For Wonderful Town, music director Doug Peck reunites with director Mary Zimmerman. Having also previously collaborated on The Jungle Book and Guys and Dolls, this marks their second partnership on a Leonard Bernstein musical after the Goodman’s acclaimed 2010 production of Candide. Below Peck talks about Bernstein’s impact on American culture, in both the musical theater and classical music worlds, and reveals why he’s eager to bring Bernstein’s swinging sounds back to the Goodman stage.
Wonderful Town, On the Town and West Side Story – Leonard Bernstein’s musicals are the sound of New York City. In his music, he truly captured the jazziness of the people, the late-night lyricism, the poetry of the streets, and the melting pot nature of the city. Of all these shows, Wonderful Town perhaps feels the most like New York City. It’s a love letter to the city and, really, a love letter to love itself. The song titles alone – like “It’s Love” and “A Little Bit in Love” – show how he was really exploring the connections between humans.
Growing up, I watched re-airings of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts series on PBS and was completely captivated. He was such a dynamo – not just of musical theater, but classical music as well –and one of the few celebrities who made classical music truly sexy, exciting and approachable. He also worked on a Mozart-level of productivity, composing an astonishing number of symphonies, song cycles, choral works, operas, ballet scores and multi-genre works that combined aspects of many of those forms. To me, at such a young age, it was incredible and inspiring to see someone so accomplished who worked in the fields of classical music and musical theater.
In the early 1950s, even after Bernstein had great success with On the Town, his mentor, conductor and composer Serge Koussevitzky, advised him to quit working in musical theater. He was contemplating doing just that – he truly adored Koussevitzky and even wore a pair of cuff links Koussevitzky gave him during every performance he conducted – but lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green approached him with a proposition that was too good to ignore: to write a musical for Tony Award-winning star Rosalind Russell. He rapidly returned with a score that clearly proved he was both a classical genius and Broadway baby all in one person. The music is bold and brassy in many places, yet truly intimate and lyrical in others. He really captured the whole musical range of what it feels like to fall in love.
Bernstein was especially enamored with jazz and Latin music, and Wonderful Town’s score focuses a lot on these genres and how they intersect with Broadway music. He leaned so hard into jazz rhythms and be-bop that many jazz artists of the era ended up recording his songs, especially “It’s Love”, because they were so true to their own style and swing. After Wonderful Town, to the relief of musical fans, he continued working in the theater, going on to create the iconic West Side Story and Candide, as well as so much more glorious music in just about every style.
As the musical director of the Goodman’s Wonderful Town, I like to think of myself as Bernstein’s voice in the room now that he is longer with us. It’s my job to take the score as he composed it and fit it to this production and space. We’re presenting the work with a 17-piece orchestra, which is the largest orchestra that has ever been used at the Goodman. The audience will experience the music in the way Bernstein originally envisioned it in the 1950s, which is just so thrilling. In the current landscape of musical theater, when so many theaters are reducing the number of musicians in the orchestra pit, we’re able to present the music in a way that’s relatively unique for 2016. Synthesizers and orchestra doublings can be effective, but there is truly nothing better than the sheer amplitude of sound and range of colors that emanate from having such an orchestra. I can’t wait for audiences to experience the power, radiance and depth of sound in the room. For the Goodman to commit to this large of an orchestra proves the organization takes Bernstein, his music and his legacy very seriously.
We’re presenting the work with a 17-piece orchestra, which is the largest orchestra that has ever been used at the Goodman. The audience will experience the music in the way Bernstein originally envisioned it in the 1950s, which is just so thrilling.
One of the great gifts of my career has been the opportunity to work with Mary Zimmerman, so I’m excited to step back together into the world of Bernstein. She brings the same balance of seriousness and play to the room that was Bernstein’s signature. Intellectual rigor is of course what you expect from an accomplished artist like Mary, but the great surprise of working with her is the sense of humor, joy and playfulness she exudes, which matches Bernstein’s music perfectly. I’m also looking forward to working with our choreographer Alex Sanchez. With Wonderful Town, Bernstein and his collaborators included a lot of room for long, extended dance numbers. They really understood that dance is one of the pillars of musical theater along with singing and acting, so to have these huge numbers on stage at the Goodman within a Mary Zimmerman production of a Leonard Bernstein musical is going to be amazing. In 1963, Bernstein wrote, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.” May we all honor the Maestro’s words.