recited verbatim, and applied to it a very Jewish practice of debating and arguing with God. The result was a piece that powerfully communicated the confusion and cultural malaise of the early 1970s, questioning authority and advocating for peace. During his work on MASS, Bernstein consulted with Father Dan Berrigan, a Catholic priest and anti-war activist who had been on the FBI's "10 Most-Wanted" list before being apprehended and imprisoned. In the summer of 1971, as MASS approached its premiere, the FBI warned the White House that the piece's Latin text might contain coded anti-war messages and that Bernstein was mounting a plot "to embarrass the United States government." President Nixon was strongly advised not to attend and was conspicuously absent at the premiere.


World Premiere: September 8, 1971. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C., United States | Gordon Davidson, director / Alvin Ailey, choreographer / Maurice Peress, conductor.






On the Town (1944). Twenty-five year old  Leonard Bernstein made his stunning conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic on Nov. 14, 1943, becoming the youngest person to conduct a Philharmonic subscription concert. That same fall, 25 year old Jerome Robbins approached him with an idea for a ballet: three sailors on 24-hour shore-leave in New York City. On the Town was an instant hit upon opening on Broadway in 1944. MGM acquired the film rights that same year, and released a movie in 1949, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Louis B. Mayer replaced almost all of Bernstein's score. On the Town lasted almost fourteen months. Since its 1944 premiere, it has had several significant revivals, including a 1996 production with the New York Shakespeare Festival, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.


On the Town was revolutionary in many regards. It is significant that Bernstein was the first symphonic composer to collaborate on an American musical. In an unprecedented move, MGM purchased the rights for a film before the show had its premiere. On the Town was also the first musical that incorporated black and white characters on stage in equal roles, as pedestrians, sailors, typical New Yorkers, holding hands during the dance numbers. Everett Lee, the show's conductor made history by becoming the first black conductor and musical director on Broadway. However, Horowitz believed that "The most amazing aspect was the decision to cast a Japanese-American for the starring role, a character described in the script as an 'All-American Girl' - albeit 'exotic' - at a time when the U.S. was at war with Japan and anti-Japanese prejudice and propaganda was at a boiling point."


Broadway Opening:  Dec. 28, 1944. Adelphi Theatre, New York, N.Y. | George Abbott, director / Lehman Engel, conductor.






Peter Pan (1950). The history of Leonard Bernstein’s songs and incidental music for J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan is a complicated one. His involvement in the 1950 Broadway production, starring Boris Karloff and Jean Arthur, was relatively minimal in comparison to his other Broadway works. Invited to provide only a few dances and incidental cues, he found himself “losing his head” and surprised the producers by writing seven songs as well, including original lyrics.


This Peter Pan is not a musical—Bernstein did not structure a musical/dramatic totality as he did for his other stage works, and was not a direct collaborator in the production. Nevertheless, the score demonstrates a clear use of motivic development, and a consistency of gesture, innocence, and wit that together form a cohesive whole. Many curious changes were made to the score after it left Bernstein’s hands. The lovely “Dream With Me” was jettisoned as Wendy’s final song, in favor of an inexplicable reprise of “Who Am I.” For the original cast recording, Bernstein’s instrumental numbers, for reasons unknown, were replaced with new cues by Alec Wilder (which has led to the misconception that Bernstein’s incidental music was not used for the Broadway production), and the songs themselves were altered to accommodate spoken narration and new introductions.


Bernstein’s music for Peter Pan lay fallow for over half a century, largely forgotten save for a very few sporadic, small-scale productions, and overshadowed by the 1954 full-blown musical treatment. But in 2001, the conductor Alexander Frey came to the Leonard Bernstein Office with the proposal to record the score in its entirety, including “Dream With Me” and “Captain Hook’s Soliloquy,” for which new orchestrations were created.  The recording has been a great success, leading to the first significant theatrical productions in over a generation.


