Fact-Checks and Footnotes For the Leonard Bernstein Biopic, Maestro | Playbill

Special Features Fact-Checks and Footnotes For the Leonard Bernstein Biopic, Maestro

Bradley Cooper directed and starred in the new film, and we rate how well he mimicked Bernstein's conducting style.

Bradley Cooper Jason McDonald/Netflix

If you, like many Broadway fans, are watching the Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro (streaming on Netflix as of December 20) this holiday season, you may find yourself wanting to cross-reference all of the Broadway and Broadway-adjacent faces, places, and facts.

But never fear! Watch in phone- and Google-less peace and then read this, a collection of fact checks and footnotes that essentially give you the experience of watching the film sitting next to a giant Broadway nerd (e.g. me). Here is how accurately Maestro's director, writer, producer, star Bradley Cooper portrayed the famed composer (and his conducting style).

Matt Bomer and Bradley Cooper Jason McDonald/Netflix

Bernstein's Unlikely New York Philharmonic Debut

Sometimes truth is even more amazing than what fiction can come up with. As unbelievable as it seems—and as distressing to anyone who's lived more than a quarter century—Bernstein did indeed make a splashy New York Philharmonic conducting debut at the tender age of 25, becoming a true wunderkind of the '40s NYC music scene. 

The year was 1943, and Bernstein had just been appointed assistant conductor of the ensemble when guest conductor Bruno Walter came down with the flu. The press was well on hand to catch Bernstein's heady debut (with, as depicted in Maestro, no rehearsal). He made front page news in The New York Times the next day. A star was born. Those events are dramatized early on in Maestro.

As for spending the night in the venerated Carnegie Hall with a lover, that's a bit of movie magic—mostly. Bernstein did actually live at the time in a studio apartment above the concert venue, though it did not offer the musician completely unfettered access to the hall at all hours. Consider that scene a bit of artistic embellishment. 

Broadway Cameos

Shortly after Lenny's NY Phil debut, we get the first of this film's many Broadway cameos: Michael Urie as choreographer Jerome Robbins. In the movie's scene, Lenny and Jerome are collaborating on Fancy Free, the 1944 ballet that they would use as the inspiration for their 1945 musical On the Town. Of course, the two would later iconically collaborate on West Side Story.

Early in the film, we also meet Matt Bomer as David Oppenheim, one of Bernstein's friends and lovers, and Frozen star Greg Hildreth as Isaac. Later, keep an eye out for Nick Blaemire as On the Town and Wonderful Town co-lyricist Adolph Green, Hedwig and the Angry Inch star Miriam Shor as Cynthia O'Neal, Slave Play's James Cusati-Moyer as Georgie, Gideon Glick as Tommy Cothran, and Bad Cinderella's Jordan Dobson as William (the young conductor Bernstein coaches in the movie's moving final scenes).

There's also a delightful fantasy sequence with a host of Broadway dancers, but more on that later.

Scott Ellis, Gideon Glick, and Carey Mulligan Jason McDonald/Netflix

About Felicia Montealegre's Acting Career

Bernstein's career vastly eclipsed that of his wife, Felicia Montealegre (played on-screen by Carey Mulligan). Montealegre's career isn't as delved into in the film but she was a talented and accomplished actor in her own right. She made her Broadway debut in 1946 in Swan Song, later understudying Leora Dana in a 1950 production of The Happy Time. After appearing in a 1953 The Merchant of Venice, she returned to Broadway in 1967 as Birdie Hubbard in a revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. Her final Broadway performance would come in 1976's Poor Murderer. On screen, Montealegre was a familiar face on anthology dramas like Kraft Television TheatreStudio OneSuspenseThe Chevrolet Tele-Theatre, and The Philco Television Playhouse.

Notes on the Underscoring

Cooper, who directed Maestro along with starring as Lenny, elected to use Bernstein's own compositions for the film's soundtrack almost exclusively. As Lenny is talking to David and the scene shifts to Felicia arriving at the house party, we hear the haunting "Lonely Town Pas de deux" from On the Town. As they rush to catch a bus after the party, you'll hear one of the interludes from Trouble in Tahiti—which, while not a musical intended for Broadway, is definitely an opera that most musical theatre fans would love. Later, Felicia takes a curtain call to "Paris Waltz" from Candide.

