Theater Review: Bravo! Hershey Felder in “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein (A Play With Music)”
Directed ably by Joel Zwick, a long-time collaborator of Hershey Felder’s, the excellent “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein” includes the performer singing, playing the piano, and conducting as well as telling stories.
Hershey Felder in Maestro: Leonard Bernstein (A Play With Music). Presented by Arts Emerson at the Paramount Center Main Stage, Boston, MA through May 20.
By Helen Epstein
As you enter the colorful and beautifully-restored auditorium of the 596-seat Paramount Theater, you’re struck by the stark, drab, black-and-white set, which suggests a 1950s TV studio. A gleaming concert grand and bench are positioned at center stage with two old, clunky lights, a camera, and two office chairs around it. The backdrop is a screen in the shape of an old, crumbling manuscript page of Beethoven’s Fifth on which black-and-white TV footage displays a handsome, 40ish Leonard Bernstein, who is dissecting the core of the symphony. As the lights dim, playwright/performer Hershey Felder appears on stage to gaze along with audience at the intelligent, familiar face. Then, dressed in Bernstein’s signature black turtleneck, Felder becomes the man people all over the world in the mid-twentieth century came to know as Lenny.
Several biographies have been written about Leonard Bernstein’s jam-packed life (1918–1990), but there’s been no HBO movie, no bio-pic, no theater piece before this one. There’s enough material around for several plays, but, as noted in the program, “the name and likeness of Leonard Bernstein are US-registered trademarks used under license from the Leonard Bernstein Office.” Maestro, Hershey Felder’s one-man show that premiered at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse in 2010, is “presented by permission of the Leonard Bernstein Office Inc,” an acknowledgement that may partly explain this show’s strengths and weaknesses. This is an “authorized” and very restrained version of Bernstein, but, given who he was, the one-man show is still full of fascinating material.
Bernstein became internationally famous as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra he first led in 1943 as a last-minute substitute for Bruno Walter. He also quickly became one of the pantheon of celebrated Jewish cultural figures in Manhattan during the Mad Men Era. But it is his earlier life—as a Boston boy in anti-Semitic New England of the 1920s and 1930s—that is sometimes eclipsed and that Felder acutely highlights. Like so many bright Boston Jewish boys of his time, he went to Boston Latin and graduated from that elite exam school for the underprivileged in 1935. From there he went to Harvard (a succinct line references Lenny’s being “one of the 10%” Jewish quota-limited members of his freshmen class).
Born in Lawrence on August 25, 1918, the eldest son of Samuel and Jenny Bernstein (whose images, like those of other key figures, flicker over the backdrop), Lenny fell in love with the piano as a child. Pious but pragmatic, Yiddish-speaking, Talmud-studying Samuel did not encourage his son’s music-making. He wanted Leonard to study and become a successful “somebody who made money,” not some grubby klezmer musician playing weddings and bar mitzvahs for a living. Felder, a pianist and composer born in Montreal to another Yiddish-speaking, Jewish immigrant father, beautifully depicts this central relationship in Bernstein’s life, down to recapitulating the havdalah tune Sam sings at the end of the Sabbath in the last movement of a Beethoven sonata.
Felder’s excellent script fairly throbs with authenticity. Some of its best lines are drawn directly from the many documentary sources (interviews, master classes, lectures, TV footage from the nationally televised Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts and his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) available to the playwright. Felder captures Bernstein’s voice, sensibility, intelligence, humor, and love of words as well as his music. Winnowing themes and events from a jam-packed 60 years to a manageable length, Felder chose (wisely, I think) to disregard Bernstein’s broad historical and political interests (the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism, the Second World War, the Vietnam war, and the creation of Israel go unmentioned) and zero in on the young maestro’s apprenticeships in music and love.
A series of extraordinary male mentors, whose accents and conducting mannerisms Felder mimics, guide Bernstein’s development as a musician. The first is the Greek conductor/ composer Dimitri Mitropoulos, whom Bernstein meets while still a music student at Harvard. He watches Mitropoulos rehearse his US debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1936, comparing it to “watching God sculpt the garden of Eden.” Afterwards the 41-year-old conductor invites the young man to lunch, where he tells Lenny that he has the makings of a conductor and spoon-feeds him an oyster—an erotic (and multifariously non-kosher) gesture that Bernstein remembers as a symbolic invitation into the world of homosexual men.
Mitropoulos sends the student to New York to play for American composer Aaron Copland, another in the series of demanding older men who become father figures to Bernstein. “You’ve recycled everyone—including me!” Copland says of the original piano music Bernstein plays for him. “Perhaps conducting is something you should think about.”
