If you go to see “West Side Story,” now at the Lyric Opera through June 2, 2019, you are likely to think about how culture clashes have changed or not since Leonard Bernstein wrote the show’s dramatically descriptive music, Stephen Sondheim did the very memorable lyrics, Arthur Laurents penned the book based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed it.
When West Side Story opened as a Broadway musical in 1957 it received six Tony nominations including Best Musical but a feel good show, “Music Man,” won the Tony Award for Best Musical. “West Side Story” was not meant to make audiences happy. Even the show’s single funny scene/song “Gee, Officer Krupke” sung by the Jets pinpoints societal problems.
Anyone who reads Shakespeare’s tragedies, knows the Bard is very good at portraying motivations and clashes.
If you know your Shakespeare, you will find some similarities between the “Romeo and Juliet “ of the 1590’s and Broadway musical of the 1950s.
The summer night was a glorious mid 70’s temperature with dappled sunlight filtering through the trees at Ravinia Festival. Picnickers spread their repasts across the grass behind the Pavilion and out across what patrons call The Lawn.
The music emanating from the Pavilion was an inspired duo of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) that opened the program, followed by Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The Bernstein work was part of Ravinia’s tribute to the legendary composer/conductor on the anniversary of his 100th birthday.
Brilliantly played by the CSO and conducted by Marin Alsop, the works were well paired for their religious themes. Both first symphonies contained passages whose roots went back to Jewish ceremonial and folk music and both symphonies contained passages of protest.
But where Bernstein’s piece ended with “Lamentation” sung by mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, the Mahler concluded with a triumphal coda set against nature sounds originally heard in the introduction that left picnickers happily lingering a few minutes longer.
“Wasn’t that beautiful” said Trish who had come with husband Joe from Pingree Grove west of Elgin. “We enjoy just being out here,” she had said earlier after they set up under trees bordering the Lawn.
Talking about the high quality of the program and the low lawn price, Joe pointed out, “It’s a deal.”
Also coming in from Chicago’s western suburbs were Cindy and Jim from Wayne with Valerie and Steve from Kildeer whom they met at Ravinia a few years ago. “We love it here” said Valerie.
“We try to come anytime the CSO is playing,” said Cindy who added that she and Jim have been coming to Ravinia since 1982.
By the way, Sunday, Aug. 19 was the last Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert at Ravinia for the 2018 season. For Ravinia’s program during the remaining season visit Ravinia. The Ravinia Festival is between Sheridan Road and Green Bay Road just north of Lake Cook Road at 200 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park.
To report that Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” performed under the baton of Marin Alsop and directed by Kevin Newbury at Ravinia Festival July 28, received a long standing ovation would merely relate the overwhelming response to this seldom done, lesser known work.
Even though it is an appropriate bow to Bernstein on the anniversary of his 100th birthday, it is hoped that “Mass” will be presented more often.
Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the 1971 Kennedy Center opening, “Mass” goes way beyond a tribute to John F. Kennedy and his religion. As Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, explained during a pre-concert talk Saturday, the work is autobiographical.
The music is really a journey that takes the audience from dutiful respect to protest, from moody contemplation to rapture, from disbelief and madness to acceptance and peace.
At Ravinia, it was accomplished through the extraordinary interpretation of Brazilian operatic baritone Paulo Szot as the Celebrant.
The operatic world knows of Szot through his appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and other houses. But he is also perfect for the Bernstein Celebrant role because “Mass” is described in its subtitle as “A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Szot received the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for his performance as Emile De Becque in the 2008 revival of “South Pacific.”
But this is a also a work best performed with several singers, musicians and several talented players.
To fill those roles Ravinia pulled in the Chicago Children’s Choir, the Highland Park High School Marching Band and a really fine “Street Chorus” of Sumayya Ali, Aaron Blake, Matt Boehler, John Clay III, Nicholas Cunningham, Alexander Elliot, Erica Everett, Nicole Fragala, Devon Guthrie, Devin Ilaw, Morgan James, Alexa Jarvis, Mykal Kilgore, Meredith Lustig, Timothy McDevitt, Michael Maliakel, Barrie Lobo McLain, Kaitlin Mesh, James Onstad, Michael Preacely, Isabel Santiago and Karim Sulayman.
