Lenny at 100

A tribute to Leonard Bernstein with Nigel Simeone, Jamie Bernstein, and Augusta Read Thomas.

Leonard Bernstein, the multi-musician, did it all in his lifetime. At his 100th anniversary this year, the only question people still ask about the man is an odd one: did he do enough? Did he leave the message he came to deliver? And did we get it? In all his careers, he was in the top rank: the world’s celebrity Beethoven conductor who rediscovered Mahler and Shostakovich. He composed a light Candide and a serious Mass. He was a crackling pianist, a songwriter in the Gershwin league. Master of Broadway and Hollywood, too, for On the Waterfront. And, no doubt, television’s greatest presenter of classical music for kids of all ages. But our takeaway Lenny for all time? West Side Story.

In any argument about who was The Most American Musician of the shape-shifting 20th Century—Gershwin, Ellington, Copland, Miles, Sinatra, John Cage, maybe Elvis—there’s no getting away from Leonard Bernstein, a giant figure, at the very center of it all. Early-mid 1950s, Charlie Parker has died young. Miles and Coltrane are about to record Kind of Blue. Duke Ellington is making the best-selling album of his lifetime at the Newport Jazz Festival. Leonard Bernstein, not yet 40, has composed ballets, show songs and two symphonies; he’s conducting Beethoven at Carnegie Hall and opera with Maria Callas in Milan, and in 1955 he is sweating through the birthing of something strange for Broadway: a Romeo and Juliet story out of Shakespeare, about gangs in New York. Dancers enact the warfare, to Jazz harmonies, Cuban rhythms. The show, of course, is West Side Story. Just as the tryout performances begin, Bernstein jumps to another of his many tracks and signs on to be conductor of the New York Philharmonic, which had been Mahler’s orchestra, and Toscanini’s. These are the multiple Lenny Bernsteins remembered on his 100th anniversary this year. We are focusing this hour on one chapter of the life, West Side Story.

Guest List
Nigel Simeone
Musicologist, writer, and editor of Bernstein’s letters
Jamie Bernstein
Bernstein's daughter and author of the memoir "Famous Father Girl," about growing up with Lenny
Augusta Read Thomas
Composer and former student of Bernstein's at Tanglewood
Reading List
I Feel Pretty
Larry Wolff
Radical Chic
Tom Wolfe
Lenny Boy
Peter Gordon

Related Content