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There Would Be No 'West Side Story' If Bernstein Had Listened To His Classical Mentor

AP Photo

Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky, left, goes over a score with Leonard Bernstein, Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, in Boston, Mass., Feb. 14, 1944.

AP Photo

Legendary composer, conductor, pianist and teacher Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 August 25, 2018. This week we’re reflecting on his life and career with a four-part series from CapRadio’s Stephen Peithman.

Today West Side Story is one of the best-known musicals in the world. But 12 years before Leonard Bernstein wrote it, his classical mentor spent three hours berating the young composer for squandering his talents on Broadway.

In 1944 — the year his first symphony premiered — Bernstein got rave reviews for his jazzy score for the ballet "Fancy Free," about three sailors on leave in New York City. That led to his first musical, "On the Town," which took the three-sailors idea, expanded it, added romance and entirely new music.

On the Town’s success prompted Bernstein’s mentor, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, to insist that the composer give up Broadway.

It wasn’t until Koussevitzky died in 1951 that Bernstein began writing musicals again. While he continued to compose works for the concert hall, few attained the popularity of his best stage pieces.

Soon after his mentor's death, Bernstein wrote another hit show, "Wonderful Town." Three years later, he worked on two Broadway productions at the same time — "West Side Story" and "Candide."

"Candide" was a satire on mindless philosophies, and operetta. "West Side Story" was the tragic tale of young lovers caught up in gang warfare.

The 1961 film version made Bernstein’s music famous around the world, impacting his non-Broadway work, as well. Writing for a choir festival at England’s Chichester Cathedral, he was told “a hint of West Side Story in the music would be welcome.”

They got more than a hint. Bernstein included music cut from the Broadway show, and Latin rhythms throughout the piece, ”Chichester Psalms.”

Bernstein’s most controversial work was "Mass" in 1971. It was pure musical theatre, an eclectic blend of classical and popular, sacred and profane.

Though Bernstein was often criticized for being too theatrical in his endeavors, he eventually embraced it. Late in his life he wrote, “I have a deep suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way.”

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