“Please G-d, leave us this one mystery unsolved: why man creates. The minute that one is solved, I fear art will cease to be. And in that artless and unmysterious world, I would also preferably cease to be.”
Near the end of a small exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, this quote from Leonard Bernstein is featured without context. Only a year—1964—is given, when the grand composer, conductor, and writer wrote or spoke these words. They are a fitting end to a powerful illustration of Bernstein’s life.
Bernstein would have turned 100 on August 25, 2018, and the worldwide celebration of his centennial will continue for at least another year. The choreographer for Bernstein’s masterpiece West Side Story, Jerome Robbins, would also have turned 100 this year, and the musical has been featured everywhere from Washington’s Kennedy Center to London’s Royal Albert Hall to small community theaters.
Many places lay claim to Bernstein in one way or another—called the “Boston boychik” as a young man, he studied music in Philadelphia and later directed the New York Philharmonic, where he led more concerts than any previous conductor. While attending Harvard, he met Aaron Copland, who became a key mentor and musical influence. Within days of the founding of Israel in 1948, he conducted an orchestra of Holocaust survivors living in displaced-persons camps near Munich; on the program was George Gershwin’s soulful Rhapsody in Blue, and Bernstein reported that he “cried [his] heart out.” He also led concerts in Israel throughout its fight for independence, often in war zones. (After one performance in Rehovoth, he was called offstage due to a possible air raid, and later returned to the piano. He remarked, “I never played such an Adagio. I thought it was my swan song.”) In 1989, he gave a concert in West Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. And at the request of Pope John Paul II, Bernstein performed at the Vatican in 1973 and again in 2000.
As the exhibit emphasizes, he was unabashedly Jewish—he rejected a mentor’s suggestion to adopt a stage name, described himself as “the Sinatra of Palestine,” and wrote poetic letters about the land of Israel—yet he also composed Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Dancers, and Players with guidance from Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and left-wing activist. Originally commissioned by Jackie Kennedy as a tribute to her late husband at the Kennedy Center’s opening in 1971, Bernstein later conducted the semi-religious work at the Vatican for John Paul.
These plays on religious identity might have reflected Bernstein’s perennial fascination with and perhaps contempt for spiritual and ethnic divisions; there was a subversive element to both Mass and Kaddish, his extended riff on a traditional Jewish prayer. The original concept for West Side Story, in fact, pitted Catholics and Jews against each other in a conflict relating to Easter and Passover. While Bernstein later changed it to reflect a more contemporary schism—between Latinos and whites—his instinct to infuse Romeo and Juliet with religious tension is telling.
Of course, Bernstein was not only interested in religious friction; the museum includes a nod to Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” in which he famously shredded Bernstein for, Wolfe suggested, parading Black Panthers around as a kind of disruptive fashion accessory. This criticism stung, and may also have contributed to enhanced scrutiny of Bernstein’s activities (he had already had his passport temporarily revoked during the McCarthy era). It was revealed during the 1980s that the FBI had launched a far-reaching attack on Bernstein’s reputation.
Long before Bernstein took home a piece of the Berlin Wall (on display in the exhibit), hosted the Black Panthers, or battled J. Edgar Hoover, he abruptly eclipsed the American music scene. At the age of 25, with only a few hours to prepare, Bernstein stood in for the ailing maestro Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall and guided the New York Philharmonic through Don Quixote. His debut made the front page of the New York Times. Sam Bernstein, Leonard’s father, kept a scrapbook chronicling his son’s road to “becoming” Leonard Bernstein; the exhibit displays it open to a Boston Sunday Post feature with the headline “Father in Tears at Boy Conductor’s Triumph.”
In much the same way that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work transfigured American theater when he was only 28, Bernstein astounded the classical music world and later Broadway. At the age of 26, his first collaboration with Jerome Robbins premiered in the theater district and closed after 462 performances. On the Town was noted at the time for its racially diverse cast and its blend of jazz, blues, mambo, boogie-woogie and classical ballet; most remarkably, while the United States was at war with Japan and holding Japanese-Americans in internment camps, Japanese-American ballerina Sono Osato was cast as a central love interest.
By the time West Side Story premiered on Broadway when Bernstein was 39, virtually everyone knew his name and his passionate, near-extravagant conducting style. The musical proved to be his most popular and culturally significant work. The museum includes the copy of Romeo and Juliet that Robbins and Bernstein personally pored over and annotated in preparation for the show. It lies open to page six of Act 1, Scene 1, on which Bernstein had written a suggestion for a song on racism called “It’s the Jews.” In the prologue, Bernstein had written: “an out and out plea for racial tolerance.” This plea may ultimately have taken shape in the musical’s climactic “Somewhere.”
Today, Bernstein’s signature work is undergoing another transformation. In April, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner held several open casting calls for their upcoming movie remake of West Side Story, to be filmed next summer. During an interview with Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty, Kushner reflected on the “tricky” task of reshaping the film, which he noted “was written by four white Jewish guys.” He seemed to be deflecting real or imagined criticisms of his own role on the project: “It’s. . . not exclusively about Puerto Ricans. It’s about white guys and Puerto Rican guys and white girls and Puerto Rican girls. So what does that mean, we should have two directors and two screenwriters?” Kushner mused. “I’m a big believer in identity politics and political correctness. Why shouldn’t we want to be politically correct, if by correct you mean not toeing the party line but toeing the line of history, being on the right side of history, being moral and ethical.”
While Kushner concluded that he was “absolutely not” doing something wrong by writing West Side Story, his free-flowing deliberations about cultural appropriation seem counter to the story’s central message of overcoming divides and to Bernstein’s own approach to art, through which he often encouraged uncomfortable encounters. Despite his deep ties to Judaism—and despite the fact that many of his musical influences were Jewish, including George Gershwin and Aaron Copland—Bernstein never appeared to feel creatively limited by his identity. West Side Story does not “belong” to any particular group or genre. Its songs have been performed in pop venues and European opera houses, and recorded by artists as diverse as The Supremes, Barbra Streisand, and Aretha Franklin. It is also worth noting that “Officer Krupke,” West Side Story’s musical skewering of an insincere “touchin’ good story” that blames bad behavior on external forces, is politically incorrect by nearly any standard.
Bernstein and Kushner’s different approaches might also reflect a change in the perceived status of Jewish people in America and elsewhere. Bernstein’s career began around the start of World War II. Throughout the war and for years after, it is likely that few Jews would have thought to apologize, as Kushner seemed to, for holding “privileged position[s].” But while Bernstein never ceded his identity or personal concerns, he seemed not to want his work to serve or represent just one camp.
In any venue or work, it would be difficult to capture the full measure of Bernstein—his enthusiasms, his humor, and the achievements that his father described as a gift “to an America that has done everything for me.” But the museum’s exhibit, though modest, is striking. Beyond his music and politics, there are lovely glosses on his wedding, excerpts from his tongue-in-cheek review of his son’s bar-mitzvah reading, and accounts of his devoted friendships. One walks away with a sense of recognition, of warmth, the feeling that you might know what to say to Bernstein if you met him in the street.