“For celebrating Bernstein, I wanted a concert like this,” said Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot. “His music reminds us how generous he was in all respects, as a conductor, composer and educator."
Ludovic Morlot recalls a special night when Leonard Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town” helped ring out the old and ring in the new.
“I once fell upon a New Year’s Eve performance of ‘Wonderful Town’ in Berlin,” says Morlot, Seattle Symphony’s music director. “Perhaps it helped that the night was festive. But I was smiling all the way.”
In honor of the late, larger-than-life Bernstein in 2018, his centennial year (the superstar conductor of the New York Philharmonic and composer of “West Side Story” was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on Aug. 25, 1918), Morlot has decided to put smiles on a lot more faces when he conducts the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Chorale and guest vocalists in “Wonderful Town” in Benaroya Hall this month.
“For celebrating Bernstein, I wanted a concert like this,” Morlot says. “His music reminds us how generous he was in all respects, as a conductor, composer and educator. He had a tremendous love for life and for people, and therefore for sharing music.”
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The June 14 and 16 performances, which also feature the world premiere of “Significant Others” by SSO composer-in-residence Alexandra Gardner, and Bernstein’s 1949 “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” will include a staged musical version of “Wonderful Town,” which debuted on Broadway in 1953. Glamorous Hollywood star Rosalind Russell (“His Girl Friday”) and Juilliard-trained singer and television comic Edie Adams played Midwest sisters chasing careers in New York City and adapting to a madcap life in Greenwich Village.
“Wonderful Town,” with a book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, swept the major Tony Awards, and has since gone on to popular revivals in the U.S. and U.K.
Yet for all that, none of its songs (with the possible exception of the loping “Ohio,” which would not sound out of place in a vintage, singing-cowboy movie) are as well known as tunes from Bernstein’s other works for musical theater: “On the Town” (which opened on Broadway in 1944), “Candide” (1956) and “West Side Story” (1957).
That could change for Seattle audiences taking in the lighthearted “Wonderful Town,” a score that is an anomaly in the Bernstein canon, according to biographer and composer Allen Shawn (“Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician”). Shawn says “Wonderful Town” is best appreciated within the unusual context of its origins and the full scope of Bernstein’s prolific composing at the time.
“Bernstein was a unique composer in terms of his relationship to musical theater,” says Shawn, who attended a 1958 revival of “Wonderful Town,” with Russell returning as Ruth, an aspiring journalist.
“You have to situate this show in terms of Bernstein’s other activities at the time. It was almost a vacation for him from the many other things he was up to, and composing it came so naturally to him. He was very much inspired by collaborating with his old friends Comden and Green, who were like family.”
Bernstein seemed to be everywhere, musically speaking, in those days.
“He’d already written a fantastic show with Comden and Green in ‘On the Town,’” says Shawn, brother of actor-writer Wallace Shawn and son of William Shawn, the storied editor of The New Yorker.
Prior to “Wonderful Town,” Bernstein had composed two ballets (including “Fancy Free,” the inspiration for “On the Town”); a one-act opera (“Trouble in Tahiti”); two symphonies (“Jeremiah” and “The Age of Anxiety”); another Broadway musical (1950’s “Peter Pan”; the full score unheard until 2000); and choral, solo vocal, piano and chamber music.
Bernstein had also begun what would prove to be a fruitful, career-long relationship with television, later culminating in his seminal “Young People’s Concerts” on CBS for 14 years.
“He was also having an extraordinary career as a conductor on the international stage,” says Shawn. “He had just gotten married and had his first child, Jamie. In fact, he wrote a little lullabye for her which was developed into the ballad ‘A Quiet Girl’ in ‘Wonderful Town.’ ”
Bernstein, who was named music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, also had a deep love of theater and Broadway.
“There was nothing fake about either his serious side or his show-business side,” says Shawn. “He did not censor his love for different kinds of music in different circumstances. He could do anything.”
Bernstein’s involvement in “Wonderful Town” came about because another composer’s music wasn’t working. A new score had to be written in just five weeks, or the production would lose Russell. Comden, Green and Bernstein spent those weeks in a hotel room, smoking and pounding out songs and instrumental passages.
That explains, according to Shawn, why “Wonderful Town” is more of a traditional show score, and a less famous one, than either “On The Town” or “West Side Story.”
“It’s less unified. ‘West Side Story’ is more akin to opera because of the way its numbers are motivically linked and cross-referenced. We really perceive it as a ‘work,’ as opposed to a collection of numbers, like ‘Wonderful Town.’ Bernstein drew upon his encyclopedic storehouse of musical associations: barbershop quartet, conga and party music, the influence of [bandleader and pianist] Eddie Duchin. Bernstein even tried to insert his unperformed ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,’ a jazz piece he’d originally written for Woody Herman. It didn’t work, but you can hear a couple of musical quotes from it.”
Seattle Symphony’s new principal clarinet Benjamin Lulich will be a featured player in “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” (Herman was a clarinetist). Among the guest vocalists are baritone Kevin Deas, mezzo-sopranos Sheila Houlahan and Kristen Choi, and tenor Ross Hauck. Morlot promises a bit of movement (choreographer Katy Tabb has been engaged) and a lot of activity from Chorale members.
The program’s inclusion of Alexandra Gardner’s world premiere — a short piece she says helps establish the tone for the evening — is a tribute to Bernstein’s championing of new works and American composers, such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.
“He would be very proud of supporting women composers,” says Morlot. “There was no way I would do a celebration of his music without doing a premiere.”
Morlot says it’s difficult to think about music in the 20th century without thinking of Bernstein. “The story of music was transformed by his generosity and talent. He made music accessible for everyone.”
Shawn, who attended many “Young People’s Concerts” in person, met Bernstein several times while growing up, and once played piano in a concert Bernstein attended. “My childhood impression of him was always of a sudden gust of incredible energy, glamour and warmth.”
“Wonderful Town,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 14, and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 16; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $22-$122 (free for 8- to 18-year-olds when accompanied by at least one paying adult); 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org