Riffing on Leonard Bernstein’s theater music

Riffing on Leonard Bernstein’s theater music

Daughter Jamie and jazz pianist Bill Charlap will explain the magic at NJPAC

Bill Charlap, left, Jamie Bernstein, and Ted Chapin
Bill Charlap, left, Jamie Bernstein, and Ted Chapin

An interview with jazz pianist Bill Charlap of West Orange is like an advanced lesson in music appreciation — in this case, the music of Leonard Bernstein.

Illustrating his words with live piano accompaniment, the celebrated musician leaves you feeling both educated and entertained.

Mr. Charlap, together with the Bill Charlap Trio, theater historian Ted Chapin, and Jamie Bernstein, the daughter of Leonard Bernstein and author of “Famous Father Girl,” will bring that lesson to a much wider audience on January 29, when NJPAC showcases the theater music of Leonard Bernstein.

The evening will include stories, reflections, and music; Mr. Charlap and his trio, with whom he has been performing for 25 years — Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington, who is not related to Peter, on drums — will play Bernstein classics, including “America,” “Lucky To Be Me,” “Some Other Time,” “Glitter and be Gay,” “Somewhere,” and “Cool.”

We certainly know the music — but do we, really? Mr. Charlap will show hidden depths to the compositions we hum every day. And what about the composer himself? Jamie Bernstein will explore her father’s complex persona, sharing personal stories and childhood memories.

She will not be working from a script, she said. “We’re treating it like jazz — not mapping it all out.” Instead, she said, “we’ll riff it all out. The three of us are all pretty good at just cooking up conversations. That’s more fun for the audience than prefabricated anecdotes.”

She did, however, share some memories of her father with this writer. “It was hard to get to spend time with him, just the two of us,” she said. “There were always people around.” When it did happen, “it was a treat, a treasured moment.”

One of those times, “we rented a house on Martha’s Vineyard that came with a tiny little sailboat, the Janie” — that’s only one letter off from her own name, she pointed out. “He was pretty good at sailing, and we went out together.” On one sail, creating a dialogue in which he pretended that he was a frail old dad who wanted to go sailing with his then-older daughter — who no longer had time for him, preferring to be with her friends — she recalls saying, in that case, “let’s make the best of it now. He gave me a big hug.”

Ms. Bernstein also recalled the summer when her father was writing “Mass.” She was a teenager, and “it was at our place in Connecticut. Dad’s studio was up in the driveway. At the end of the afternoon, he would drift back down with a sheaf of paper, slap it on the piano stand, and play what he wrote. It was great to observe his creative process.”

Mr. Charlap, who says he does not remember a time when he didn’t play piano — he started when he was 3 — grew up in New York City “but finally swam the channel,” moving more than 20 years ago to West Orange. He and his wife, jazz pianist, composer, and arranger Renee Rosnes, still live there. Their three children, all in their 20s, no longer live at home.

Mr. Charlap did not have to look far for musical inspiration. His father was the composer Moose Charlap, and his mother, Sandy Stewart, is a singer.

His family is Jewish. He’s not active in any synagogue, he said, but his great-grandfather was a rabbi and his grandparents had “reverence for our history and tradition.

“I was lucky to have a family that encouraged me,” he said. “My father was a great theater composer and songwriter” — among his works was the score for Mary Martin’s “Peter Pan” — and his mother, who was Grammy-nominated in the 1960s, was a regular guest on variety television shows such as “Perry Como” and “Ed Sullivan.” His father died young, but his mother is still singing.

Mr. Charlap has made three recordings with his mother. He describes the experience as “otherworldly. She’s a great musician so it still would have been a joy,” even if she had not been his mom. “She’s easy to play with and has worked with many of the greatest.

“But she’s my mother. It’s the first voice that soothes you but also asks you to clean your room. It does something on a surround-sound spiritual level.”

The clearly appreciative son — who in 2015 became the director of jazz studies at Wayne’s William Paterson University — also released an album of piano duets with his wife, “Double Portrait,” and with many other leading musicians too numerous to list here. In 2016, he co-produced “The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern” with Tony Bennett, winning a Grammy award for best traditional pop vocal album.

“Somewhere,” featuring the music of Leonard Bernstein, also was nominated for a Grammy. Ms. Bernstein is particularly pleased that the song “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story,” will be on the January 29 program. Out of all her father’s vast body of work, that’s her favorite song. She would like that song even if it hadn’t been written by Leonard Bernstein, she said, “though I can’t imagine a world without that music.”