A shout-out has to go to Altar Children Wyatt Parr and Myra Sahal. It was Parr’s “Lauda, Laude” that brought peace to the Celebrant and congregation on stage and wonderment to audiences on the grass who didn’t catch everything happening on stage.
However, it was the brilliant interpretation of Bernstein’s conflicting, pensive and joyous mood swings by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Alsop that moved the journey along.
Sadly, Ravinia’s “Mass” was a one-night experience but there are two more Bernstein programs on the schedule this summer. “Bernstein and Friends” will present songs and arias by Nadine Sierra and Michael Fabiano in the Martin Theatre, Aug. 10 that includes two Bernstein pieces.
Then Marin alsop will return to the Pavilion on Aug. 19 with the CSO playing the First Symphonies of Bernstein and Mahler.
Ravinia Festival is at 418 Sheridan Rd., Highland Park. For tickets and other information call (847) 266-5100 and visit Ravinia Tickets.
Several orchestral works by Leonard Bernstein, the composer popularly known in musical theater circles for “West Side Story” can be heard at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park as part of a world-wide celebration of the 100 birthday of this musical genius (Aug. 25-1918-Oct. 14, 1990).
On the Ravinia schedule is “Mass,”commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center. The work will now be making its CSO and Ravinia debut with a star-studded cast, July 28, 2018.
When the Lyric Opera of Chicago celebrated Bernstein’s birthday with his one-act opera, “Trouble in Tahiti” plus other vocal works, March 10 this year, Lyric Dramaturg Roger Pines said during a phone interview, “I think it will be revelatory.”
The only problem with the Lyric Opera’s “Celebrating 100 Years of Bernstein” last Saturday, March 10, was that it was a one-time program.
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, baritone Nathan Gunn in the first half featuring Bernstein’s short opera Trouble in Tahiti and joined in the second half in a variety of his works, by Broadway star Kate Baldwin, deserved their prolonged applause and standing ovation. Indeed, the audience didn’t seem to want to leave but encores were not part of the program.
The audience also appreciated the really fine voices of Ryan Opera Center members soprano Diana Newman, tenor Josh Lovell and baritone Emmett O’Hanlon who added a light touch to the opera which has some seriously funny moments. And they, plus Ryan Center members soprano Ann Toomey and bass-baritone Alan Higgs, joined the stars in the second half.
That part of the program was an interesting mix of popular and lesser known works. For instance, it started with Baldwin’s delightful rendition of “I Hate Music” from the 1943 cycle of “Five Kids Songs for Soprano and Piano.”
It would have been interesting to have seen a show of hands from people familiar with the cycle.
Then, the Ryan Center singers did Candide’s “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” They and the leads closed with the lovely and appropriate “Some Other Time” from On the Town.
What came in between was glorious.
Baldwin sang Eileen’s charming “A Little Bit in Love” from Wonderful Town followed by Gunn doing a fine “Lonely Town” from On the Town.
Based on intermission chat and looks through the program, many in the audience were hoping for something from West Side Story. There were two selections.
Baldwin and Graham each soloed and then beautifully blended their voices in “I Have a Love.” Then Baldwin did a remarkable “Somewhere” that moved people to tears.
At this point, about half way through the second half, comic contrast was needed and provided by Gunn coming up through the floor as Captain Hook from Peter Pan.
Bernstein wrote “Captain Hook’s Soliloquy” for the original 1950 Broadway show but it was supposedly eliminated as unworkable with the voice of Boris Karloff who played Hook.
Wearing a wig that resembled a large black mop, Gunn hilariously interpreted the song somewhat in the manner of King George in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
Other songs seldom heard were “So Pretty” written by Bernstein for Barbra Streisand to sing in a peace protest against the Vietnam War that was sung by Baldwin and ”To What You Said,” a Walt Whitman verse put to music in Songfest that touched on homosexual attraction and sung by Nathan Gunn.
