The miraculous genius of Leonard Bernstein’s theater songs revealed.





By Joel Benjamin



Rob Kapilow’s What Makes It Great? Series at the Merkin Concert Hall is a combination of erudition and entertainment. One thing is for sure: no one attending will ever hear these works the same way again. This time around, Mr. Kapilow put five Leonard Bernstein theater songs under the microscope and, with the help of two extraordinary singers, Sally Wilfert and Michael Winther, turned songs we have taken for granted into works of art.

“I Can Cook Too,” from On the Town (1944) with lyrics credited to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was actually written entirely by Bernstein who took popular boogy-woogy and swing styles, then currently hugely popular, to new heights, using them to create a comic seduction, full of double entendre food metaphors. Mr. Kapilow, at the piano, with Ms. Wilfert at hand to provide vocal tidbits, showed how Bernstein played with these basic popular music/dance forms and came up with a song that not only displayed the character’s sexual needs, but took the basic theater song format into new territory with its verse sung in the middle and the kind of subtle variations that only a classical composer would utilize.


Similarly, “A Little Bit In Love” from Wonderful Town (1953) contained little bits of Bernstein’s genius, such as adding little grace notes to an opening sequence and a vocal line that mimicked the character’s—the ingénue, Eileen—feelings: not head over heels, but, as the title says, just a little bit in love.

Ms. Wilfert showed her range, singing the first in idiosyncratic pop style and the second in a higher, lighter manner.

Then it was Mr. Winther’s turn to show his craft, first with “Something’s Coming” and then with “Maria,” both from West Side Story and both written with Stephen Sondheim. It seems that the former, written to give the Tony character more depth, has an extraordinary structure, beginning with the pulsating opening notes, musical lines that go up when they might ordinarily be expected to go down and key changes that reveal Tony’s change in emotional state.


“Maria,” similarly, begins as a rumination and ends as a declaration of outright love, the music making extraordinary demands on the singer who needs a vocal range from baritone to falsetto to get the music and lyrics just right. Even when measures of music appear to be repeating, Bernstein changes the reiterations to keep the dramatic thrust of this paean to his new love’s name moving to its ecstatic climax.

Mr. Winther was ardent and youthful in both songs.

Ms. Wilfert and Mr. Winther finally got to sing together in “Tonight,” which, Mr. Kapilow revealed, had emerged from earlier, heavy handed versions. Just how the music charted the lovers’ tremulous excitement was turned into an exciting tour. The give and take between the characters was skillfully exposed in Bernstein’s pulsating accompaniment taking Sondheim’s words to stratospheric heights. When the two sang “Tonight” through and actually kissed, there were audible sighs throughout Merkin Hall.

Perhaps, in his zeal, Mr. Kapilow was a bit too analytical. He, at times, lost the audience. A few of the musical theory facts might have been better glossed over. By the time the singers got to performing the songs straight through heads were either reeling from factual overkill or worn out from too much detail: the true meanings of the songs took more effort to reach.

This might explain why the two encores, the delightfully off-kilter “Wrong Note Rag” (Wonderful Town) and the blissfully tender “Some Other Time” (On the Town), both duets, registered so strongly not just in our heads, but in our hearts, too.

Nonetheless, Rob Kapilow is a great raconteur and a fabulous musician.

Upcoming What Makes It Great? programs include Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring on April 18th.

*Photos: David Andrako


What Makes It Great? Theater Songs of Leonard Bernstein (February 8, 2016)
Merkin Concert Hall/Kaufman Music Center
129 West 67th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY
For tickets, call 212-501-3330 or visit
Running time: 90 minutes