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Leonard Bernstein: Prehistoric Man

In the film version of On the Town, NYFOS friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green have the somewhat uptight Ann Miller character lead the gang of on-leave sailors into the Museum of Natural History, where she gets very turned on by the primitive man exhibit.  The dancing is fabulous, so is her green dress, and the lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny.  But the political incorrectness of everything that happens seems without bound:  men are sexy because they are brutish; the sexualized “other” is human but seen as subhuman.  If you’ve read the contrarian article entitled “Saviors, Victims, and Savages” on my human rights class syllabus, it is hard watch this silly dance number without your PC antennae up.

But if you pay a little more attention to the lyrics and a little less to her dress, you realize that’s not what this song is about at all.  It’s not about the savage; it’s about the even more troubled human type of 1950s America, the man in the gray flannel suit. He has ulcers, and the cave man doesn’t. He has had his masculinity stripped away, but Tarzan hasn’t. This is the same problem that vexes the advertising executives of Madmen. Don Draper, like the Gregory Peck character in Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, is traumatized by his experiences in the Korean War and is caught between the contradictory role expectations of a John-Wayne-style masculinity and corporate American conformity. Madmen is set in the 1960s, but it was written in our own time, and the same issues remain unresolved.

Orientalizing means denigrating by reducing to a caricature in a way that disempowers and justifies domination. But caricature has value when it’s about ourselves and our own way of life, when it leads to an empowering insight, and especially when it’s funny. Ann Miller was in real life a Republican, but her over-eager dominatrix character in the movie could be seen as a zealous social reformer, encouraging the hard-pressed men of her era to take a liberating path more in keeping with their true biological nature.

NYFOS does a lot of this, and it does it extremely well.  “Manning the Canon,” an alternately humorous and poignant look at gay life through song, and “Goyische Christmas,” a waggish meditation on the fact that the best Christmas songs were written by Jews, are glorious successes of this kind.  I don’t have tapes of those shows, so all you are getting today is Ann Miller.  However, you can see a revival of the Goyische Christmas show at Henry’s on December 11.  Maybe it will rerun next year at Radio City with the Rockettes.

“Prehistoric Man,” from On the Town

Romberg: The Riff Song; Szymanowski: Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin

My dad had a terrific singing voice, appearing as a young man in “light operas” such as the 1926 musical The Desert Song, an entertainingly orientalizing show about dashing Moroccan Berber rebels on horseback and their sexy womenfolk who performed the dance of the seven veils under the male gaze of French officers. Flash forward to ISIS, kidnapped Yazidi brides, and on-going debates over neo-colonial humanitarian intervention, and this all has a decidedly contemporary feel, no matter how cartoonish, culturally stereotyped, and ethically questionable.

Desert Song wasn’t even trying to avoid exploitative political incorrectness, but even when you are trying hard to understand and respect the cultural productions of a foreign society, cultivating a deft feel for difference doesn’t come easily. One of the very best things about NYFOS, and about Bernstein, is how they dig into specific cultural settings to extract universal truths about music and life.

Often the gratifying take-home from this is a lesson about the productive cross-fertilization of cultures. NYFOS veterans especially invoke the “Lost Tribes of Vaudeville” concert, which traced the interwoven influences of African-American and Jewish musical traditions on American popular music. Underscoring a similar point was the concert that recalled Dvořak’s long stay at a music conservatory in Harlem where he encouraged African-American composers to set traditional spirituals to a classicized musical idiom, just as he had done for Czech folk music—all the better to prove to the Germans and the French that the Czech people, and by analogy the African-American people, had a nation-worthy high culture.

These deeply researched and deeply felt NYFOS concerts were of course far above any kind of orientalism.  More complicated in this regard was one of my other favorite NYFOS shows, on the Polish art song composer Karol Szymanowsky, who underwent a creative and sexual liberation as a result of a sojourn in North Africa. In our jaded skepticism, some of us might see this Gauguin-like exploit as enacting orientalizing fantasies from such stereotyped sources as Desert Song and the dissolute North Africa chapters in Brideshead Revisited. However, listening to the music, as in “Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin,” Szymanowsky’s art is what Bernstein would surely call sincere.

“The Riff Song” from The Desert Song, the 1929 movie

Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin by Karol Szymanowski

Leonard Bernstein: Something’s Coming

Last night Steven Blier led off the Bernstein concert with “Something’s Coming,” the quintessential expression of the blindly hopeful anticipation of youth from West Side Story. I wanted to pick this song even before knowing that it would be on Steve’s playlist.

Although I knew these songs from my parents’ Broadway cast album, I didn’t see the show itself until the movie came to the big, dilapidated theater with a small tear in the middle of the screen on Main Street in Newark, Delaware. I was ten years old. The movie and its music were highly “relatable.” I had been to New York, and my family had hosted a boy from the West Side slums for a couple of weeks one summer in the “Fresh Air” program.

More urgently relevant, my fourth-grade school class had recently been joined by a couple of roughneck boys from New York City. They challenged us with their hard-nosed swagger, but we shied away from confrontation. We also refused to emulate their ducktail hairstyles and pointy shoes, which were somewhat reminiscent of George Chakiris’s Bernardo. I was glued to the screen, hoping to pick up tips on how to avoid a fateful conflict spiral touched off by mirror-image misperceptions (“they began it”).

This topic is still on my agenda.  I am now teaching an undergraduate lecture class on ethnic conflict. I recently drew an analogy to West Side Story in explaining how seemingly religious riots in the city of Jos, Nigeria, are actually about minor turf battles that spiral out of control due to mutual security fears. A few blank looks on the youthful, culturally diverse faces in the class suggested that some of them hadn’t a clue who the Jets and the Sharks might be. But this being Columbia, where they all read Shakespeare as part of our Core Curriculum, I was able to fall back on the original source, illustrating with the Montagues and Capulets. No doubt the quest for an enduring cultural lingua franca is why Bernstein took on the iconic classics, whether Shakespeare, Sophocles, or Voltaire, and why Columbia sticks to this tried-and-true approach.

