It is difficult to overstate the place Leonard Bernstein occupied not just in the history of Broadway, but in the musical life of New York City. He had become a musical sensation on the night of November 14, 1943, when conductor Bruno Walter had fallen ill and Bernstein, as his assistant, was obliged to take the podium for the nationally broadcast concert. A year later, he made his Broadway debut as a composer with On the Town, working with the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to tell the story of three sailors at liberty in New York.
As New York Times reviewer Lewis Nichols wrote on December 29, 1944: “There can be no mistake about it: On the Town is the freshest and most engaging musical show to come this way since the golden day of Oklahoma!”
For the next fifteen years, Bernstein worked to blur the lines between the Broadway stage and the New York concert hall. In 1946, Bernstein’s ballet “Fancy Free” was premiered on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre, along with works by Morton Gould, Arnold Schoenberg, and Tchaikovsky. In 1953, he returned to more traditional Broadway style with Wonderful Town, working again with Comden and Green. Times critic Olin Downes remarked, “[Wonderful Town] has the reckless mastery of means and the sure cooperation of artists, each expert in his or her part and all in accord in the joyous achievement of the common task.” But two years later, Bernstein presented, again on Broadway, the small opera Trouble in Tahiti as part of an evening called All in One, which included a play by Tennessee Williams and a set of dances by Paul Draper.
Bernstein’s next offering on Broadway was more daring still: an adaptation of a seventeenth-century French novel by the philosopher Voltaire. Candide had had an extraordinary team of writers – Lillian Hellman had done the book; poets and writers Richard Wilbur, John La Touche and Dorothy Parker had all contributed, spectacularly engaged by Bernstein’s music. Though not the commercial success of his previous forays on Broadway, Candide represents one of Bernstein’s mainstays in the concert hall.
With West Side Story, Bernstein – working from the book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – successfully fused the Broadway stage with the concert hall. Indeed, with Jerome Robbins’s choreography, West Side Story was more aligned with modern dance than traditional Broadway “hoofing.” As Brooks Atkinson noted in the New York Times, “It is an organic work of art. The collaborators who put it together have fused their respective contributions into a single theatrical expression that vividly portrays the life of the streets.”
Leonard Bernstein’s last original contribution came in 1976 with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner. In contrast with West Side Story‘s original run of 732 performances, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue closed after only seven performances.
Over the years, Bernstein was nominated for four Tonys® and won two, including a 1969 Special Award for his contributions to the musical theater.