If you’ve ever heard the pristine notes of Candide, the energetic beats of West Side Story or the rhythmic sounds of On the Town, you’ve heard music by the great composer Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein composed many of the songs in Broadway hits and popular operas, but he was also a prominent political activist. The son of Ukrainian Jewish parents, Bernstein spent much of his life overcoming the obstacles set in front of him as a young Jewish composer in the mid-20th century and fighting to help others do the same. To honor his contributions not only to music but also to society as a whole, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage has set up an exhibit cataloguing the life and works of Bernstein, on display until March 1st.
The exhibit sits in a side area off the main Museum lobby and is divided into sections of Bernstein’s life. The long winding hallway, which houses the exhibit, carries you from his early days to the red scare and features his music as well as personal artifacts. The first section explores Bernstein’s early works and influences, featuring handwritten scores scrawled in messy pencil and spotted with cursive notes. If you want to discover his works for yourself, the museum also has a display where you can place blocks with different pieces by Bernstein onto a table and have the works play in front of you. West Side Story, for example, has its own block featuring other elements of the show, like a video of a man playing a ram’s horn similar to the one incorporated into the musical.
As you walk further down the hall, the exhibit seems to get more and more personal. A glass case shows Bernstein’s old conducting suit, next to other possessions like his composing pencils, flask, eyeglasses, and even a Steinway piano gifted to him. One of the most interesting possessions of his on display are several trunks, covered in stickers and sporting metal clasps that were rusty with age, used to keep Bernstein’s scores. The sheer size of the trunks was a bit startling; it called to mind the extensive work Bernstein had produced – literally a trunkful. Beyond his possessions, the hallway seems to open up to reveal a darker side to Bernstein’s legacy. During the red scare, the FBI targeted Bernstein for investigation, partly because of his heritage and partly because of his activism. Inside a glass case sits a typewritten affidavit signed by Bernstein disavowing communism, which seems unnecessary until you walk a few feet over and see the thick binder that is his FBI file. Inside the binder are hundreds of pages of information collected and declassified about the composer, detailing every aspect in which the US government investigated him for. The binder is perhaps the most in-depth file in the exhibit about Bernstein, yet it rarely has mentions of his music, instead focusing more on his sympathizing to civil rights causes and questioning his alliance to the United States.
Luckily, both Bernstein’s career and the exhibit don’t end there. Instead, it shifts to a happier note, showing letters from Bernstein to his mother written while he was in Israel, all illustrated with colorful pictures to accompany his words. More colorful still, the exhibit boasts posters from his famous West Side Story, perhaps his most popular work. Next to the West Side Story section, a screen plays movie scenes side-by-side with their modern-day references. The characters in the show sing next to everything from a Khaki commercial to a Simpson’s episode, the impact of Bernstein’s songs seeming to transcend the musical and become cultural. However, Bernstein’s famous works would not be complete without a section of the exhibit dedicated to MASS, a work of Bernstein’s focused even more on social justice. This section too shows a comparison of MASS to other moments, but this time theatrical. A video of the Hamilton Cast addressing Mike Pence, Logic’s 1-800 Suicide hotline performance, and other important moments of theatrical greatness play with MASS’s moving score accompanying them. Although perhaps MASS isn’t in our collective consciousness as much as West Side Story, the exhibit goes to great lengths to show how its ideals of social justice in theater and music has continued more than fifty years after its creation.
Bernstein had a unique way of weaving in activism, music, and fun into enjoyable and memorable musicals to create something unique. No matter what challenges he faced Bernstein refused to let his musical talent be silenced. While it’s one thing to create enjoyable songs it’s another entirely to make music that truly means something. Perhaps that’s why Bernstein’s composing is still well known thirty years after his death: his ability to withstand criticism and investigation and still create art that has the ability to live long after it’s creator. In the end, Bernstein summarized his own artistic career best – “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”