And, of course, no Playbill reader could miss the "Prologue" from West Side Story, appropriately used as Lenny contentiously arrives to the Bernsteins' Connecticut home with secret lover Tommy Cothran in tow. We also get the much performed Overture from Candide over the credits.

Comden and Green

At the house party scene early in the film, besides Felicia, we meet Mallory Portnoy as Betty Comden and Nick Blaemire as Adolph Green. Bernstein had been a former roommate of Green's, when the latter was in a satirical music troupe with Comden and Judy Holliday. When they decided to expand Fancy Free into On the Town, Bernstein and Robbins reached out to Comden and Green for the book and lyrics. Ever the opportunistic writers, Comden and Green wrote themselves into the show, becoming the musical's first Claire and Ozzie—the song they sing at the party, "Carried Away," is their duet from On the Town. Comden, Green, and Bernstein would again collaborate on 1953's Wonderful Town. In fact, Comden and Green would go on to become some of Broadway and Hollywood's most beloved writers, with titles like the Mary Martin Peter PanBells Are RingingApplause, and Singin' in the Rain.

Fancy Free Meets On the Town

Maestro may not be a movie musical, but that doesn't mean there isn't a good musical number. A fantasy sequence in which Felicia asks Lenny to show her the "non-serious" music he's written puts the two on stage as dancers—with Cooper doing his own dancing! They perform excerpts from Fancy Free and On the Town. The moviemakers went pretty authentic here, using almost exclusively Robbins' original choreography for both the ballet and the musical. That's even the original scenic design for Fancy Free they're using, no doubt easy enough to get ahold of as the work is still actively in the repertoire for the New York City Ballet. In a historical departure, we don't see Michael Urie dancing as one of the three sailors in Fancy Free, even though Jerome Robbins performed in the work's original cast. 

We do, however, get a ton of Broadway dancer cameos to keep an eye out for, including Ryan Steele, Ricky Ubeda, Sara Esty, Ahmad Simmons, Kyle Coffman, Yesenia Ayala, Skye Mattox, Leigh-Ann Esty, and Tanairi Sade Vazquez.

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in Maestro Courtesy of Netflix

Previewing West Side Story on Person to Person

Maestro shows Lenny and Felicia being interviewed for Edward Murrow's Person to Person in 1955. That really happened—you can watch it here. It's fascinating to see them so casually mentioning the then-still-being-written West Side Story, which would go on to become Bernstein's most iconic work. Maestro sticks to what they really said in that interview almost word for word—though if you watch the real deal, you might notice that Felicia does not mention West Side Story's young lyricist "Stevie Sondheim." The musical would be Sondheim's professional debut, so she likely thought he wasn't worth mentioning at the time. 

It kind of worked out for him, though. After a few landmark, genre-defining musicals of his own without Bernstein, the late Sondheim is, needless to say, extremely worth mentioning now—which is no doubt why the filmmakers decided to correct Felicia's oversight in Maestro.

That Fictitious Candide Scene

Moving into the color portion of Maestro, we're treated to a scene where Lenny is leading a chorus rehearsal of "Make Our Garden Grow," the finale to Candide. The film isn't too specific about where or when this is happening, though we can be pretty sure that it's an invented scene. 

In the film's chronology, we have to be past the work's 1956 Broadway premiere, so perhaps the scene is depicting the 1973 Hal Prince-helmed revival, which played an Off-Broadway run at Brooklyn Academy of Music. It transferred to Broadway the following year. If so, they're fudging the facts somewhat.

Though Candide is one of Bernstein's most beloved works now, its first Broadway outing was not successful. The show was thought of as an infamous flop until Hal Prince mounted his dramatically reimagined and revised production in the '70s. Prince commissioned a new book from Hugh Wheeler that cut the running time to an intermission-less 105 minutes. Much of Bernstein's score ended up on the cutting room floor, while new and revised numbers got added to the song list. The original symphonic orchestration was dropped for a more scrappy 13-member ensemble, part of Prince's more humble vision for the production. He staged it as if the story was being told by a ragtag group of traveling performers, using any scrap they can find for costumes and props. He also set the action—and the orchestra—throughout the audience, transforming BAM, and later the Broadway Theatre, into a black box space with stages scattered all over the theatre. The production was the first time Candide was a true success, and became the basis for several other revisions that followed—which were mostly to allow for more opera house-style productions that restored Bernstein's full score and orchestrations.