Copland, in turn, sends him to the Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner, with whom Bernstein studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (“He looked like he had sex only once—and didn’t like it”) who, in turn, sends him on to his beloved, Russian father, Serge Koussevitzky, who coaches him, brings him to Tanglewood, calls him Lyenushka, and tries to get him to change his name to Leonard S. Burns.
Anti-Semitism runs through Bernstein’s career like a melancholy leitmotif. Critics hailed his 1943 last-minute debut with the New York Philharmonic as front-page news: a young, exciting, handsome, American-born conductor! Yet in Maestro, Lenny remembers “a 25-year-old skinny Jewish kid from Lawrence, Massachusetts,” still trying to win his father’s respect. The theme also jump-started the book of the musical West Side Story, that (news to Manhattanite me) was first envisaged as a conflict between Catholics and Jews. The musical, despite Bernstein’s more serious compositions, became his most popular and defining work. Bernstein had become “the world’s musical rabbi” father of three children, and—thanks to his TV work starting in 1954—a rarity, a nationally-known, Jewish American performing artist who held onto his own name. Yet Felder shows him acknowledging that despite all his success, “love, you see, is the thing I’ve been chasing my entire life.”
Bernstein met “the most beautiful creature on earth,” his soon to be wife, Chilean actress and piano student Felicia Montealegre, in 1946 through the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau. Felder handles their relationship with great tact. Bernstein was in his early 30s by then and knew he was gay when his engagement to Felicia was made public. While Felder has Bernstein reminiscing that his mother Jenny told him, “Never trust a woman with an accent!” and recalls sister Shirley saying, “But Lenny, what about that whole other part of your life?” Felder’s treatment of Bernstein’s homosexuality is so discreet that an inattentive listener might easily miss its long and tumultuous existence. Instead, she might come away with the impression that Felicia was a flighty, indecisive woman who took up with actor Richard Hart—Bernstein calls him the “Drunken Dick”—until he died and she married Bernstein in 1951.
Instead of delving into any of that, Felder offers up two extended musical interludes that invite us to contemplate Bernstein’s struggle with love. One is an excerpt from the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony; the other, an overlong piece of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde. This is a risky dramatic choice for an audience that may be unfamiliar with the connotations and slowness of both. They worked well for me in a show that is billed as “a play with music” because they invite the audience to contemplate the parts of Bernstein’s story that are challenging to tell well and perhaps are subject to some editorial control.
About Felicia, Felder has the usually eloquent Bernstein say flat-footedly, “I needed her. I needed the organization . . . I needed a family. I needed to be a father . . . so we got married.” Plausible but dramatically false. About his life-long attraction to men and to his growing coterie of lovers and would-be lovers, Felder has him say very little until Felicia discovers a love letter from a San Francisco musicologist named Tommy.
“Tommy understands me,” he tells his wife, and leaves the house.
The script falters badly here. We’ve heard a lot about Bernstein’s relationship with father figures and are reluctant to be short-changed about his relationship to his own children, let alone his wife. And, since the time Bernstein came out of his closet, we’ve read many accounts of long-married homosexual men coming out: Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his performance as Hal, the gay dad in the film Beginners.
Maestro runs for an hour and 45 minutes without intermission. Up until the last, truncated section of the show, which addresses Felicia’s death of cancer and Bernstein’s own increasingly frenetic 12 years of life, I didn’t move much in my seat. Directed ably by Joel Zwick, a long-time collaborator of Felder’s, this one-man show includes the performer singing, playing the piano, and conducting as well as telling stories. The slim, attractive actor resembles the more restrained Bernstein of the 1950s and 1960s rather than the later pot-bellied rock star in jeans people remember from Tanglewood of the 1980s. It is good to be reminded of the youthful Bernstein.
When Felder has Bernstein confess, “I hurt everyone I loved,” theatergoers unfamiliar with his biography may be forgiven for wondering why. Maestro is a pleasurable theatrical experience, not a psychoanalytic study, though it does leave you thinking. Felder and Zwick are bringing back another one-man show, George Gershwin Alone, to the Paramount in June. I plan to go.
Note: The late Caldwell Titcomb wrote an Arts Fuse review of Working With Bernstein (Amadeus Press/ 2010) by Jack Gottlieb, his long-time assistant at the N.Y. Philharmonic. Interested readers should go here.
Arts Fuse critic Anthony J. Palmer’s commentary on what Maestro says about how musical categories damage the imaginative health of our culture.