From Broadway and Hollywood to Paris and Vienna, Leonard Bernstein did it all.
In addition to an active career as a conductor and pianist, Bernstein managed to compose a catalog of works ranging from operas and symphonies to musicals and pop songs.
So what are his best works in each category? Let’s take a look!
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Bernstein's Top Broadway Musicals
West Side Story
It may not have won the Tony (it lost to The Music Man… 1958 was a tough year!), but one musical stands out, not just from the rest of Bernstein’s shows, but from most other musicals in history.
West Side Story managed to combine Shakespeare’s tragic plot, Sondheim’s memorable lyrics, Jerome Robbins’ impossibly difficult choreography, and Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-pop-inspired music to tell a story directly confronting the racial issues facing post-war America. The result was a production unlike any Broadway had ever seen before.
On the Town
This early effort from Bernstein is filled with youthful energy and jazzy melodies. It was adapted into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.
Bernstein's Top Classical Concert Music
Symphony No. 2
Leonard Bernstein had a lifelong affinity with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. We hear it in this combination symphony-piano concerto-tone poem, based on a W.H. Auden poem about a group of friends seeking the meaning of life during a night out on the town.
Bernstein's Top Hollywood Film Music
On the Waterfront
Despite the cinematic success of On the Town and West Side Story, there’s only one choice in this category: “On the Waterfront” is the only film score Bernstein ever composed. But what a score! Just listen to how his music supports Marlon Brando’s tour de force performance in this iconic scene:
Bernstein's Top Opera
While it premiered in a Broadway theater and not an opera house — this is a 20th-century Offenbach-style operetta disguised as a musical. Barbara Cook and Mary Costa (who was also the voice of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”) first played Cunegonde. It has since become a standard in opera houses all over the world. Just listen to Natalie Dessay perform Cunegonde’s signature number, “Glitter and be Gay”:
Trouble in Tahiti
If Candide is an opera disguised as a musical, Trouble in Tahiti is almost the opposite. This jazzy one-act opera follows a typical 1950s suburban couple as they struggle with their marriage while keeping up appearances for the neighbors. It could be a depressing story, but Bernstein’s optimism and catchy melodies keep hope alive throughout.
So what do you think? Did we name your favorite music by Bernstein? We’d love to hear your list. Let us know your favorites on Facebook.