By Greg Stepanich
As befits the daughter of an eminent man of music, Jamie Bernstein answers the first question by singing.
“Don’t it always seem to go / You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” she warbles, channeling Joni Mitchell’s 1970 classic, Big Yellow Taxi. She’s answering a polite query about the legacy of her father, Leonard, composer, pianist, conductor, educator and world eminence, who in his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic showed millions of young people — and their parents — that classical music could be not just fun, but cool to listen to.
“When my father was alive, I took him for granted, in a way,” she said last month from her home in New York. “He was my dad, and we were in the middle of our lives together. It’s only been as the years have passed since his death that it’s really begun to hit me of the degree of impact that he had on more than one generation of music lovers. It’s amazing to contemplate.”
Leonard Bernstein died in 1990, nearly 25 years ago, but in several important ways, his legacy has only grown in the absence of his corporeality. Several of his works — West Side Story, the overture to his operetta Candide and the choral work Chichester Psalms — are seen and heard regularly, and in recent years there has been more attention paid to his wonderful one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, his three symphonies, and the Serenade for violin and orchestra, a concerto in everything but name that may be his finest classical achievement.
Although it’s scheduled for another revival this fall at New York’s Lyric Theatre, Bernstein’s earliest Broadway score, On the Town, which premiered in the last days of 1944, has not established itself the way West Side Story has. But it is a marvelous piece, with among other things a famous opening number (New York, New York), a ballad revered by jazz players (Some Other Time) and a standout comic number (I Can Cook, Too) that makes a great impression if the performer is brassy and high-spirited enough.
This month, as part of the inaugural Spirit of America Festival at Florida Atlantic University, Aaron Kula and his Klezmer Company Orchestra will mark the 70th anniversary of the musical’s premiere with a full concert version of the score, performed by six singers and the 50-piece KCO.
The show is set for 3 p.m. June 22, at the Kaye Performing Arts Auditorium on FAU’s Boca Raton campus.
The three-day festival also will feature Kula in conversation with Jamie Bernstein at 7:30 p.m. June 21, at the Wimberly Library, preceded by a meet-and-greet reception.
And on June 23 at 7 p.m., also at the library, theater critic Bill Hirschman, who operates the Florida Theater On Stage website, will provide commentary for a piano-vocal recital called Bernstein on Broadway.
The show is about three sailors on shore leave who have 24 hours to see the big city; it was made into a movie in 1949 with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin as the sailors, and Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett and Ann Miller as their love interests. But most of Bernstein’s score was replaced with far more conventional songs by MGM house hack Roger Edens, which was a sore point with the composer, and still is today with his daughter.
But the movie was a hit, and confusion about what was actually in that score may have hindered its acceptance in the way that the film of West Side Story, considered a cinematic masterpiece, helped secure that work’s place in the theatrical pantheon.
“It’s a more lightweight story,” Jamie Bernstein says of On the Town. “It’s three sailors on shore leave, it’s very humorous, and it doesn’t have the gravitas of the Romeo and Juliet template that West Side Story has. It’s just in a different category.”
But the music itself is anything but frivolous.
“Musically, boy, that score has so much going on in it,” she said. “It was one of the first, and one of the few, through-composed Broadway scores. My father, with his classical training, really brought a symphonic and through-composed approach to writing show music, where he would take motives and work them all the way through …
“I think at the time people thought that maybe it meant a rounding of the corner for Broadway scores, and from now on, Broadway scores would be much more sophisticated,” she said.
“Looking back, my father’s scores were more like a blip on the screen, and then everybody went right back to their old habits. I don’t think that, except for my father and [Stephen] Sondheim, anybody wrote Broadway scores that way. It was just kind of an anomaly.”
On the Town was developed from a ballet score called Fancy Free that Leonard Bernstein had composed for choreographer Jerome Robbins.
“That might be the engine of On the Town, that driving dance music, and the way my father was able to mix together the jazz genres with his own symphonic impulses,” she said, adding that the Three Dance Episodes suite her father drew from his score remains one of her favorite pieces.
The team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the book and lyrics for On the Town, and later worked with Bernstein on another score with New York at its heart, Wonderful Town. Their other collaborations include Bells Are Ringing, with Jule Styne, and the scripts for Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon.
“I couldn’t begin to appreciate them when they were in my life, and now I miss them so much,” said Bernstein, who’s 61. Green died in 2002, Comden in 2006. “Betty and Adolph really made my father laugh, and that was no small thing. They just had this bond where they enjoyed each other’s company so much. … There is that element of delight that you can hear in the score of On the Town. You can practically hear them laughing together.”
