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Leonard Bernstein: Composer, Conductor, Social Justice Warrior

As the centennial celebration of the great American musician gets underway, we examine his consistent commitment to peace and justice.
Leonard Bernstein.

Leonard Bernstein.

One of the lead characters in Leonard Bernstein's 1944 musical On the Town is referred to as "exotic." An aspiring singer, she's the love interest of one of the trio of sailors who famously open the show by informing us that New York, New York, is a helluva town.

Given that the United States was at war with Japan the year On the Town debuted—and that the character was given the bland, white-bread name Ivy Smith—it's a bit of a shock to realize the first thespian cast in the role was Sono Osato, a Japanese-American singer and actress. Her father, who was interned for much of the war, wasn't allowed to travel to New York to see the show until several months into its Broadway run.

Bernstein and his On the Town collaborators—choreographer Jerome Robbins and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green—didn't openly declare they were making a breakthrough in color-blind casting by employing Osato. And yet, the choice defiantly skirted established norms: At the time few Asian Americans were cast in Broadway roles, and when actors of color did grace the stage, they often played roles fraught with racial stereotypes.

It's just one of many moments in which the composer/conductor proved he wasn't just one of the most important American musicians of the post-World War II era, he was also a passionate warrior for social justice. "He tried to make sure the world that he left behind was a better place," says Harvard University musicologist Carol Oja, who has extensively researched Bernstein's history. "As famous as he became, and as successful as he ultimately was, he had a kind of outsider status from the beginning, and I think this sensitized him to a lot of social-justice issues."

On September 22nd, a two-year-long centennial celebration of Bernstein's life and career will kick off at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It will include performances of his musicals (including the classic West Side Story) and his orchestral works all around the world, as well as several traveling exhibitions, and the debut of several documentaries about Bernstein.

As the remembrances get underway, Pacific Standard spoke to Oja—the author of Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War, in addition to her work at Harvard—about Bernstein's commitment to social and political causes, and how they helped shape his work.


Bernstein is important for many reasons, including being the first American-born, American-trained conductor to rise to fame and lead an American orchestra. But perhaps most impressive is the fact that he created lasting works of art that were informed by his commitment to social justice, but largely avoided preachiness.

Yes. That's quite a feat. Not many people achieve it.

Was there a conflict for him between creating art and fighting for social justice?

Mostly not, as far as I can see. They were parallel motivators for him. He was the child of Jewish immigrants. He had family members who were deeply affected by the Holocaust. So from youth on, he was aware of how indignities could be brought against whole groups of people. When he was at Harvard, class of 1939, there were just a few Jews in his class. To be both Jewish and gay could not have been easy.

This was a time when homosexuality was still taboo.

Within the community of composers, and certain groups of musicians, [his sexual orientation] was pretty widely known. [Composer] Aaron Copland was one of his lovers dating back to his days at Harvard.

Did he personally suffer from prejudice?

A colleague and I taught a hands-on research seminar at Harvard about Bernstein's Boston years in 2006. We did a lot of interviews, including a group interview with elders of his family's synagogue. One of those people had worked for a long time with the Boston Symphony, and she claimed that, when [the orchestra's longtime music director] Serge Koussevitzky died in 1951, Lenny, who had been groomed by Koussevitzky for many years, was passed over for the job because he was "too Jewish, too American, and too homosexual."

Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War.

Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War.

That was apparently not a problem for the New York Philharmonic, which he led as music director from 1958 to 1969. But in the interim, he hardly hid his political sympathies. They are already evident in the 1944 musical On the Town.

Most of what was progressive about that show was performed, rather than written into the script, so its message sort of got lost over time. With the casting, they took some real risks—especially casting Sono Osato. That was unusual casting for the time, even aside from World War II. Few Asian Americans had ever had major roles on Broadway.

The dance corps, and the cast overall, included a number of African-American performers. Black men held hands with white women on stage, which was a complete taboo of the era. Black and white sailors intermingled on stage, which was a commentary on the segregated military of World War II.

