Actor, musician and playwright Hershey Felder gives a passionately powerful portrayal of American music legend Leonard Bernstein in the one-man show Maestro: Leonard Bernstein at Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre.
The emotionally stirring play with music is part of Canadian artist Felder’s “Composer Sonata,” which also includes Beethoven As I Knew Him, Monsieur Chopin and George Gershwin Alone, all previously performed at Cleveland Play House.
In this highly educational and entertaining play, accomplished pianist Felder embodies the spirit of the conflicted conductor and composer who became a superstar as America’s ambassador of music. Felder’s goal, as in his other plays about earlier composers, is to depict a creative artist and his struggle.
In Maestro, we see that Bernstein (1918-1990) felt deeply conflicted about both his personal life and his career. From his youthful days when he was first drawn to the piano and his father tried to dissuade him from becoming a musician, Bernstein experienced tension.
This play, which has a melancholic thread throughout, built in excitement Thursday night as it followed the development of Bernstein’s stellar career.
The most fascinating part of Maestro is hearing the tale of this young Jewish composer’s rise to fame unfold. Felder expertly brings to life the drama in Bernstein’s early career, from his early days of discovery and friendship with highly influential conductors Dimitri Mitropoulos and Serge Koussevitzky as well as American composer Aaron Copland.
Felder creates a scene of ecstasy and triumph with Bernstein’s 1943 breakthrough at age 25, when he filled in as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in a live national radio broadcast that made him instantly famous. When guest conductor Bruno Walter developed the flu, Bernstein, assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic, jumped in with no rehearsal.
Audiences are on the edge of their seats as Felder describes how Bernstein’s father, stupefied and with tears streaming down his face after the Carnegie Hall performance, held Bernstein’s face in his hands and said, “Now I can see.”
Bernstein, who went on to conduct all of the greatest orchestras in the world, became music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969.
Although Bernstein married Chilean actress and pianist Felicia Cohn Montealegre and they had three children, we learn that he also felt conflicted about his sexuality. The play follows Bernstein’s later announcement to the world of his homosexuality as well as his remorse over his wife’s death and the pain he caused his family.
Although Maestro touches upon Bernstein’s left wing politics, it does not mention his being blacklisted in the 1950s. It also does not mention his lung disease from smoking.
West Side Story remains Bernstein’s most enduring score, yet in this play, Bernstein stresses that he always yearned to be remembered for his weightier compositions in the realms of orchestral music and opera. Even though he was one of the first American conductors to receive worldwide acclaim, he always wished for more time to compose.
Felder, whose Bernstein discusses the evolution of the groundbreaking musical West Side Story, also brings to life Bernstein’s snobbery. Although the composer acknowledged that the work changed musical theater forever, he dismissed West Side Story as “such a silly little piece of juvenilia.”
In the play’s opening, Felder speaks a bit loudly and gutturally as Bernstein, mixing some sweet, quiet singing to There’s a Place for Us with a harsh tonal quality in the song’s climax. Throughout the show, Felder’s live piano playing of both Bernstein’s music and the works of masters ranging from Beethoven to Mahler is mixed in seamlessly with audio of orchestral recordings.
A huge scroll serves as a backdrop, upon which archival photos and videos of Bernstein are projected. One of the videos shows the American ambassador of music doing one of his famous televised lectures on classical music on CBS.
“I had become the world’s musical rabbi,” Felder’s Bernstein said of teaching music to the world on TV.
Amid Bernstein’s fascinating comments in this play, he talks about how one note, if it’s the right note, can inspire an entire composition.
Among his other pithy sayings:
• “The way to the heart of a person is through melody.”
• “We’re [composers are] always looking for God, and we have the tools to find him.”
Heaven does unfold onstage. In one of the play’s most beautifully staged moments, Felder plays Wagner’s Love Death from the opera Tristan und Isolde simultaneously with a video above of Bernstein playing the piece. The moment is so seamless, the two men’s profiles so similar, and Felder so thoroughly embodies the composer’s persona, it almost seems as if the image above could be a live video feed.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.