On October 18, 2011, it will be 50 years since the film debut of "West Side Story," one of Leonard Bernstein's most memorable and enduring compositions. Today, on the 21st anniversary of Bernstein's death, we present David Patrick Stearns' look at the legacies of Leonard Bernstein and his contemporary, playwright Tennessee Williams. Originally published October 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
Leonard Bernstein was reaching the end of an excruciating journey with lung cancer in 1990 when a longtime associate confessed: Have I ever told you how much I love you? Disarmingly direct even in good health, Bernstein gave an exasperated reply: "Why did you wait until now to tell me?"
Maybe it's because nobody can claim to understand a major artist until the end, when trivialities fall away and there suddenly emerges a complete life's work – and behind it, an iconic personality to venerate.
Posthumous assessments can zigzag over time between praise and blame, since art shows a different face to different eras. And the changes in perception that put artists on pedestals or knock them off don't necessarily have much to do with their degree of genius. Often, the circumstances of their death – or the way they lived – determine how their achievements are measured.
Bernstein's immediate ascension was assured. In his last year, in a live telecast broadcast internationally, he conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. As composer he assembled a definitive edition of his long-evolving musical Candide and performed it in London with an all-star cast. As a frail, coughing hero he finished one final concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. With such a triumphant end, we couldn’t help but love him, and our affection protected the most vulnerable aspect of his art – his compositions – which had grown unfashionable.
Yet only a decade later, he was one of America's most influential composers. That's why his 90th birthday this year is celebrated in a city-wide festival in many of New York's high-tone classical music venues.
Compare Bernstein’s arc of commemoration with that accorded Tennessee Williams, his near-contemporary. The playwright also enjoys a significant anniversary this year – the 25th since he met his end at New York City hotel, loaded on barbiturates and choking to death on a bottle cap. As with Bernstein, his popular works continue to be popular. But the circumstances of his death leave a taint on plays that already have their sordid elements. Williams festivals are small, gay-themed affairs in places like Provincetown and Glasgow, often dedicated to his lesser-known works. It's as if his admirers are searching for his A Long Day's Journey Into Night, the Eugene O'Neill play premiered posthumously that transformed its author from irrelevance to icon.
That Bernstein (1918-1990) now stands taller than Williams (1911-1983) bears explaining since they're near-perfect counterparts in their respective fields. Both men gave a contemporary American identity to high art. Bernstein wrote symphonies, concertos, ballets and operas. His most enduring popularity, though, was in musical theater: On the Town, Candide and West Side Story. Those shows contained songs that were fine character studies but stood alone so well that they became pop-song hits of almost folk status. Similarly, Williams' characters – from The Glass Menagerie's Tom Wingfield to A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's Maggie – have become part of the American identity. Their lines are part of the American vernacular. You could argue that Williams wrote more undisputed masterpieces than Bernstein.
Both men had creative decline following early successes, and Williams' was steep. Though he wrote many plays after Night of the Iguana (1961), none were hits. Many were flops. After West Side Story (1957), new works came slowly for Bernstein, but they lacked West Side Story's social relevance. Still, public disappointment was muted. In contrast, Williams' bad reviews were shrill. Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko felt bold enough to tell Williams that his latest play reflected only 30 percent of his talent. Coolly, Williams said he was glad to have 30 percent of his talent left.
Both artists happened to be gay. Williams didn't consider himself as such until his late 20s, but thereafter was one of the few openly gay celebrities. Though Bernstein was actively gay at various points, the love of his life was Felicia Montealegre, whom he married in 1951. They had breakups, reconciliations and three children – and were one of New York City's glamour couples until her death in 1978.
Williams and Bernstein both ingested their share of alcohol. Near the end, Williams was so under the weather at Williamstown Theater Festival rehearsals that actors could barely get him to speak an intelligible sentence. Bernstein made a cameo appearance on the stage of Carnegie Hall wearing a feather boa, and in an Irving Berlin tribute, paid homage to the author of "White Christmas" with his own, perversely atonal song. Yet that gaffe was omitted from PBS’ telecast of the event. In any event, the idea of a gay Bernstein didn't stick.
The public behavior was one thing. Now consider the way public perceptions work. Because Williams' plays exposed the power grabs and sexual undertones of supposedly placid 1950s America, he seemed outdated once these issues no longer needed exposing. In the 1970s, the gay community also turned against him, seeing self-loathing in the grisly way he killed off his handsome male characters. Bernstein was as confrontational, espousing liberal causes and turning down a presidential medal because it came from George H. W. Bush. But even his most scathing commentaries – West Side Story’s "Gee Officer Krupke" – had a zippy tune. Bernstein was photographed at his country house with his wife standing at their white picket fence, and on TV he created the famous Young Peoples Concerts. He was, his image suggested, the genius next door. Williams never seemed so approachable. He led a more migratory life and was associated with New Orleans, Key West and other morally suspicious places.
And then? Their posthumous evolutions have been dramatic. After some quiet years, Williams came roaring back to Broadway, but via England, which hadn't witnessed the playwright's sad, final years. The executor of his estate, Maria St. Just, lived in England, and the productions she approved, when they moved to New York, reminded the world that when Williams was good, he was great. When the Williams archives opened after her death, the biggest discovery so far was an early, pre-Glass Menagerie social-realist prison drama, Not About Nightingales, which was resurrected with great success first in England and then in America. However, it was no Long Day's Journey. His better plays have thrived not because of their social issues, but because they're showcases for great acting. Even those who dismiss Suddenly Last Summer wouldn't miss seeing Maggie Smith, Natasha Richardson and Rob Lowe go at it on British TV. Now, you hear Williams discussed less in terms of his Southern Gothicism, and more about his deep compassion for the trapped and the helpless. Even gays have come around, seeing him as a pioneer for their rights.
Bernstein dabbled with experimental modernism and its compositional techniques in his last opera, A Quiet Place, but that kind of experimentation hasn't made him influential among young composers such as Aaron Jay Kernis and Richard Danielpour. They have seized on the fun, jazzy stuff, legitimizing his more popular pieces. In his time Bernstein was considered eclectic and not so original. Yet modern imitators have shown what a loud and clear voice he had, even when stealing melodies from Beethoven (as he did in West Side Story). And those other, knottier works that should have garnered him more respect? The world isn't so curious about those, in contrast to the breathless sense of discovery that surrounds Williams and his more experimentations.
Does Bernstein have it better? Not necessarily. Because Williams admirers seek to bolster his position, they're more eager to revisit his failures. Some, like Out Cry and Small Craft Warnings, contain excellent writing. But as in the late works of writers from Shakespeare to Neil Simon, his inspiration mixes with slipshod craft. And while earlier Williams had characters seizing one last chance, late Williams, more depressingly, describes life when that chance is gone. The appeal of these plays may still be discovered. Few writers of Williams' stature left so many fully fledged works ready to be re-evaluated without the weight of any past performing tradition. They might as well be new. It's almost as if he never died. Perhaps that's the greatest posthumous compliment that can be paid.