THE BOOK SHELF: "The Leonard Bernstein Letters"

By Steven Suskin
06 Oct 2013

#164, 1943, to Jerome Robbins: In a series of seven letters, LB describes his progress on the ballet "Fancy Free" to collaborator Robbins (who was on tour at the time). He sent off letters as he hurriedly finishes each section, describing the music as best he can. "God, what a race with destiny!" The PS: "By the way, I have written a musical double-take when the sailor sees Girl #2--has that ever been done before? And the rhythm of your pas de deux is something startling--hard at first, but oh so danceable with the pelvis!" He adds: "Ran across Agnes de Mille last night, & she's really rooting for you and the ballet."

#181, 1943, to Copland. While in the throes of composing his first musical, On the Town: "The show is a wild monster now which doesn't let me sleep or eat or anything; in fact the world seems to be composed of the show the show the show, and little else... Maybe it will be a great hit, and maybe it will lay the great egg of all time."

Pardon if I've gone on too long; I wanted to give you enough to suggest just how much you will enjoy "The Leonard Bernstein Letters." There is plenty more, of course; another 50 years worth. Plenty — and I mean plenty — on the long and winding road to West Side Story. (Who was it who once said something about "no fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos, amigos"?) This section is capped by a thoroughly fascinating four-pager (#404) from lyricist Stephen Sondheim filling in the composer — who left to conduct in Israel directly after the opening — on the recording session, various backstage matters, and assorted West Side Story items. Sondheim being Sondheim, this gives us an honest and candid view of the show as it was when it opened; not in memory, but in real time.

Two other items left me more or less open-jawed. There is a vicious 1955 letter (#364) from composer Marc Blitzstein, another close friend/mentor since 1939, when Bernstein produced the Boston premiere of The Cradle Will Rock while a twenty-year-old Harvard student. (Blitzstein was godfather to Bernstein's first child; the other two were named after the heroines of Blitzstein's Regina and Reuben, Reuben.) Blitzstein castigates LB for "your outrageous treatment in subjecting me to a private meeting in your drawing-room with the worm Robbins" and goes on to explain just why. Blitzstein also quotes Bernstein on Robbins: "My stomach turns at the thought of working with him again." Questions about Bernstein and his marriage are answered in an extraordinary letter (#320) from wife Felicia, shortly after their marriage in 1951: "You are a homosexual and may never change — you don't admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do? I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr... Let's try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!"



Maybe we should leave it with Jule Styne (letter #410 — or rather a telegram, on the occasion of his debut as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, just after the opening of West Side Story): "I need a fella who can play in a publisher's office for singers, who can write a ballet and play the dance rehearsals and then orchestrate it, who can write the music for a new musical comedy and then orchestrate it, and who can write a ballet and play for Agnes de Mille and Michael Kidd and Jerome Robbins too, and who can take this ballet and orchestrate it the hard way with the orchestra sitting the wrong way and the horns pointing into the trombone player's ear... Do you know of such a fellow? I do. Good luck. Can you cook?"

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)