The greatest challenge in preparing this new edition was determining what, exactly, Peter Pan should be—to untangle the thicket of changes, cuts, transpositions, and omissions that history had woven around the score, return the specific cues and songs to Bernstein’s original musical intentions, and to present the music in a theatrically viable way that could be usefully employed in a production of Barrie’s play. Fortunately, the original 1950 orchestral parts had at some point been sent to the Bernstein archive at the Library of Congress. This return to the source material afforded many opportunities and surprises—it was finally possible to assess and redress the many modifications that had been made to the individual numbers over the years.


Broadway Opening:  April 24, 1950. Imperial Theatre, New York, N.Y.| John Burrell and Wendy Toye, directors / Ben Steinberg, conductor.


Source:  © Garth Edwin Sunderland




La Bonne Cuisine (1947). Four Recipes for Voice and Piano. Emile Dumont's La Bonne Cuisine Française (Tout ce qui a rapport à la table, manuel-guide pour la ville et la campagne) ("Fine French Cooking (Everything That Has to Do with the Table, Manual Guide for City and Country") was first published in 1899. "Plum Pudding," adapted by the composer from a larger recipe, appears under Mets anglais ("English Dishes"). "Queues de boeuf" ("Ox-Tails") is taken whole. "Tavouk Gueneksis," a Turkish delight, is also complet, and comes from the sections Patisserie et confiserie turques ("Turkish Pastry and Sweets").


Two ingredients of the original recipe are missing from the musical setting of "Civet à toute vitesse" ("Rabbit at Top Speed"): muscade ("nutmeg") and un verre d'eaude-vie ("a glass of brandy"). During his lifetime, the volume sat on the Bernstein kitchen shelf along with other cookbooks. 1. Plum Pudding;  2. Queues de Boeuf ('Ox Tails');  3. Tavouk Guenksis;  and, 4. Civet à Toute Vitesse ("Rabbit at Top Speed").


World Premiere:  Oct. 10, 1948. Town Hall, N.Y./ Marion Bell, mezzo soprano; Edwin MacArthur, piano.






Trouble in Tahiti (1951). Leonard Bernstein was on his honeymoon in 1951 when he began composing his one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, a candid portrait of the troubled marriage of a young suburban couple. Written between his biggest Broadway successes— On the Town in 1944 and Candide and West Side Story in 1956 and 1957, respectively— Trouble in Tahiti draws upon popular songs styles to deliver an uncompromising critique of post-war American materialism. Beneath the couple's marital discord is a profound longing for love and intimacy. Their spiritual emptiness, in contrast to a veneer of happy consumerism, creates the heart of the drama and is emphasized by sudden stylistic shifts in the music. Bernstein dedicated the piece to his close friend Marc Blitzstein, who had led him toward music theater.


The opera begins with a vocal trio singing of idyllic middle-class life in 1950s suburbia. Their close harmonies, jazz rhythms and idealized representation of American life are evocative of radio commercials of the era. Throughout the 45-minute opera, the Trio functions as a contemporary Greek chorus, providing satirical commentary to the drama.


The opera focuses in on the domestic conflict of Sam and Dinah, a young couple who, in contrast to the perfect picture of suburban life painted by the Trio, are desperately unhappy. Starting with an argument over breakfast, the piece explores a day in their life—Sam's as a successful businessman, and Dinah's as a frustrated housewife. They argue about their son Junior, who is never seen or heard from.


As the day continues, the competitive and over-confident Sam shows his prowess at the office and at the gym. Dinah visits her psychiatrist and recounts a dream of a beautiful, unattainable garden, then spends the afternoon at an escapist movie called "Trouble in Tahiti." At the end of the day, profoundly aware of their unhappiness, Sam and Dinah try to have a frank discussion about their relationship. Unable to communicate without blaming and arguing, Sam suggests they go out to see a new movie—"Trouble in Tahiti."


