Lenny’s Lyricists – Bernstein and Collaborators Shine
Take it from me, celebrating the work of a talented, even iconic artist is not a slam dunk. Narrative, direction, and performance must live up to a standard dictated by the quality of material. On the occasion of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, Lyrics & Lyricists’ exploration of this multifaceted artist’s collaborations gets top marks in every respect.
We sense from the get-go this will be no ordinary tribute as an overture is accompanied by live video of the hands of pianists Ray Wong and Rob Fisher (sitting in). Instead of loading the stage with a full orchestra, the artistic director has chosen a small, highly skilled group so that every minute of the rich, multi-layered music emerges with clarity and vibrance. I can’t stress too much how dynamically this enriched the concert.
Our host tonight is writer/performer Amanda Green, daughter of Adolph Green who, with partner Betty Comden, worked repeatedly with the honoree. The boys met in 1937 at summer camp and by all reports immediately became lifelong friends. “I felt the fresh air of a million windows opening simultaneously,” Adolph said. Amanda Green grew up with the Bernsteins and for this event, spoke with the maestro’s children as well as living collaborators. Her chronicle is lively, telling, and personal.
On the Town 1944 is represented by a rousing “New York, New York,” a beautiful, waltzy “Lucky to Be Me” and an animated rendition of “Carried Away” during which Howard McGillin is aptly, over sincere. The simply beautiful “Lonely Town” is performed by Tony Yazbeck who loosens his tie and leans against the wall with a deep sigh. Unless there’s love…fills the hall with dejection and longing.
Darius De Haas, Tony Yazbeck, Howard McGillin
1952’s one act opera “Trouble in Tahiti” centers on a suburban marriage falling apart and was ironically started during Bernstein’s honeymoon. It’s filled with parodies inspired by South Pacific, the then current blockbuster. There she is in her inch or two of sarong floating…then she sees him a handsome American…and to top it all off, a volcano erupts and all the natives sing ahhhhhhhhhh…
Intending to focus on his career as a composer and conductor, Bernstein was once again lured to Broadway with Comden/Green’s idea for Wonderful Town. The musical is based on My Sister Eileen, autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney. At one point out of town, star Rosalind Russell insisted on a new song described to the writers as “da dad a da joke; da da da da joke.” As she had the flu, Comden, Green and Bernstein wheeled a piano into her hotel room where they performed “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man.”
Mikeala Bennett charmingly sings “A Little Bit in Love” every inch an infatuated ingénue. She and Andrea Burns then portray Eileen and Ruth Sherwood with the wistful “Ohio.” The actors skillfully represent Eileen as feeling lost, while Ruth looks as if she’s berating herself for lack of foresight. “What A Waste” in which aspiring artists bemoan their pedestrian, professional fates is ably helmed by McGillin. Only “Conga!” falls short of fluster and exuberance. This is the sole instance I question excellent director Gary Griffin for not depicting the dance’s classic “line.”
“A lot of people say they’ve written valentines to New York, but these three (Comden, Green, Bernstein) really did it-twice” (Amanda Green)
Howard McGillin, Mikaela Bennett, Andrea Burns, Darius De Haas, Tony Yazbeck
Act II opens with the welcome video of piano hands again. We hear five songs from 1956s operetta Candide which had multiple lyricists. Lillian Hellman brought this idea to Bernstein and became so much of a family friend, she was named Godmother to Nina Bernstein. “That’s right kid, when the plane goes down, I getcha,” she purportedly told the child who burst into tears.
We see a film clip of Bernstein at the podium crediting wife Felicia (Amanda’s Godmother) with supplying some difficult rhymes for the piece. The town name Rovno Gubernya stumped him until she came up with “me muero, me sale una hernia = I’m dying and growing a hernia” which he duly utilized.
Burns makes good work of “I Am Easily Assimilated” (lyrics by Bernstein) replete with Spanish accent and rolled r’s. Yazbeck and Bennett are a perfectly matched Candide and Cunégonde for “Oh Happy We” (lyric Richard Wilber.) Really, someone put these two opposite one another in a show! Voices shimmer, characters live.
Darius De Haas
De Haas, whose voice tonight shows eloquent finesse, offers “A Simple Song” from Mass, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of Kennedy Center. Stephen Schwartz, who collaborated on the piece, was affected as much by Bernstein’s unfailing kindness and support as his talent. Lenny “as he was known to everyone from presidents to construction workers,” enhanced the creative lives of those with whom he worked.
“Candide makes a compelling argument for the separation of church and state,” Green comments. The politically active Bernstein also co-wrote 100 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976) in a decidedly difficult work relationship with Alan Jay Lerner who was appalled at the state of the country. Each wrote behind separate, closed doors and both were barred from rehearsals. From the short lived show we hear “Take Care of This House” (The White House) as resonant today as then.
The beloved West Side Story was referred to by its lyricist Stephen Sondheim as “a trunk show, full of pieces of things.” Apparently Bernstein first approached Comden/Green and was turned down. “…which is why I wear off-the-rack,” Amanda Green quips. The meticulous Bernstein apparently felt uncomfortable about “Somewhere” because of its inadvertent emphasis on “a,” Green tells us. Burt Shevelove once cracked, “Hey, Lenny, sing me the “a” song.”
Tony Yazbeck and Mikaela Bennett
Yazbeck and Bennett make a wonderful star-crossed couple in “One Hand, One Heart.” He then returns for a version of “Something’s Coming” so full of anticipation, we fully expect whatever it is to shortly arrive. Lyrics extend like unfurled ribbon. Bennett and Burns inhabit Maria and Anita with fear, defiance, and fire. Bennett’s voice is thrilling.
Green refers several times to manifestos in Bernstein’s musicals, especially those with her father. Approach was, she points out, “direct, colloquial and earthbound.” Certainly “Cool” is rife with street vernacular. De Haas is a bit less convincing here, unable to shed refined style. The audience undoubtedly visualizes Jerome Robbins’ choreography whether from the show or film.
A terrific show all ‘round.
Ray Wong-Piano, Steve Kenyon- Reeds, Dick Sarpola- Bass, Erik Charlston- Drums/Percussion
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Tony Yazbeck, Mikeala Bennett, Darius De Haas, Rob Fisher, Amanda Green, Andrea Burns. Howard McGillin
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
Rob Fisher-Artistic Director
Amanda Green- Writer & Host
Featuring: Mikaela Bennett, Andrea Burns, Darius De Haas, Howard McGillin, Tony Yazbeck
NEXT: Irving Berlin: American March 24-26
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