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The best musicals by Leonard Bernstein

In the world of musical theatre, Bernstein might be best known for his writing for West Side Story, but what are the other great musicals he ought to be remembered for?

American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990, standing) and composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, working on their musical, 'West Side Story', New York City, 1956. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

There are fewer composers more innovative and stylistically wide-reaching as Leonard Bernstein. Not only did he write musicals, symphonies, operas, incidental music, ballets and film scores; he was as celebrated a conductor and pianist as he was a composer. Just one year after his legendary hit musical West Side Story hit Broadway, he took on the role of music director of the New York Philharmonic – both significant career highlights and not usual bedfellows in the classical music world.

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Bernstein was a great collaborator, having put his name to many musicals over the years with various lyricists and playwrights. Here, we pick out some of his best.

Find out more about the life and music of Leonard Bernstein here.

On the Town (1944)

People are probably most associate On the Town with the 1969 MGM motion picture starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin as the three lead characters, but Bernstein‘s music only formed a small part of that film. Although the story was the same, only four of Bernstein‘s songs made it into the film. Its stage version was truly groundbreaking when it hit Broadway five years earlier, with a multiracial cast (with black and white characters on stage in equal roles), black concertmaster (Everett Lee, who went on to become the show’s music director) and Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato in the leading role.

Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins started their longterm collaboration on Fancy Free, which spawned the idea for On the Town. This was their first venture together in their mid twenties. The film acts as a love letter to Bernstein’s city of New York and shows real promise in Bernstein’s penchant for musical comedy – plus, it  was the first time a symphonic composer had turned their hand to musical theatre, something Bernstein became known for throughout his career.

Find out more about the history of Bernstein’s On the Town here.

Best recording of Bernstein’s On the Town

London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas

West Side Story (1957)

West Side Story brought Shakespeare into modern day New York and remains Bernstein‘s most recognisable musical score, landing on Broadway on 1957. It was adapted into a film just four years later to widespread critical acclaim, even winning ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Musical. In more recent years, the iconic film director Steven Spielberg has turned his hand to musicals, tackling West Side Story for his debut in this genre. The film is slated for a December 2021 release, exactly 60 years after the first film adaptation was released. The films have merely helped cement the cult status of what was already a beloved score for many. Nicholas Kenyon referred to West Side Story as ‘a one-off example of a work of genius, halfway between musical and opera’. He brings together such a wide range of influences to create a musical melting pot of Puerto Rican rhythms and fifties bebop.

BBC Music Magazine named West Side Story as one of Bernstein’s best ever works.

Find out more about the history of Bernstein’s West Side Story here.

Best recording of Bernstein’s West Side Story:

Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Leonard Bernstein Orchestra & Chorus/Leonard Bernstein

Peter Pan (1950)

Initially intended as a complete musical, Peter Pan only ended up including five of Bernstein’s original songs. The composer had minimal involvement with the production compared to many of his other musicals, due to the fact that he was in Europe for much of the period of production. In his place, Trude Rittman was hired as a ‘musical coordinator’ to translate Bernstein’s longer musical scores into shorter songs. In fact, the original cast recording used new music by Alec Wilder rather than Bernstein’s. Peter Pan lay in obscurity until conductor Alexander Frey revisited the work in the late 1990s and early 2000s, restoring the cuts that had been made to Bernstein’s scores. He produced the premiere recording of the complete score in 2005 after discovering the existence of additional musical material.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976)

Bernstein’s last original Broadway score was for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a production that was considered to be a flop, only lasting for seven performances. With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, the musical told the stories of the White House occupants from 1800 to 1900, focusing on race relations at the time. The script was slated by critics, but Bernstein’s score was deemed to be a success. Despite this, the composer distanced himself from the production to such an extent that he refused the release of a cast recording because of the poor public and critical reaction.

After Bernstein’s death, a concert version of the score was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano and released under the title ‘A White House Cantata’. Considered to be one of his more ‘classical’ scores for Broadway, this piece has been widely performed ever since. It’s not the only example of this score being adapted for other works – during his lifetime, Bernstein even included part of the song ‘To Make Us Proud’ in his 1981 Olympic Hymn.

Best recording of Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

São Paolo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop

Wonderful Town (1953)

Bernstein joined forces with writing team Adolph Green and Betty Comden again for Wonderful Town, following their collaboration on On the Town almost a decade earlier. Wonderful Town was an adaptation of the comedy hit My Sister Eileen, telling the story of two sisters in New York City, who dream of being a writer and actor respectively. My Sister Eileen began life as a series of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney in The New Yorker in the 1930s, before being transformed into a play.

Although it may not have the iconic, instantly recognisable tunes of West Side StoryWonderful Town is a light-hearted, screwball comedy which has dazzled audiences ever since it landed on Broadway. It went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. A man who always loved a deadline, Bernstein supposedly wrote the score to Wonderful Town in just four weeks.

Best recording of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town:

Danielle de Niese, Alysha Umphress, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Simon Rattle

Check out our timeline of Bernstein’s life here.

Find out more about the world of musical theatre here.

Did you know? You can visit Leonard Bernstein’s house in New York. Find out more here.

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Top image: Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim working on their musical West Side Story together in New York City in 1956 (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)