Back then my favorite musical number was “Something’s Coming,” because I new what a one-handed catch felt like.  It still is.

“Something’s Coming,” sung by Jimmy Bryant, acted by Richard Beymer


Bernstein discusses and conducts Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex”

It’s hard to think of a more iconic work of western (and New York) civilization than Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Among other impacts, it spawned Freudian psychology, which for a time reigned nearly hegemonic on the isle of Manhattan, and no doubt provided the conceptual underpinnings for the careers of more than a few veteran NYFOS-attenders.

Sophocles is still the hot ticket. Last year’s Noche Flamenca dance production of Oedipus’s companion piece Antigona, featuring the marvelous Soledad Barrio, wowed the critics and sold out an extended run. Naturally, Bernstein had to have a go at this material.

My own introduction to this Stravinsky opus came through my friends in the Harvard Glee Club, which was recruited as the chorus performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Bernstein. My Glee Club pals reported the contagiousness of his enthusiasm and the depth of his vision of the piece, but also that his wild gesticulations sometimes made it hard to follow the beat.

Glee Club member Jay Culver recalls:  “The experience was remarkable. Initially most members of the Glee Club hated the piece as it was horrendously difficult with wild rhythms and difficult tonalities but by the end it was what everyone wanted to sing. I remember a wonderful time during rehearsal when Lenny was discussing the various historical influences on the piece he described an oozing dance rhythm that clearly derived from Bizet’s Carmen while biting his baton in his mouth like a rose. It was a true lifetime experience as were all of the Bernstein experiences that the HGC had in the early 70’s — European Tour ’73 singing Chichester Psalms for the Pope in Rome.”

The recorded performance was used as the capstone for Bernstein’s 1973 Norton lecture series at Harvard. The video clip here includes Bernstein’s discussion of the themes of sincerity, pity, and power in Stravinsky’s music and its connection to the Verdi tradition. The lecture as a whole addresses sympathetically Stravinsky’s rear-guard battle to save that tradition from the onslaught of atonality. I’ve included part of Stravinsky’s section entitled “The Poetry of the Earth,” which was also the title of Bernstein’s final Norton lecture.

Bernstein discusses the relationship between Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Verdi’s music

Excerpt of a performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex,
conducted by Bernstein

(If these excerpts do not play easily in your browser, you can also view the video here. The segment of the lecture referred to above plays from 1:46:06 to 1:57:14, and the performance excerpt lasts from 2:19:48 to 2:22:46)

Leonard Bernstein: Glitter and Be Gay

NYFOS begins its fall season tomorrow with an evening devoted to the music of Leonard Bernstein, who worked with Steve Blier and Michael Barrett in founding their inimitable art song enterprise. One of the many perks of being a NYFOS board member is being invited to pick a week’s worth of Songs of the Day. This week I’m going with the Bernstein theme, choosing selections that have a personal meaning for me and also reflecting on some things we love that Bernstein and NYFOS have in common.

Bernstein is nearly unique in taking on iconic themes of classical culture and relating them in rollicking style to the preoccupations of popular culture. Like NYFOS, he does this in a wide-angle multicultural format that engages with cultural specificities both high and low, global and New York, ancient and contemporary, finding a common human core amid a kaleidoscopic diversity.

I teach Columbia undergraduates, including some accomplished vocal music enthusiasts who I hope will appreciate the Bernstein-themed concerts in this centenary year. I confess to having had some trepidation whether Bernstein would continue to be “relatable” to this millennial demographic. Even in my own younger days I remember seeing him as a leonine, somewhat forbidding, larger-than-life, world-historical figure, the last of a dying breed. But this fear turned out to be misplaced. Michael Gildin, a young leading light in Columbia a cappella circles, reports that Bernstein remains a favorite in his circle for precisely this reason:  “Bernstein is a towering, almost mythic figure—one who represents the highest ideals to which a musician can aspire. Yet there is a visceral, welcoming humanity in Bernstein’s music that cuts through the legend and gives his work a permanent immediacy and relevance to any audience.”

Today’s shamelessly pandering selection is the universally beloved Barbara Cook singing the wonderful “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, a song so difficult that she was sure she would be utterly incapable of singing it. This video clip includes part of an interview where she describes the horrors of initial rehearsals. NYFOS fans, who are accustomed to Schubert and the Beatles deployed in tandem, also love her more down-to-earth side, too: Marian the Librarian in The Music Man (personal digression: a role my daughter Claire inhabited memorably in a Teaneck High School musical).

In Candide, as in tomorrow’s Song of the Day from Oedipus Rex, Bernstein tackles a foundational and enduring cultural theme of our civilization. In Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, the Enlightenment rationalist Dr. Pangloss insists that we live in the best of all possible worlds, which he proves by pointing to the beneficial side effects of the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. Given my day job as a social science professor, I can’t help but think how timely this is as a satire of what’s called the rational markets theory, which explains how omniscient, far-sighted investors operating in a perfectly competitive market always allocate capital to its most efficient use, and therefore should not be regulated by meddlesome bureaucrats—a Panglossian theory whose influence explains why your stock portfolio tanked in 2008. The good news is that the new theory on the rise is “behavioral economics,” which acknowledges the need to take into account what they call “animal spirits” and other all-too-human fallibilities. Human weaknesses are on flamboyant display in this Voltaire/Bernstein classic. Cunegonde, wherever you are, don’t forget to tweet “#MeToo.”

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