Prince's humble vibe extend to the cast size, too. Prince used just 22 actors, most of whom played multiple roles throughout the evening. In the Maestro scene, the choir Lenny is conducting has more members than the '73 Candide's entire company. Bernstein also would have had very little to do with the revival's rehearsals, much less its chorus rehearsals.

But the scene nevertheless contains one very strong and special connection to the '73 Candide. When the scene shifts to Felicia coaching an actor on Spanish pronunciations in the lyrics to "I Am So Easily Assimilated," that actor in the scene is June Gable. She played The Old Lady (who sings "I Am So Easily Assimilated") in the '73 revival in real life. Fans of the '90s sitcom Friends might also recognize Gable as Joey's not-so-great agent Estelle.

Bradley Cooper Jason McDonald/Netflix

Bernstein at the Piano

We're treated to several performances at the piano from Cooper throughout the film (though Cooper did learn how to play for the film and we do see his hands at the piano, the actual playing is by Maestro's music editor Victoria Ruggiero). At the very beginning, Lenny plays the "Postlude" from A Quiet Place, an 1983 opera that expanded Bernstein's 1951 one-act Trouble in Tahiti by giving it a second act. The piece was likely chosen for the film because it would have been poignant to Bernstein following the 1978 death of Montealegre—both Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place are about a strained marriage. 

Later in the film, we hear Lenny playing his 1971 "theatre piece for singer, players, and dancers," Mass. Though musical theatre fans will notice that Mass sounds similar to the "Maria" underscoring that occurs during the dialogue portion in West Side Story’s “Dance at the Gym” scene (the man was clearly fascinated with tritones!). It should also be noted that Mass is considerably longer than the arm's length of music sheets Lenny triumphantly presents to his family in the film. The genre-bucking work was commissioned for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Maestro depicts Mass debuting in the scenes directly following his piano performance.

Felicia Reading Poetry on TV

That scene where Felicia is on a deliciously 1970s set of some unspecified television program? In real life, she was performing William Walton's Façade, a musical piece written to accompany the poetry of Edith Sitwell. You can watch her doing it for real here.

A Café Carlyle Fact Check

At a lunch with Lenny's sister, Shirley, Felicia mentions meeting someone for lunch at "Café Carlyle, nothing fancy." Reader, Café Carlyle is very fancy. Both an upscale cabaret venue and elite eatery, the NYC institution is located within the five-star Carlye Hotel. Perhaps it's a commentary on the standard of living Felicia is used to at that point.

Bradley Cooper and Brian Klugman Jason McDonald/Netflix

We Have to Talk About the Conducting

Look, this is far from Maestro's Broadway or even Broadway-adjacent material, but it can't be overstated how spectacular Cooper's conducting performance is in this film. Never is that more in the spotlight than in the scene (in the latter half of the film) set in 1973 in the U.K.'s Cathedral Ely, where Cooper as Lenny conducts Mahler's Symphony No. 2. Cooper had access to some of the best conducting training available, working with Met Opera conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin as his coach. But Cooper was not merely tasked with learning to conduct as the vast majority of conductors do. 

Cooper had to conduct like Bernstein. Bernstein wasn't just a great conductor. He was an incredibly unique conductor. If you've ever performed in an orchestra or choir, you likely know what conducting beat patterns look like. You will seldom find any of them when Bernstein is at the podium. His incredibly emotional style, always closely connected to the heart of the music he's leading, often looks somewhat closer to interpretive dance than it does traditional conducting. And that's largely why he was known for leading uniquely passionate and emotional performances with some of the greatest ensembles in the world. How you go from being an actor, who's not a classically trained musician, to being able to give a Bernstein-like conducting performance—frankly, even if it only had to be the one time on camera—is astonishing. And that's an understatement.

And while we're at it, I must give a shout-out to Broadway's Jordan Dobson for his performance as the conducting student at the end of the film, too. As a former conducting student myself, I can tell you that Dobson's rendering of the high-wire act of trying to lead an ensemble, while yourself being the subject of the scrutiny and critique during a conducting lesson, is...extremely accurate. 

Bernstein's Hebrew Sweatshirt

OK, this isn't Broadway-related—but if you're wondering what Lenny's Hebrew sweatshirt says (in the scene where he's not revealing his queerness to his daughter), it's "Harvard." That was one of Bernstein's alma maters. It's not Broadway related but it's one of those details that make Maestro such a delicious treat for theatre fans. Bravo.

Photos: Bradley Cooper Stars As Leonard Bernstein in Maestro

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