Trouble in Tahiti premiered in front of an audience of nearly 3,000 people in June 1952 at Brandeis University's Festival of the Creative Arts, an ambitious new arts festival directed by Bernstein. His brand-new opera came at the end of an all-day symposium that had gone over schedule, and the curtain didn't go up until 11 p.m. The outdoor stage had barely been built in time, and the amplification system was poor. Bernstein complained that his piece, which his Brandeis colleague Irving Fine had persuaded him to complete in time for the festival, had turned out "half-baked," and he was determined to improve it. He rewrote the last scene, and the opera was performed again that same summer at Tanglewood's Music Theater, where he felt it was much improved.


Finally, in April 1955, Trouble in Tahiti premiered on Broadway in an evening entitled "All in One," together with Tennessee Williams' play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and several dances choreographed by Paul Draper. Starring Alice Ghostley as Dinah and John Tyers as Sam, it ran for 48 performances.


Trouble in Tahiti took an unusual path in the early 1980s. In 1983, Bernstein wrote a second opera, A Quiet Place (libretto by Stephen Wadsworth) as a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, picking up the unhappy family drama 30 years later, when the estranged Junior and his sister Dede have returned home to be with Sam after Dinah has died. When it premiered at Houston Grand Opera in June 1983, A Quiet Place followed Trouble in Tahiti on a double bill, but afterwards, Bernstein and Wadsworth altered the structure to interpolate all of Trouble in Tahiti into A Quiet Place as two extended flashback scenes. Since then, Trouble in Tahiti has existed both as part of this larger work, and as the self-contained, original one-act, which continues to be performed regularly around the world.


World Premiere: June 12, 1952. Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. | Nell Tangeman / David Atkinson / Constance Brigham / Robert Kole / Claude Heater / Elliot Silverstein, director / Leonard Bernstein, conductor.






West Side Story (1957). In 1947, Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about collaborating on a contemporary musical adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.” He proposed that the plot focus on the conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the Easter–Passover season. The girl has survived the Holocaust and emigrated from Israel; the conflict was to be centered around anti-Semitism of the Catholic "Jets" towards the Jewish "Emeralds.”


Eager to write his first musical, Laurents immediately agreed. Bernstein wanted to present the material in operatic form, but Robbins and Laurents resisted the suggestion. They described the project as "lyric theater", and Laurents wrote a first draft he called “East Side Story.” Only after he completed it did the group realize it was little more than a musicalization of themes that had already been covered in plays like”Abie's Irish Rose.” When he opted to drop out, the three men went their separate ways, and the piece was shelved for almost five years.


In 1955, theatrical producer Martin Gabel was working on a stage adaptation of the James M. Cain novel “Serenade,” about an opera singer who comes to the realization he is homosexual. Gabel invited Laurents to write the book. Laurents accepted and suggested Bernstein and Robbins join the creative team. Robbins felt if the three were going to join forces, they should return to East Side Story, and Bernstein agreed. Laurents, however, was committed to Gabel, who introduced him to the young composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim auditioned by playing the score for Saturday Night, his musical that was scheduled to open in the fall. Laurents liked the lyrics but was not impressed with the music. Sondheim did not care for Laurents' opinion. Serenade ultimately was shelved.


Soon after Laurents was hired to write the screenplay for a remake of the 1934 Greta Garbo film The Painted Veil for Ava Gardner. While in Hollywood, he contacted Bernstein, who was in town conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. The two met at The Beverly Hills Hotel, and the conversation turned to juvenile delinquent gangs, a fairly recent social phenomenon that had received major coverage on the front pages of the morning newspapers due to a Chicano turf war.


Bernstein suggested they rework “East Side Story” and set it in Los Angeles, but Laurents felt he was more familiar with Puerto Rican immigrants and Harlem than he was with Mexican Americans and Olvera Street. The two contacted Robbins, who was enthusiastic about a musical with a Latin beat. He arrived in Hollywood to choreograph the dance sequences for “The King and I,” and he and Laurents began developing the musical while working on their respective projects, keeping in touch with Bernstein, who had returned to New York. When the producer of “The Painted Veil” replaced Gardner with Eleanor Parker and asked Laurents to revise his script with her in mind, Laurents backed out of the film, freeing him to devote all his time to the stage musical.


