Monday, January 1, 2018

New York Philharmonic: New Year’s Eve Concert, 2017: A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein on Broadway (WNET/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the American Masters special on Bob Hope KPBS showed the Great Performances New Year’s Eve concert by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by a Britisher named Bramwell Tovey (aside from “Elizabeth Windsor,” it’s hard to think of a more quintessentially British name than that!) and dedicated specifically to Leonard Bernstein’s work for the musical theatre. Of course, for most people think “Leonard Bernstein” and “musical theatre” and the show that immediately comes to mind is West Side Story, by far his most successful Broadway musical (and the source for a multi-Academy-Award-winning film). If you think harder maybe you’ll come up with On the Town, and if you’re even more familiar with Broadway trivia you might remember Peter Pan (the 1950 version starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff, who weren’t exactly two of the greatest singers of all time, so Bernstein’s contribution was cut to five songs in the stage production and then, on the original-cast album, even further to just a few burbles of “incidental music” under what was otherwise a spoken-word album of a cut-down version of Sir James M. Barrie’s source play), Wonderful Town (the 1953 Tony Award-winning adaptation of My Sister Eileen, with Rosalind Russell repeating her role of Ruth McKinney from the 1942 Columbia film) and his last work for the Broadway stage, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a badly-reviewed 1976 show about the history of the White House that contains one great ballad, “Take Good Care of This House,” that the producers of this concert would have done well to include.

I couldn’t help but mentally compare this show to the one aired in Paris nine days earlier, Noël à Broadway, which wasn’t exclusively a Bernstein tribute but contained quite a lot of his music, at least partly because they began with the same selection. It was the overture to the 1956 musical Candide, which has had a star-crossed history in toto and whose overture has had far more enduring success than the play. (Charles pointed out that that’s true of Rossini’s William Tell as well.) From the opening bars of the Candide overture, I figured we were in for a great evening — Tovey played the piece with far more power, drive and rhythmic snap than Mikko Franck had managed in Paris nine days before — but as the concert wound on I felt Tovey and whoever else might have been involved in programming it was emphasizing the brash, loud, percussive style of Bernstein’s fast musical songs over the rich lyricism of his ballads. The four vocal soloists — “straight” soprano Laura Osnes, comic singer Annaleigh Ashford, tenor Aaron Tveit and baritone Christopher Jackson — all had the right sort of voices for this music but weren’t always well served by the song selections. Indeed, some of the songs, including “Come Up to My Place” from On the Town for Tveit and Ashford and “Ohio” from Wonderful Town for Ashford and Osnes — were such relentlessly ugly, staccato patter songs they were more a tribute to their lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, than their composer.

From On the Town Tovey played “Come Up to My Place” (which wasted the sheer beauty of Tveit’s voice — but then that was also true when Frank Sinatra did it with Betty Garrett in the 1949 film of On the Town, and it’s a pity both Sinatra in the film and Tveit in last night’s concert were deprived of the ability to do the show’s beautiful ballad, “Lonely Town”) and “Lucky to Be Me” (sung by Christopher Jackson in the role of Gabey, played by John Battles in the original stage production and Gene Kelly in the film), which was a male song in the original musical but whose first recording was made by Mary Martin for Decca (and she’s unsurpassed in it), followed by a suite of “Three Dance Episodes” that Bernstein later assembled as a concert instrumental and recorded himself in the 1940’s for RCA Victor. Wonderful Town was represented by “Ohio,” “It’s Love” and “The Wrong-Note Rag,” the last piece seemingly being an attempt by Bernstein literally to write a wrong-note rag, throwing in modern classical dissonances into something that otherwise sounded like traditional ragtime. After the intermission — during which Tovey told a story of being called in at the last minute to conduct a concert of Bernstein’s music in London in 1986 when the original conductor, Lukas Foss, called in sick; he was told that Bernstein himself was to attend the dress rehearsal, and he came in with an entourage of about five people plus a gang of paparazzi photographing virtually his every move, a story that would have been a more engaging anecdote if Tovey hadn’t told it twice — Tovey played a set of three dances from Fancy Free, the 1944 Jerome Robbins ballet that would eventually become the basis for the plot of On the Town. Then Ashford sung a lovely ballad called “Dream with Me” from Bernstein’s 1950 Peter Pan score (and it wasn’t her fault that her opposite number from the Noël à Broadway concert, Deborah Myers, had sung an even more beautiful ballad from that show, “Build My House”) and we finally got an impression of Bernstein the lyrical composer. Alas, the next number up was the inevitably percussive “Mambo” from West Side Story, which was also represented by Christopher Jackson singing “Cool,” Aaron Tveit singing “Maria” (and singing it well, far better than just about anyone since Larry Kert on the original 1957 Broadway cast album) and he and Ashford duetting on “Tonight.” 

Then there came an odd piece, an instrumental orchestration by Sid Ramin and Michael Tilson Thomas of the vocal trio from Bernstein’s 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti — which has nothing to do with Tahiti but tells about the bored lives of suburban couple Sam and Dinah (Bernstein wrote his own libretto and used the names of his actual parents), and which used three singers in the style of the Andrews Sisters as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on and explaining the action. In 1982 Bernstein wrote another opera called A Quiet Place, which incorporated Trouble in Tahiti and also contained a sequel in which the main characters were Sam and Dinah’s Gay son, their straight daughter and Junior, the Bisexual man who has affairs with both of them. Bernstein worked with various writers and did one version in which Trouble in Tahiti was the first act and the new material followed, and another in which Tahiti was a flashback in the middle of the piece. When he rehearsed the premiere it was so unpopular with the cast and musicians that when one of the people involved overheard Bernstein saying, “I don’t want to be remembered just as the man who wrote West Side Story,’ he said, “Better that than being remembered as the man who wrote A Quiet Place.” The program concluded with a novelty number from On the Town, “I Can Cook, Too” (also recorded by Mary Martin in the 1940’s), done to a turn by Osnes, and then Ashford and Tveit closing the program with the beautiful final duet “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide (and hearing it in this context made it even clearer than before that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins ripped off the ending of the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, from Voltaire’s Candide: the two protagonists reunited, definitively out of public life, living together on a farm, baking bread and literally making their garden grow). The encore was the only non-Bernstein music of the night, an audience sing-along on “Auld Lang Syne.” Overall, the Bernstein tribute was a quite good concert, but I’d have preferred more of Bernstein at his most lyrical and less of him at his bombastic, raucous attempts to bring together Broadway, classical and jazz, which are fun but a little bit of them goes a long way!