The other amazing aspect of it is that Everett Lee, who is black and is still living, became the conductor of the show nine months into the run. He had been the concertmaster, which was unusual in itself for the time. It's hard to know for sure, but that's probably the first time an African-American conducted a mixed-race Broadway show. These steps all broke racial barriers.

Bernstein's commitment to diversity didn't stop there. I own a copy of his recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion from 1962, and two of the vocal soloists are African Americans. He also conducted a concert during the late '50s in which Louis Armstrong was a guest performer with members of the New York Philharmonic. How common was it at the time to have black performers featured in classical concerts?

Very unusual. Bernstein actually started featuring performers of color in the 1940s. He used many performers of color on his famous Young People's Concerts [which were televised nationally], including pianist Andre Watts. It became an operating principle for Bernstein.

The Louis Armstrong performance was part of the summertime series of "stadium concerts" in Harlem, on the City College campus, which were sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. It's not the first time these concerts featured jazz, but, before that, the jazz musicians had all been white.

A few years later comes West Side Story, which tackled a variety of social issues including racism and gang violence. Is that part of what drew Bernstein to the project?

It was a deliberate political decision on the part of both Bernstein and [director/choreographer Jerome] Robbins. Gang violence in New York City was a real issue in the 1950s; there were a lot of newspaper articles about it. West Side Story was intended to be a powerful statement about racism. Now, over time, it has come to be seen within the Latino community as perpetuating a lot of stereotypes. So its position in relation to social justice has shifted.

Arthur Laurents tried to address those complaints when he staged the most recent revival on Broadway. He asked Lin-Manuel Miranda [who later wrote Hamilton] to translate a lot of the lyrics for the Hispanic characters into Spanish. I saw it when it previewed in Washington, D.C., and there was a lot of Spanish. There were electronic boards with the English translation on the sides so [non-Spanish speakers] could follow the text. By the time it got to New York, the amount of Spanish had been pared back, but it was still there. Hearing [the song] "I Feel Pretty" in Spanish is pretty powerful.

Where else in his work do you see this blending of art and social activism?

Certainly in his Mass, which was, in part, a protest against the Vietnam War. Candide probes the human condition. His 1976 musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which was a colossal bomb, is sort of an Upstairs/Downstairs at the White House, giving prominence to the long history of black employees there.

In announcing the two-year-long Bernstein centennial celebration this year, Whoopi Goldberg remarked that "Maybe the greatest tribute to his lifetime commitment to social justice is the fact his [Federal Bureau of Investigation] file is 800 pages long." Why did he have an FBI file at all, let alone such a massive one?

I've looked through some of it. Bernstein was named in Red Channels, a publication from 1950 that targeted people in the entertainment industry who were suspected of having Communist affiliations. Since he was prominent, and a lot of people around him had leftist affiliations, the FBI paid attention to him. He kind of slid past the McCarthy hearings. Copland and Robbins were called to testify, but he was not. He lost his passport for a time in the 1950s, but that was it. It's kind of miraculous, actually.

Thanks to a famous Tom Wolfe article, a 1970 reception he held at his home for the Black Panther party became legendary.

The article was titled "Radical Chic." It's a mean piece; the tone is snide. It portrayed Bernstein and his wife Felicia as rich folks who were dabbling in support of racial causes. Bernstein faced a lot of criticism over the years. He was ostentatious and larger than life, so he may have provoked some of that criticism, just by virtue of his persona.

In 1989, the year before he died, Bernstein made another political statement by conducting Beethoven's Ninth in Berlin to celebrate the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. He even changed the text from "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom." Do you know how that came about?

I think he instigated it. It was a piece of his peacenik history. He was very involved in the anti-nuclear movement, and was an advocate for world peace. This was a logical outgrowth of that passionate stance. He seized the moment in a very visible way, putting his celebrity to work for a social/political cause. He did that consistently throughout his life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.