Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Leonard Bernstein Story

There's always something of the primal, campfire experience in going to the theater--especially a small, intimate theater like the Laguna Playhouse, where we went last night. It's a gathering of the tribe around a glowing pit, to witness the performance of a ritual that speaks to some deeply buried, inner need. There is magic involved...

Last night's performance was called Maestro: The Music of Leonard Bernstein, one in a series of one-person performances about music and musicians created by Hershey Felder, a Canadian-born, Paris-based pianist/singer/actor/playwright/composer of Polish Jewish origin who tours the world with his theater pieces. His extraordinary repertoire of performances includes impersonations of Beethoven, Chopin and Gershwin as well as Bernstein, and Ellie and I are also booked to see his Great American Songbook later this week.

This, clearly, is a man of many parts. Felder's "Maestro" spans the career of Bernstein from a childhood dominated by a disapproving Russian immigrant father--whose accent and bearing Felder replicates with great zest and humor--to his discovery of the world of music and his early studies at the piano. The portrayal shows him as a man painfully torn between his ambition to be the next great American composer, never quite fulfilled, and a world-wide reputation as an adored conductor, which he comes to spurn; and a man equally torn between his innate homosexuality and a deep, genuine love for wife and family. The curtain falls on Bernstein as an old man, still longing for the "one piece" that would distinguish him as a composer. The "one piece" he falls back on (in this performance) is that haunting song of unfulfilled desire, Somewhere, from West Side Story.

Have I ever mentioned pete the parrot in these pages? I suspect I have, since he's a favorite character of mine, along with archy the cockroach/poet and mehitabel the cat, the reincarnation of Cleopatra in Don Marquis's archy and mehitabel (lower case, since archy composes his work by hopping from key to key on the typewriter, and obviously can't hold down the shift key simultaneously to type a capital letter.) Anyway, pete the parrot is an old timer, who recalls the days when bill shakespeare used to show up at the mermaid tavern and weep hot tears in his sherry because he never made it as the sonneteer he always wanted to be. Instead, he ended up as a "lousy playwright," churning out these "cheap shows," "slap stick comedies and blood and thunder tragedies and melodramas" to please the public. It's a hilarious poem, well worth the read.

And it's a propos, because Bernstein's problem, as Felder presents it, is precisely analogous to bill shakespeare's--not quite the "I coulda been a contender" syndrome, but something like it, a bitter sense of having been diverted from one's true purpose in life. It's a feeling that resonates for me--which is probably why I have always loved that poem. Not only did I spend a great number of the most productive years of my life pursuing a career in academia even while knowing, at heart, that I was supposed to be a writer; I am also subject to that self-deprecating (and, honestly, if I'm not careful, self-pitying) feeling that I am not the writer I could have been had I believed enough in myself from the start and had the courage to follow my convictions.

In a significant way, then, I was watching some part of myself up there on the stage with the eventually tortured Bernstein. I am grateful that good fortune, perhaps karma, led me to the discovery of the wisdom that is Buddhism--a wisdom that allows me to see such truths about myself with a certain clarity, and teaches me that it's possible to be clear and honest about them without succumbing to the temptation of attachment and causing myself more suffering. That's when I'm actually paying attention, which is not always the case!

Bravo to Hershey Felder for a bravura performance. There were, I thought, some moments where the pacing failed and the action slowed, but it was all in all a thoroughly entertaining evening. Ellie and I enjoyed both the story-telling and the music--Felder is an accomplished pianist and singer--and are looking forward to a return visit with him this Sunday. We're also hoping to get tickets for his "Monsieur Chopin" next month.

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