Peter Pan was on the menu again. This time with Graham singing “Dream with Me.”
A show which didn’t make it long on Broadway was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue written with Alan Jay Lerner in 1976. But after cuts and revisions it was released in 1990 as A White House Cantata.
Kate Baldwin as Abigail Adams sang “Take Care of this House” which is on the Cantata release. A lovely piece, the song is still heard on occasion.
Before the company’s “Some Other time” closing number, Baldwin ended with another lively ditty, “I Can Cook, Too” from On the Town.
There were many reasons the program left people wanting more.
There was the spot-on direction of Peggy Hickey who had the singers actively move around the stage as if in a musical instead of a concert. The staging was also clever with props and furniture moved on, off and coming up from below.
Another plus was Conductor David Chase’s warm interaction with the audience. He introduced and explained the opera and the musical numbers’ background. Experienced with working on musicals as conductor, arranger or supervisor of more than 30 Broadway productions, Chase had a relaxed attitude that made the entire program fun.
Leonard Bernstein’s genius for capturing the soul of America in everything from orchestral works, opera and religious tributes to musicals, ballets, choral pieces and songs for events, is being celebrated at venues throughout the world in honor of his 100th birthday.
Musical tributes began on what would have been his 99th birthday, Aug. 25, 2017 (he died in 1990) but formally kicked off with a program at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Sept. 22, 2017. The celebrations are continuing through his 100th year.
What the Lyric Opera of Chicago is doing promises to be exceptional.
Opera stars mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and baritone Nathan Gunn take on the roles of unhappy suburban couple, Dinah and Sam in Bernstein’s one-act opera ,”Trouble in Tahiti.” The opera’s jazz interlude is done by Ryan Opera center ensemble members Diana Newman, Josh Lovell and Emmett O’Hanlon.
They and Broadway star Kate Baldwin plus other artists will sing numbers from shows Bernstein did such as “West Side Story,” “Candide,” “Peter Pan,” “Wonderful Town” and “White House Cantata” (Originally titled “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” written with Alan Jay Lerner) and other songs.
There might be a song from “Songfest,” commissioned to celebrate America’s 1976 Bicentennial. Based on poems, it could be “To What You Said” (Walt Whitman). It is about love for another time and conflicted sexuality. Another program possibility is “So Pretty,” a 1968 anti-war song, Bernstein wrote with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Composed for a Broadway for Peace fundraiser at Lincoln Center, it was sung by Barbra Streisand.
“I think it will be revelatory,” said Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines during a recent interview.
“We have Nathan Gunn so we can do “Captain Hook’s Soliloquy,” It’s a tour de force. He as the right voice for it,” said Pines. “It was not sung in the original Broadway show (April, 24 1950) because Boris Karloff was Captain Hook (and also George Darling).
(Note: Bernstein wrote the music and lyrics as a complete score but only a few of the songs were included in the original staging, supposedly because of the leads’ limited musical range.)
The first half of Lyric’s program will be the opera which is sung in English. Pines notes that even though it was written and staged in the early 1950s, “Tahiti’s” marital communication problems are more universal then applicable to one time period.
“Couples now can relate to the problems in their own relationship,” Pines said. He also thought people would appreciate Graham’s aria in her analyst’s office and the one she sings after leaving a horrible movie. “It’s comic,” he said.
As to the second half, Pines said it was important to introduce the wide variety of Bernstein’s music and how it was reflecting events. “Bernstein was so multi-faceted we do not have time to explore every side. But I think it is a good way to see that his music is extremely varied, and its quality.”
DETAILS: Celebrating 100 years of Bernstein, March 10, 7:30 p.m. at the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 and visit Lyric Opera.
It doesn’t matter that the only memorable songs you take away from Wonderful Town, a musical about two Ohio sisters seeking success in New York, is Ohio (why did I ever leave..) and It’s Love. Leonard Bernstein’s jazz and swing music is enough to have audiences leave Goodman Theatre’s season opener with a smile.