The Crackling Energy of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town

Leonard Bernstein working at the piano in 1955. (Photo by Al Ravenna, Library of Congress)

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony perform Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at Benaroya Hall on June 14 and 16.

By Andrew Stiefel

With a sunny, spirited score by Leonard Bernstein, Wonderful Town is one of the American composer’s brightest creations — yet the music is rarely heard in the concert hall. Filled with endlessly danceable music and wildly eclectic characters, Wonderful Town captures the soul and energy of Bernstein’s adopted home: New York City.

The City Bernstein Loved

Bernstein was born near Boston and traveled the world, but for most of his life, New York was his home. He made his storied debut at Carnegie Hall, stepping in at the last minute when conductor Bruno Walter cancelled. And his subsequent tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic was one of the defining pillars of his conducting career.

New York looms especially large in Bernstein’s musical output, finding vivid expression in works ranging from his ballet, Fancy Free, to his score for the film On the Waterfront to The Age of Anxiety, a symphonic setting of the poem by W.H. Auden.

And, of course, it is the setting of his most successful musicals.

Wonderful Town (1953) is the second of Bernstein’s three musicals set in New York, following On the Town (1943) and preceding West Side Story (1957). It is based on the play My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chadorov, which in turn was inspired by a series of short stories by Ruth McKenney that ran in The New Yorker in the 1930s.

McKenney’s autobiographical stories tell the adventures of two sisters — Ruth and Eileen — who move to New York from Ohio, seeking to start new lives in the city.

In the musical adaptation the sisters are eager to leave their mark on the city: Ruth as a writer, and Eileen as an actress. But their paths quickly diverge as Eileen, relying on her good looks and charm, rapidly ascends through the city, leaving her sister to regret her own lack of social grace.

Eventually, the sisters become entangled in the lives of their neighbors and acquaintances: a dinner party gets out of hand, a party spills into the street and Eileen is arrested for “rioting” in the streets. The show reaches its climax as the sisters discover that they have fallen in love with the same man, testing the strength of their own relationship.

A Last-Minute Collaboration

Chodorov and Fields started work on a musical adaptation of the story in 1952. But with opening night looming, the score created by the show’s original composer was deemed unusable by the two writers and the production’s lead singer, Rosalind Russell.

With only five weeks to go, director George Abbott turned to Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green for help. Previously, Bernstein, Comden and Green had successfully collaborated together for On the Town. So with time running out, the trio set to work, holing up into Bernstein’s apartment and writing the musical’s songs and lyrics in a dizzying four weeks.

Those frenetic days give Wonderful Town its unique zing: Bernstein’s score crackles with energy, restlessly moving from the brash overture through a rowdy conga to the cheeky “Wrong Note Rag” that ends the show.

Wonderful Town won five Tony Awards in its first year, eventually running for 559 performances. Although it lacks the edginess of West Side Story, it is still quintessentially Bernstein, effortlessly combining witty lyrics with a dynamic score as it traces Ruth and Eileen’s adventures in the (second) greatest city in the world.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony celebrate the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth with Wonderful Town on June 14 and 16.

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Support for Wonderful Town is generously provided by the Judith Fong Music Director’s Fund. Wonderful Town is generously underwritten by Dr. Pierre and Mrs. Felice Loebel in honor of Leslie Jackson Chihuly.

Posted on June 1, 2018