Saturday, October 8, 2016

MAESTRO: Portrait of the Iconic and Complicated Composer/Conductor Leonard Bernstein

Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro
Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

It must be accepted as a given that any bio-play represents a mixture of truth, partial truth, and speculation (or even fiction), as the writer tries to penetrate the mind and spirit of the subject in order to bring that person to life for an audience in the space of an hour or two. But even within these constraints, it is a most intriguing and credible portrait that playwright, actor, and pianist Hershey Felder paints of American musical superstar Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, now enjoying a well-deserved extended run through October 23 at 59E59 Theaters. 

Composer of a number of enduring Broadway musicals and the long-time conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was a man of many talents who soaked up public acclaim like a sponge during a lengthy and successful career.

But In Maestro, at least, he seems as well to be a man who truly was never satisfied. He wanted it all, and he was frustrated and offended when that “all” remained “only just out of reach,” to quote an apt bit of lyric from West Side Story that Stephen Sondheim penned to Mr. Bernstein’s music.  

Bernstein is justifiably remembered not only for West Side Story, but for other great shows like On The Town and Wonderful Town (both with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). Still, he wanted to secure his place in history not as a writer of show tunes (though what glorious tunes they were!), but as one of America’s top-tier composers, to be sanctified alongside or, preferably, above the likes of Gershwin and Copland. 

He certainly did produce many serious works, but, to his eternal dismay, they never lifted his reputation to the heights of acclaim that his imagination insisted upon. In the play, he snarkily and with bitterness calls on us to join him in singing something “from my Mass: 'Simple Song!' All right everyone together!” The silence from the audience is, of course, pointed.  

The first half of the 105-minute intermissionless play  is dominated by the public persona Bernstein carefully cultivated on television and in other formats as the "world’s music teacher" and flamboyant and charismatic conductor. But that image begins to warp as the story of his private life and struggles breaks through: his striving for acceptance by his father, his casual dismissal of the contributions of his collaborators, his disparagement of his “enemies,” and his cavalier treatment of his wife and children as he blithely threw himself into sexual trysts with other men.     

Felder, himself a gifted pianist who has also created theatrical portraits of Gershwin, Beethoven, and other music giants, does a fine job channeling Bernstein (Joel Zwick directs). For some, the fact that he does not resemble Bernstein in appearance or carriage may be a barrier to completely enjoying this evocative portrayal. But for many, myself included, he provides a fascinating glimpse into this revered and complicated Twentieth Century icon and gives us pause as we consider the price one pays in exchange for genius.   

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  


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