THE MUSIC AND LIFE of Leonard Bernstein are being celebrated around the world this year as we observe the centennial of his birth on August 25, 1918. Music lovers are being treated to thousands of classical concerts, talks about his career, screenings of the film West Side Story, and stage revivals of his Broadway musicals, such as On the Town and Candide. The scope of the celebration is due to Bernstein’s unique role in American music as a composer who spanned the worlds of Broadway and classical music, infusing symphonic richness into musicals and a modern sensibility into the concert hall, and leaving a lasting legacy in both art forms.
On top of this fifty-year career in music, Bernstein was intermittently active politically, supporting leftist causes in the 1940s and personifying “radical chic” in the ’60s. He was blacklisted by CBS Radio and Television in 1950, targeted for scrutiny by the FBI during the Eisenhower years, and viewed as an “enemy” by the Nixon administration. But probably the greatest threat he posed to the status quo was his homosexuality. From the time of his arrival in New York City in 1942, he’d had a series of affairs with men. Being openly gay was not an option in that era, but he was remarkably honest with many of his closest friends, including the composer Aaron Copland, with whom he enjoyed a brief affair which served as a prelude to their lifelong friendship.
The social persecution that nearly wrecked a brilliant career did not have the effect of inhibiting his creative genius. His greatest, all-consuming love was for music, and sexuality was an ongoing source of inspiration. Many of his Broadway musicals are thematically pioneering and brimming with gay subtexts. His classical compositions are nearly always programmatic, telling a story or evoking images of nature or people. His journey to personal and public honesty took decades, but along the way his sexual desires served as a muse.
On the Town
Bernstein’s first Broadway hit was the musical On the Town, which premiered in New York on December 28, 1944, the first of his history-making creative partnerships with Jerome Robbins, a brilliant young choreographer who was also gay.
David LaFontaine is a professor at Massasoit Community College, where he teaches in the English Department.