Judy Kaye, Jamie Bernstein Celebrate Leonard Bernstein
"Leonard Bernstein was the rare composer who knew how to combine the satisfying intellectual rigors of the concert hall with the lively, tuneful sounds of the Broadway stage. He had a gift for joining heart and mind in gorgeous musical discourse, creating a legacy of theatre music that moves and delights us to this very day."
Jamie Bernstein sure has a way with words when it comes to describing the lasting appeal of her father's compositions. Following in the footsteps of George Gershwin, who most prominently connected jazz with classical music in the 1920's and 30's, Leonard Bernstein, usually supplying his own orchestrations, brought a symphonic complexity to a new kind of Broadway musical where the inclusion of interpretive and plot advancing dances was the new craze. His Broadway credits include four outstanding achievements -- a bittersweet comedy of three sailors cramming as much fun as they can into their last day before being shipped out to war (On the Town), a giddy celebration of New York's bohemian spirit (Wonderful Town), a darkly sardonic operetta (Candide), and a tense drama of the racial rivalry that polarizes this city of immigrants (West Side Story) -- each with music that supplied a strong emotional thrust, both comically and dramatically.
Hosting the Caramoor International Music Festival's evening celebrating Leonard Bernstein on Broadway, the clever and charismatic Ms. Bernstein provided special insights to her father's creative process." The Broadway people said he was too operatic and the classical people said he was too melodic," she explains in trying to determine why her father may have been under-appreciated during his lifetime.
Also smacking of charisma was Michael Barrett, conducting The Orchestra of St. Luke's like Jerome Robbins' choreography was surging through his body. (Only during ballet music he kept it low key while vocal soloists were performing). Hearing ballet sequences from On The Town ("The Great Lover", the pas de deux for "Lonely Town" and "Times Square: 1944") and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story without the great dance master's visuals emphasized the numerous jazz colors on Bernstein's palate. And the overture to Candide, his bow to European operetta, was delivered with effervescent briskness.
Although the program was an ensemble effort, the big name star was Broadway favorite Judy Kaye, whose feature number was Wonderful Town's "The Story of My Life," a song which was eventually replaced with "100 Easy Ways To Lose a Man". Betty Comden and Adolph Green's lyric had their lead character, Ruth Sherwood, taking a sober look back at her disappointments despite best efforts. And though it had its share of funny moments ("I have some advice for you younger girls stay younger."), it was considered too downbeat for the moment. Kaye's performance was a mature and determined self-effacing self-reflection. The recent Tony nominee then showed her dorkier side when joined by the rest of the company for "Swing", followed shortly by a showy comic turn as On The Town's man-hungry cabbie in the wacky and frenetic "Taxi Number" (a/k/a "Come Up To My Place")
Joining Kaye for that last song was tenor James Martin, a perfect foil as the shy young sailor. Martin showed versatility, putting on a goofy Brooklyn accent for "Pass The Football" and a silly erudite manner as Candide's Maximillian. Playing it straight for his big ballad, Martin provided a robust and passionate "Lonely Town."
A vocal highlight of the evening was soprano Lisa Vroman's lazy and dreamy interpretation of "A Little Bit In Love", sung with an easy contentment like slipping into a warm bubble bath. But she spent most of the program matched with tenor Andrew Drost as two unforgettable couples. Together they milked all the laughs from Candide's "Oh Happy We" (a song Jamie Bernstein compared with the TV series Green Acres) and matched splendid acting with soaring vocals in West Side Story's balcony scene ("fire escape scene", if you prefer), "Maria" and "One Hand, One Heart." Baritone Marco Nistico joined the four for an impressive finale of the "Tonight" Quintet.
A spoken highlight of the evening was a series of letters read by Jamie Bernstein. It was correspondence between his parents while he was preparing West Side Story for its Washington DC pre-Broadway premiere. The composer was concerned that his best work was being shortened and sometimes cut in an effort to make the show more commercial and accessible. Felicia Bernstein's letters of encouragement not only expressed a loyalty to her husband's work, but an intimate understanding of what he was trying to achieve.
One person who didn't quite get what Leonard Bernstein and his collaborators were trying to achieve was the theatre critic for the Seattle Times, who, as Jamie Bernstein noted, wrote, "Perhaps the love story is a bit too reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet."
Pictured: Judy Kaye