A titanic force in American music.
One of America's greatest orchestral conductors, and most gifted musical educators.
Leonard Bernstein was a titanic force in American music. One of the handful of greatest conductors of the twentieth century and, since his death, increasingly admired as a composer of classical music, he was also an innovative music educator whose charismatic television broadcasts profoundly influenced an entire generation. But none of these personas are what we are interested in here. What concerns us here is that, through his innovative work in a handful of influential Broadway musicals, he was a songwriter of enormous distinction.
He was born on August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. He attended Harvard University, graduating in 1939, and then the Curtis Institute of Music until 1941. Most of the details of the life that followed concerned those "other" Bernstein's, but in 1944 he teamed up with choreographer Jerome Robbins to a ballet called Fancy Free, which in turn led to the idea of doing a musical comedy about three sailors on leave for a night in New York. Bernstein's friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green were invited to write the book and lyrics for the show, and, when it opened on December 28, 1944, it became one of the great hits of the American stage. Among the songs in this show were "Lonely Town", "Carried Away", "New York, New York", and "Some Other Time".
Bernstein did not return to Broadway until 1953, this time the Tony Award-winning Wonderful Town, again with lyrics by Comden and Greene. The most famous song from this show is "Ohio".
In 1956 came the utterly brilliant score of Candide ("Glitter And Be Gay") with a team of lyricists that included Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, and Dorothy Parker. Stephen Sondheim added lyrics for later revised versions of the show.
And then in 1957 came Bernstein's masterpiece, the unforgettable West Side Story, with lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim, amazing choreography by Jerome Robbins (who also directed), and songs that included "Something's Coming", "Maria", "Tonight", "I Feel Pretty", and "One Hand, One Heart".
Bernstein did not write another Broadway musical until 1976, when, with Alan Jay Lerner, he created the unsuccessful 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Leonard Bernstein died in New York on October 14, 1990.