Bernstein on BroadwayMusic by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, and Alan Jay Lerner
Selections from On the Town, Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Kim Criswell, Sarah Eyden & Graham Bickley (singers)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 20 August, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) was something of a Renaissance Man as far as music is concerned: composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, communicator. He promoted every musical genre, be it classical, opera, jazz, pop, rock or gospel. He had the necessary charm, charisma and chutzpah to popularise music. He encouraged young people about how to enjoy music of all kinds.
Bernstein wrote sixteen works for the stage, including five musical-theatre pieces, namely “On the Town”, “Wonderful Town”, “Candide”, “West Side Story” and “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”, plus songs and incidental music for a production of J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and highlighted here, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis, a native of New York, who gave a personal view of Bernstein and his legacy.
“On the Town” was Bernstein’s first musical and in 1944 it must have seemed fairly revolutionary. Inspired by his music to “Fancy Free”, a ballet with choreography by Jerome Robbins, it introduced Broadway to a number of new and life-changing talents. Apart from the composer and choreographer were lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were to work with Bernstein on “Wonderful Town” and later, with other composers, on “Bells Are Ringing”, “Applause”, and “On the Twentieth Century”.
“On the Town” portrays New York in a tale about three sailors on 24-hour shore-leave. It contains classic songs such as ‘New York, New York’, which opened the Cadogan Hall show sung by the whole company. Graham Bickley began with ‘I’m So Lucky to Be Me’ and was then joined by Kim Criswell and Sarah Eyden in what is a wistful piece of philosophy set in a minor key. Criswell bounced through ‘I Can Cook, Too’ which, in the show is sung by Hildy, a female taxidriver who is trying to seduce one of the sailors. Sadly, the Cadogan Hall acoustic prevented hearing clearly all of the deliciously funny lyrics. After the ‘Three Dance Epsiodes’, the “On the Town” excerpts finished with ‘Some Other Time’ in which the singers bid farewell to the city. Who but Bernstein could have encapsulated New York in such a moving way?
On to another show about strangers in New York, “Wonderful Town” (1953), the origins of which are stories, originally published in “The New Yorker”, by Ruth McKinney, about herself and her sister Eileen from Ohio who arrive in Greenwich Village, Ruth to be a writer, Eileen an actress. The stories eventually became a stage-play and a film, “My Sister Eileen”, then a stage-musical, a film-musical, a radio-series and a television-series. The highlight of Bernstein’s version (which he wrote at top-speed in just a month when Leroy Anderson dropped out) are two songs: ‘Ohio’, in which the two sisters express their regret at leaving Ohio for New York and ‘The Wrong Note Rag’, a deliciously offbeat number. Criswell and Eyden brought out very well the emotion in the first and the oddness of the latter, while Criswell also essayed ‘One Hundred Ways to Lose a Man’, a very clever number that advises a girl to be a girl and not a handywoman. Bickley also sang ‘Pass the Football’, a number for the show’s token sporting hero.
In 1950, between “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town”, Bernstein wrote incidental music, songs and lyrics for a new staging of “Peter Pan”. Not all of the eight songs were used because both leads in the production were not trained singers, namely Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff! Eyden sang three of the songs, ‘Who Am I?, ‘Build My House’ and ‘Peter Peter’, minor pieces perhaps, but interesting to hear such rarities.
Although it has never really been truly successful or even satisfactorily revised, “Candide” is probably Bernstein’s magnum opus as far as musical theatre is concerned. Based on Voltaire’s novel, the show’s book was first written by Lillian Hellman and then Hugh Wheeler, with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, with additions by Bernstein himself, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim. It always appears to be a work-in-progress that gets reinvented as every new production comes along. The ‘Overture’ is one of Bernstein’s most recognisable pieces, full of joie de vivre and the RPO made it a rousing opening to the second half of the evening.
Bernstein’s opera (as he finally termed it) is set in various European musical styles, including those of Arthur Sullivan, Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss II and Charles Gounod. Bickley sang the plangent ‘It Must Be So’, in which the hero questions whether he is living in the best-of-all-possible worlds. ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ is a fiendishly difficult pastiche of a coloratura aria which Eyden managed exquisitely well; Barbara Cook, for whom it was written, could not have done it better. Criswell, who played The Old Lady in the Théâtre du Châtelet production of “Candide”, did a perfect version of ‘I Am Easily Assimilated’, joined by the rest of the cast. The evening came to a climax with a “West Side Story” sequence, brilliant soul-stirring stuff.
What was particularly good about the evening as a whole was that the singers did not just perform the songs but acted them in character, which brought an extra level of enjoyment. Drama or comedy, the music of Bernstein is as exciting as it gets and the members of the RPO also enjoyed themselves immensely, playing to strength under Carl Davis.
As an encore they performed ‘Take Care of This House’ from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”, the 1976 musical Bernstein wrote with Alan Jay Lerner, which was Bernstein’s last work for the theatre. It ran for just thirteen previews and seven performances before closing after a critical mauling, although most reviewers applauded Bernstein’s music. The show was about the Presidents and their wives who occupied the White House between 1800 and 1900. In explaining the final choice of song, Carl Davis said that ‘Take Care of This House’ was meant to apply to any house, not just to the White House, but to theatres or to concert halls, or, even, to churches (which is what Cadogan Hall used to be) and all our homes: a fitting ending for a bracing evening of mixed sentiments.