Boston Pops: In the Room Where It Happened

Renee Elise Goldsberry of "Hamilton"
(photo: Boston Pops)

The focus of the Boston Pops schedule says it all: a season-long homage, Leonard Bernstein Centennial Tribute, celebrating not only the centennial of the birth of the prolific composer but also the 133rd season of the Boston Pops in Symphony Hall. As noted earlier this season, the program faced an embarrassment of riches. Any retrospective of the composer's life work would have to include some of the more obvious choices, such as the overture to Candide, his early evolution into On the Town, and the hugely successful groundbreaking West Side Story. In some respects, choosing from the depth and breadth of his works is easy; in some other respects, it's well nigh impossible, since he made his mark on the symphonic stage, opera, Broadway, art songs and one film score.

After a new Pops favorite, the selection To Lenny! To Lenny! by John Williams, and the Candide overture, the program segued to the more fully developed musical that was to be On the Town. With lyrics by Comden and Green (created by a trio who were all in their mid-twenties), the program included the stirring New York, New York and West Side Story, introduced by Conductor Keith Lockhart with his oft-told story about the latter work's creation. Arguably his most beloved work, West Side Story, it was correctly noted, was to have been East Side Story, about Jewish and Irish gangs; fortunately the composer went with West Side Story and its Latino conflicts that could entail jazz and other musical influences, as demonstrated by “Mambo”. The program continued with a selection from Bernstein's sole film score from On the Waterfront (the love scene and finale) and an explanation from Lockhart as to why the composer never wrote again for the silver screen. Bernstein felt that music should always be paramount, rather than relegated to the background and the necessary restrictions inherent in scoring for the movies. One couldn't help but think of frequent Pops conductor John Williams to appreciate fully the demands of such focus on a composer. The first half of the program also included the “Simple Song” from Bernstein's Mass, which isn't heard as often as one might wish.

After intermission, Lockhart introduced (though, as they say, needing no introduction) Renee Elise Goldsberry, an accomplished Broadway luminary known best for her Tony-winning role as Angelica Schuyler in the smash hit Hamilton, an American Musical. Greeted with truly thunderous applause, she gave rousing performances of songs from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (the title number), Carmen Jones (the translated Habanera), The Lion King (her Broadway debut), and Hamilton itself. Goldsberry then introduced her stage sister (as Eliza Hamilton from Hamilton), Phillipa Soo, also to a huge audience response, who sang numbers from Into the Woods (“Children Will Listen”) and more of Hamilton. The two singers joined together for yet more from Hamilton. Goldsberry ended the evening with a medley of songs from Rent (in which she played Mimi in its final run on Broadway) and a heartfelt rendition of “You'll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. The audience truly loved them both.

Anyone hoping for another dose or three of Bernstein need not fear. The Pops schedule will complete its homage to “Lenny” with a concert version of his West Side Story at the end of this week, concluding its current season. But wait, there's more. The BSO calendar for Tanglewood will include a semi-staged production of his On the Town, his opera Trouble in Tahiti, his Chichester Psalms, the entire score to his West Side Story (accompanied by a showing of the film version), a Bernstein Songfest, his A Quiet Place (a sequel to his opera Trouble in Tahiti), and fully-staged presentations of his Fancy Free and Candide. To which one can only respond: Lenny! Lenny!

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