September 21, 2018

Henry Mollicone & Leonard Bernstein: A Cold Day in Philadelphia (1600 Pennsylvania Ave)

A big influence in my own work is the music of Leonard Bernstein. Having grown up watching his “Young People’s Concerts” on TV as a boy, it was a thrill when I was in my 20s to work with him as a musical assistant on his show 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, which he wrote with Allen Jay Lerner. Sadly, the show was a flop, but working with the inspiring Maestro was still a great experience. I am often asked about this, and will tell one anecdote.

Personally, I found him always to be a gentleman, treating people with respect. At one point in the rehearsal process, the show was in Philadelphia in it’s pre-Broadway version. The choreographer asked me if I would write a new piece of dance music based on Bernstein’s tunes; I asked Bernstein, and he gave me the go ahead to do it. (I was thrilled).

When the piano score was completed, I brought it to his hotel in Philly and we sat together at the piano as I played it for him. (The show was in trouble, so the general atmosphere in rehearsals was tense). He liked what he heard (which made me very happy!), but said we need to work on a few things. So we stayed at the piano for about an hour and a half, as he made subtle changes here and there. Finally, after this “composition lesson” with the Maestro, he said it was ready to give to the orchestrators Sid Ramon and Hershy Kay.

It was a cold, snowy day in Philly, and as I was leaving his hotel ready to brave the elements, I said to him, “Well, Mr. Bernstein (I never called him “Lenny”), we worked hard on this. I certainly hope the choreographer likes it.” He was sitting down ready to make a phone call and looked up at me sadly, saying: “If he doesn’t like it, fuck ‘em”!  Having grown up thinking of him as a musical master, I was a bit amused at this and other similar incidents where he revealed himself to be a normal human being, susceptible to anger and frustration just like the rest of us!

Unfortunately, the failure of the show to have success on Broadway was very depressing to him; this is unfortunate, as it contains a lot of wonderful music and lyrics. Fortunately it has been “saved” by some of his musical assistants after his passing by putting a lot of the show’s best music into a work now called “A White House Cantata”. Check out the recording!