As concert readings of musical theater pieces have become more common, many Broadway composers have been given the recognition they're due through performances by full symphony orchestras. Bernstein, though, with his symphonic compositions and his exalted position as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, has always been welcome in the concert hall. If the idea of a symphonic concert of Bernstein's music for the Broadway stage was not exactly an event of a lifetime, the execution of that idea at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus along with guest artists Brian D'Arcy James, Judy Kaye, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Danny Gurwin was a sensational reminder of the artistry of Bernstein's work for the theater, encompassing orchestral pieces as well as vocals. It was a respectful retrospective that managed to balance its program between a few hits and some lesser known songs, with samples from each of Bernstein's six Broadway shows. The vocals were delivered by pros with voices big enough for an outdoor concert venue and the skill for selling the songs that you'd expect from actors with their experience on the musical theater stage.
West Side Story is the Bernstein musical audiences know best, and the concert began with its "Quintet" providing a vehicle to feature the chorus and orchestral as well as introduce the four guest artists from Broadway. Perhaps the chorus suffered in comparison to the musical theater skills of the soloists, but the chorus was too lumbering to be Jets and Sharks, setting up fears that the concert hall approach to the program's show numbers might be a bit awkward. The chorus was used sparingly, though, and more appropriately in other numbers, especially those from the operatic Candide.
We had to wait until later in the 90-minute program to hear more from West Side Story, as the program worked its way through the Bernstein Broadway catalog. "Quintet" was followed by a set of songs from the composer's other two "New York musicals," On the Town and Wonderful Town. James and Gurwin took turns doing Gabey's ballads from On the Town. The former took "Lucky to be Me" and the latter did "Lonely Town" prior to the orchestra segueing into the "Pas de Deux" from that show. Two other dances from On the Town as well as West Side Story's "Mambo" were interspersed throughout the program, nicely varying the purely orchestral numbers with the vocals. The dueling Gabeys of the On the Town set were separated by Mastrantonio's "A Little Bit in Love" and Kaye's "I Can Cook, Too." "New York, New York" was not sung (this is Chicago, after all), but we heard its refrain in the "Times Square Ballet."
Even Bernstein's only Broadway flop, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, written with Alan Jay Lerner, was represented. D'Arcy James sang a pompous George Washington to the chorus' Congress in "Ten Square Miles on the Potomac River," and boy soprano Cameron D. Woods did a charming rendition of "If I Was a Dove." Woods joined with Kaye for the song most frequently performed from the show, the lovely "Take Care of This House." Gurwin and James switched nicely to an operatic style for numbers from Candide. They were augmented by operatic soprano Stacey Tappan, who dueted with Gurwin on "Oh Happy We" and soloed on "Glitter and Be Gay." "My House," from Bernstein's 1950 musical version of Peter Pan was warmly sung by Mastrantonio.
The West Side Story set finally followed, beginning with a "Something's Coming" in which Gurwin was unable to fully shift gears from the operatic demands of Candide to the musical comedy style needed here. James and Mastrantonio paired on "One Hand, One Heart," with the large and flowery conducting motions of Kevin Stites creating a mild distraction. After the third of three dances from On the Town, the evening built to an emotional close, first with the four stars and Ms. Tappan singing the goodbyes of "Some Other Time," and concluding with a full cast performance of "Make Our Garden Grow."
The vocalists' versatility in covering genres from show tune comedy numbers to operetta, the full, rich sound of an 81-piece orchestra and 60 person chorus, stage director Jay Jaski's tight pacing, and the smartly selected program made this an efficient and entertaining 90-minute course on Bernstein's significance to musical theater. Students of the form, though, may have found it disappointing that Bernstein's lyricists were given no mention on the program or from the stage, especially since his collaborators included some of the best Broadway lyricists ever – the likes of Comden and Green, Sondheim, Lerner and playwright/poet/dramatic translator Richard Wilbur. Oh well, they'll make amends some other time.
Bernstein's Broadway was performed on July 20 and 21 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.