In New York City, Laurents went to the opening night party for a new play by Ugo Betti, and there he met Sondheim, who had heard that “East Side Story,” now retitled “West Side Story,” was back on track. Bernstein had decided he needed to concentrate solely on the music, and he and Robbins had invited Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write the lyrics, but the team opted to work on Peter Pan instead. Laurents asked Sondheim if he would be interested in tackling the task and he accepted.] Meanwhile, Laurents had written a new draft of the book changing the characters' backgrounds: Anton, once an Irish American, was now of Polish and Irish descent, and the formerly Jewish Maria had become a Puerto Rican.


Bernstein composed West Side Story and Candide concurrently, which led to some switches of material between the two works. Tony and Maria's duet, "One Hand, One Heart", was originally intended for Cunegonde in Candide. The music of "Gee, Officer Krupke" was pulled from the Venice scene in Candide.


The show was nearly complete in the fall of 1956, but almost everyone on the creative team needed to fulfill other commitments first. Robbins was involved with Bells Are Ringing, then Bernstein with Candide, and in January 1957 A Clearing in the Woods, Laurents' latest play, opened and quickly closed.


When a backers' audition failed to raise any money for West Side Story late in the spring of 1957, only two months before the show was to begin rehearsals, producer Cheryl Crawford pulled out of the project. Bernstein was despondent, but Sondheim convinced his friend Hal Prince to read the script. He liked it but decided to ask producer George Abbott, his longtime mentor, for his opinion, and Abbott advised him to turn it down. Prince, decided to ignore him, and he and his producing partner Robert Griffith flew to New York to hear the score.  In his memoirs, Prince recalled, "Sondheim and Bernstein sat at the piano playing through the music, and soon I was singing along with them."


Throughout the rehearsal period, the New York newspapers were filled with articles about gang warfare, keeping the show's plot timely. Robbins kept the cast members playing the Sharks and the Jets separate in order to discourage them from socializing with each other and reminded everyone of the reality of gang violence by posting news stories on the bulletin board backstage.  As the rehearsals wore on, Bernstein fought to keep his score together, as other members of the team called on him to cut out more and more of the sweeping or complex "operatic" passages.


The pre-Broadway run in Washington, D.C. was a critical and commercial success, although none of the reviews mentioned Sondheim, listed as co-lyricist, who was overshadowed by the better-known Bernstein. Bernstein magnanimously removed his name as co-author of the lyrics, although Sondheim was uncertain he wanted to receive sole credit for what he considered to be overly florid contributions by Bernstein. Robbins demanded and received a "Conceived by" credit, and used it to justify his making major decisions regarding changes in the show without consulting the others. As a result, by opening night on Broadway, none of his collaborators were talking to him.


Broadway Opening:  Sept. 26, 1957. Winter Garden Theatre, New York, N.Y. | Jerome Robbins, choreographer and director / Max Goberman, conductor.






Wonderful Town (1953) is a musical with book written by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Leonard Bernstein. The musical tells the story of two sisters who aspire to be a writer and actress respectively, seeking success from their basement apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village. It is based on Fields and Chodorov's 1940 play “My Sister Eileen,” which in turn originated from autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney first published in The New Yorker in the late 1930s and later published in book form as “My Sister Eileen.”


Only the last two stories in McKenney's book were used, and they were heavily modified. It premiered on Broadway in 1953, where it ran for 559 performances, closing on July 3, 1954. It starred Rosalind Russell in the role of Ruth Sherwood, Edie Adams as Eileen Sherwood, and George Gaynes as Robert Baker. It won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actress, and spawned three New York City Center productions between 1958 and 1966, a 1986 West End production and 2003 Broadway revival. It is a lighter piece than Bernstein's later works, West Side Story and Candide, but none of the songs have become as popular.


Broadway Opening: Feb. 25, 1953. Winter Garden Theatre, New York, N.Y. | George Abbott, direction/ Lehman Engel, conductor.