Bernstein has been working for the past four years on a documentary about El Sistema, the social change-through-music program for impoverished Venezuelans that has spawned legions of imitators (70 such programs in the United States alone) and at least one world-class career, that of Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel. The movie should be ready by the end of the year, she said, and in the meantime, she and her sister Nina and brother Alexander are heavily involved in plans for the celebration in 2018 of their father’s centennial.
And championing the life and work of Leonard Bernstein never gets burdensome, she insists.“Everybody should be so lucky to carry such a burden,” she said. “We are so proud of him, and so proud of his legacy. Who wouldn’t want to go out and share it with the world?”
Tickets for the Jamie Bernstein conversation are $25, and for the Bernstein on Broadway recital are $15; On the Town tickets are $20-$42. Call 800-564-9539 or visit www.fauevents.com.
If ever there were an art exhibit that screams baby boomers, it’s the Norton Museum of Art’s summer show, Wheels and Heels: The Big Noise Around Little Toys, which pays tribute to two iconic toys that made their debut in the 1950s: the miniature car and the Barbie doll.
Much ado has been made about Barbie, of course, and 2009 marked a huge worldwide examination of the 50th birthday of Mattel Inc.’s cultural bombshell. But last year marked the 60th anniversary of the appearance of Matchbox cars, an innovation from Britain’s Lesney Products and Co. that was to be followed 15 years later by Hot Wheels, a competing line of tiny cars from Mattel.
Opening June 19 and running through Oct. 26, Wheels and Heels features many objects related to these three products as well as hundreds of the dolls and cars themselves. Included are Barbie’s college dorm from 1964, Matchbox racetracks, TV commercials, manufacturing films and marketing publications such as the Random House books devoted to Barbie’s backstory.
Matthew Bird, the guest curator for the exhibit, says Barbie hit the sweet spot of price, demand and cultural relevance when she was introduced in 1959, and helped usher kid power into consumerism.
“Before Mattel came along, toys were only sold at the holidays. The Sears catalog only had a toy section in December,” said Bird, 48, an assistant professor of industrial design at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. But Mattel’s Ruth Handler, who invented Barbie, realized that Mattel could not have a viable business for long by being busy for just part of the year, he said.
“Handler realized that the only way to do that was to appeal to the kids,” he said last month from Providence, R.I. Mattel almost bankrupted itself by borrowing large amounts of capital to take out advertising on The Mickey Mouse Club show in the early days of television, he said, but that helped establish the idea of a year-round appetite for toys.
“It steadied their business dramatically, but it also turned the kids into the ones who were making the decisions about what they wanted,” he said. “It was very engineered, and I think everyone else learned from the success of that effort.”
The Norton show also outlines the manufacturing breakthroughs that helped make the toys truly mass-market. Lesney’s Matchboxes, for instance, were created initially as a response to a school show-and-tell request by the daughter of Lesney engineer Jack Odell, who had to bring something to class that could fit in a matchbox.
“Both companies were amazingly innovative in how they changed manufacturing, and frankly, what it allowed the rest of the world to do was pretty exciting,” Bird said, such as the rotational-molding technology Mattel pioneered that allowed Barbie to strike a pose rather than flop around like dolls of previous eras.
“The same thing with Lesney: They were brilliant machinists, and they were the only people able to make that level of detail in such a small metal part. They made all their own machinery, they made all their dies … and all the ways we mold metal since, and I would argue, plastic as well … all of that came out of Lesney trying to make more efficient molding,” he said.
Mattel changed the toy-car game in 1968 with Hot Wheels, focusing on speed rather than detail, and introducing a sense of imaginative fancy, such as the not-found-in-nature Draguar, a racing-style Jaguar with a chrome engine sticking out of the hood and a plastic bubble encasing driver and passenger. But Hot Wheels also had a frictionless wheel system, so that the cars would really move, Bird said, unlike the Matchboxes, which had metal wheels and axles, and so couldn’t get up much of a head of tiny steam.
Ultimately, Lesney went under in the 1980s and was bought out by several other companies and then by its old rival Mattel, which continues to make both car lines today.
The exhibit also will include an interactive playroom, but details of what it will contain are still being worked out by Norton staff, Bird said. He sticks up for the power of imagination, and kids’ ability to use it, as a counter to criticisms such as the familiar one about Barbie’s unrealistic body, or that a Matchbox truck and car can be exactly the same size, and therefore not fit to scale.
“I think that’s a great example of trusting kids’ ability to imagine,” he said. “I like that both companies were just not that worried about controlling the play scenario. They just were making the toy, with faith that the kids would figure it out.”
The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $12 for adults, $5 for students with valid ID, and free for members and children 12 and under. Call 832-5196 or visit www.norton.org.