Her father “was so good at using music to tell stories,” she said. “He loved writing for theater, using music to express the characters’ emotions.” “Somewhere” speaks to the modern day, with a soaring opening interval “that contains all our universal longings for a world that works, where we’re kind to each other. It’s in the DNA of the music.”

She also loves the song because “it’s the perfect example of how he used music to make the world a better place — imagining that place with his notes and helping to advance us closer to that state.”

The NJPAC audience quickly will grasp two things from Mr. Bernstein’s music. First, “he wrote in so many different ways and flavors. Some songs are incredibly upbeat, others quite anguished emotionally. And he was such a good melodist. He wrote really great tunes.”

It is clear that Mr. Charlap also has a special affinity for the evening’s honoree. Both came “from the other side of the tracks,” he said, and both studied classical as well as theater music. “Leonard Bernstein was the first great American maestro to be accepted by the European establishment as a bona fide maestro.”

Explaining the composer’s special gift, Mr. Charlap noted that “Bernstein’s music is more than a blueprint. It’s through-composed, using many elements.” For example — he demonstrated on the piano — there’s light opera in “Candide”; blues in “Fancy Free”; and the development of technical ideas in “West Side Story”. To illustrate, the pianist showed how repeatedly inverting a series of notes leads to the creation of new songs. “It’s a flash of genius,” he said, calling Bernstein “a unique composer of theater songs and popular songs.”

“There are so many qualities that are theatrical, visceral, vital, romantic, spiritual,” he said. “Depending on the song, you’re moved differently. There’s always something unique and distinctive… something highbrow is in there as well.”

Noting that Bernstein’s music was clearly influenced by his Jewish heritage, Mr. Charlap pointed out that “his first symphony was called ‘Jeremiah’. He had a very Jewish side.” Still, he stressed, his music was “a gift to all the world.”

Theater historian Ted Chapin, who will be on hand to facilitate the conversation between Mr. Charlap and Ms. Bernstein, also weighed in on Mr. Bernstein’s Jewish influences, saying that “the mambos in West Side Story are close to klezmer.” He noted also that the music for “Candide “and “West Side Story,” written about the same time, benefit from the composer’s “youthful exuberance.” (Sadly, the production of “Candide,” for which Mr. Chapin served as assistant producer, did not succeed.)

He has known Jamie Bernstein for a long time, “since our fathers were compadres,” Mr. Chapin said. His dad, Schuyler Chapin, “met Bernstein when he” — Mr. Chapin — “was head of the Masterworks division of Columbia Records.” Later, Mr. Chapin was the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs, and dean of the Columbia University School of the Arts.

Ted Chapin, “who ran the Rodgers and Hammerstein office for 40 years” and has a great deal of knowledge about their shows, speaks often about Broadway lore. If he’s an historian, he said, it’s by virtue of working on so many productions. He spoke movingly about the late Stephen Sondheim — with whom he also worked — pointing out that Mr. Sondheim, mentored by Oscar Hammerstein, similarly was concerned about “passing on the torch when he could. He was very open to meeting with young people.”

Mr. Chapin has worked with NJPAC before. In 2016, the performance venue launched an “American Songbook” series with NJTV. “We filmed three seasons,” he said, explaining that an artist would do a 40-minute act, followed by Q & A. He was asked to participate in the Bernstein program by NJPAC president and CEO John Schreiber.

Today, Mr. Chapin is described as a producer, performer, and presenter. His entry into theater life could very well form the plot of a Broadway show. “I realized early growing up in New York that I wanted to be part of the theater,” he said. “I became a production assistant, getting coffee for the producer, but” — quoting “Hamilton” — “I wanted to be in the room where it happens.” Fortunately, he said, “I morphed into being assistant director.”

Who: Bill Charlap (and his trio), Jamie Bernstein, and Ted Chapin

What: Will celebrate the theater music of Leonard Bernstein

When: On January 29 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: NJPAC, 1 Center St., Newark

Tickets: $59 and up. To buy tickets, call (888) GONJPAC/(888) 466 5722 or go to NJPAC.org/dance.

Health + Safety Protocols: NJPAC regularly updates its covid protocols and procedures based on CDC, federal, state, city, and other scientific data. Go to NJPAC.org for the most updated guidelines.

read more: