Maestro begins with a lesson in music theory and construct (be patient, it will pass) and unexpectedly ends with a passionate outburst of self-recrimination. Between the two lies illumination of one of the iconic music figures of our era. Hershey Felder’s beautifully written piece channels musician/composer/conductor/author/teacher Leonard Bernstein from his influentially Jewish background (even demonstrating why he thinks of The Phrygian mode –the formation of a particular set of octaves or scales, as the Jewish mode) to immense professional success, frustration and personal crisis.
Though serious musicians are likely to garner somewhat more from the piece, it’s as entertaining as it is intermittently scholarly and most definitely a character portrait. Layman-accessible allusions such as: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde exhibits forward propulsion of harmonies and motifs in need of resolve, thus creating sexual tension – are an unexpected treat.
The Jewish tenant of “continuum to God” and his father’s “niggunim…Jewish tunes that he’d suddenly burst out singing in order to remind him how close he was to God…” seem to have translated into Bernstein’s hyper consciousness of a musical continuum. “Carried Away” from On the Town (written with Betty Comden and Adolph Green), has never sounded so schmaltzy and ethnically derived as in this production.“Papa, Yankel Gershovitz (George Gershwin) never eats with the help in the kitchen!” he protests when his father disparages musical pursuits.
Other performed music ranges from that of classical and contemporary composers (including Bernstein himself) to West Side Story which “changed musical theater forever” and whose songs here punctuate his emotional life. Among those we meet are: Dimitri Mitropoulos, who literally fed Bernstein his first oyster and with whom he felt “a new and powerful kind of connection”; Aaron Copeland who commented “You’ve recycled everyone, even me,” yet recognized the young man’s talent; Fritz Reiner who “looked like he had had sex once, didn’t like it, would never have it again…” (the piece is peppered with humor); and, Serge Koussevitsky whom he attributes with unquantifiable knowledge and falls “a little bit in love.”
At 25, the “skinny Jewish kid from Lawrence, Mass.” replaced ailing Bruno Walter as conductor of The New York Philharmonic, a full position he later acquired. At 33, he married his best friend, Chilean-born American actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre with whom he had a treasured family. Felder depicts their relationship as deeply loving (despite the quote “I had become completely behaviorized”) and his subject’s adulterous sex life with great delicacy. International reputation swelled as Bernstein conducted, composed, taught, and brought classical music to television.
The chronicle is detailed. It could successfully be 10-15 minutes shorter in music, but the libretto is terrific and the show holds. Bernstein’s own words and thoughts enrich. Ambition, ego and selfishness are addressed in tandem with talent, tenderness, a soupcon of politics, and regrets. Hershey Felder is appreciative and sympathetic but not, mercifully, starry-eyed; a fine pianist, a fair singer, a splendid writer and a fully invested performer.
Director Joel Zwick does a virtuoso job of guiding this one man show so that its subject is an unrushed Sherezhade, imitating pivotal conductors (albeit with extremely similar accents)and recalling his life in an arc from excited ambition, though joyful appreciation, to bitterness and remorse. Wry lines land on target. Ego is palpable. Passages concerning Bernstein’s wife, Felicia are moving. Pacing is adroit.
Set Design by Francois-Pierre Couture says a lot with a little, inclusively offering blank canvas on which Projection and Lighting Designer Christopher Ash exhibits his nuanced, illustrative skills. Images often bleed across the floor as well as backdrop, film at the center of a still becomes framed by mood, gradual morphing is well calculated. ‘Love the candle and stars.
Photos Courtesy of Hershey Felder Pesents
Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro
Book by Hershey Felder
Directed by Joel Zwick
59 East 59th Street
Through October 16, 2016