THEATRICAL THROWBACK THURSDAY: Lauren Bacall Fetes Bernstein Via Sondheim
Today we celebrate an unforgettable entertainment moment enacted by the stage and screen star that the world lost last week at age 89, Lauren Bacall.
Bernstein. Sondheim. Bacall. Any questions?! With a trio of top-tier talents combining to create a moment to remember, a theatre fan would be hard-pressed to imagine a more starry combination. To add to it all, the event was none other than the gala birthday concert for the maestro himself - Leonard Bernstein's 70th birthday celebration, that is; which occurred 26 years ago this week, on August 25, 1988. Countless significant figures from the worlds of Broadway, Hollywood, classical music and beyond convened to honor Bernstein that night, with the unquestionable high point (or should that be: High Point?) of the entire affair arriving with a specially-penned parody of a LADY IN THE DARK chestnut originally composed by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin commandeered and repurposed as an ode to Bernstein by none other than his noted WEST SIDE STORY collaborator, Stephen Sondheim. But, who to sing it?
In the recently published LEONARD BERNSTEIN LETTERS, correspondence between Bernstein and legendary stage and screen star Lauren Bacall is reprinted, shedding light on the relationship between the master composer and star that extended far beyond their mutual residences at the Manhattan real estate haven The Dakota. In honor of the rapturously-received opening night of WEST SIDE STORY on Broadway in 1957, Bacall sent Bernstein a telegram relating, "It was worth all the Dexamyl. It's a smash, you're a smash and I'm thrilled for you. Blessings and love, Betty." Similarly, Bacall also shared her appreciation for Bernstein's venturing to express his sympathy to her and her husband, Humphrey Bogart, whose health was rapidly declining. Bacall wrote, "So sweet of you to take the time out to write, and so lovely to hear from you as always. Bogie is coming along." Certainly, the affable and affectionate relationship between the two titanic talents is clear to see and hear in the eventual performance of "The Saga Of Lenny" more than two decades after the letter and telegram were ever sent.
"It will be more entertaining if you listen to the original first," Sondheim opines in his vaunted tome LOOK, I MADE A HAT in reference to the parody song performed by Bacall. Furthermore, Sondheim reveals he "cajoled" Bacall into performing the disarmingly tricky number in the first place, describing the major celebratory event at Tanglewood for which he composed it for her to perform it as such: "It involved numerous major figures from the musical and theatrical worlds, among them his good friend Lauren Bacall, whom I cajoled into singing my contribution to the festivities: a parody of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin from LADY IN THE DARK." Sondheim also points out in his extensive footnotes that the intentional mispronunciation of Lichtenstein in the lyric was very intentional: "Pronounced 'Lichtensteen' - a reference to his constant irritation at people mispronouncing his name." Poor Lenny, indeed!
For even more on the life and career of Lauren Bacall, check out my extensive Flash Special, available here.
So, now, go back to 1988 and relive this magical moment where the many entertainment realms touched by these remarkable artists converge for one time only - Bernstein, Sondheim and Bacall.
So, what is your favorite lyric in the impossibly bedecked verbal dexterity expressed by Sondheim in this genius parody - "Poet, pundit, seer, / Politician, skier, / Still at sea at three score ten," perhaps? Furthermore, what do you think of Bacall's commanding, comedic and incredibly effective performance of the song? With friends like these, Leonard Bernstein surely was one of the luckiest icons of the 20th century - with two more icons to fete him. Appropriately so. Poor Lenny? Not so much.