Before his death in 1990 at age 72, Leonard Bernstein had achieved a reputation as one of the 20th century’s defining American composers – writing for different genres and styles of music. Even with his success on stage and in the concert hall, one area in which Bernstein did not have much significance was as a film composer. He only contributed one original score in his several decades of work, while two of his stage successes received film adaptations – albeit with significant changes and alterations.
In 1944, Bernstein composed the score for the ground-breaking musical On the Town – featuring the words and lyrics of the duo of Betty Comden & Adolph Green (who would write the screenplay for the legendary MGM classic Singin’ in the Rain). The story followed three sailors who take a much-needed break from the life of war and take in New York City – and fall in love along the way. The original Broadway staging of On the Town also benefited from the choreography of Jerome Robbins, who would collaborate Bernstein on a highly-acclaimed musical a decade later. While the Bernstein/Comden/Green score had classic tunes such as the opening “New York, New York” and the melancholic “Some Other Time,” the MGM adaptation of On the Town released in 1949 would make significant cuts. Even with the casting of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller and the co-directing of Kelly & Stanley Donen, Bernstein’s music would not see much screen time. Despite a memorable handling of “New York, New York” filmed right on location, the MGM musical department provided new tunes to buoy the story.
Even though the film version of On the Town did not give Bernstein much of a canvas for his music to be presented, his next project would prove to be much different. In 1954, acclaimed director Elia Kazan recruited the composer to write the score for On the Waterfront, the powerhouse drama about violence and corruption; it starred Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Karl Malden. Bernstein wrote powerful themes to describe Brando’s defeated but defiant hero Terry Malloy, his feelings towards his new love, and also for the union boss determined to run things his way. While the film gained high acclaim and several Oscar wins for the film, Brando, Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, Bernstein’s score was not highly noted out of the gate. Yet during the 1954 Academy Awards ceremony, the music was not ignored – as Bernstein received a nomination for Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. He would ultimately be defeated by Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin, for his score to the John Wayne-led disaster drama The High and the Mighty. It would end up being Bernstein’s only original score – and his only Oscar nomination.
Three years after composing for On the Waterfront, Bernstein would achieve his greatest stage success with a powerful epic musical inspired by the famed love story of Romeo and Juliet. The musical West Side Story followed the Jets and Sharks, two gangs fighting over territory on New York’s West Side – and of the doomed relationship between the Jets’ co-leader & the sister of the Sharks’ leader. Bernstein’s score was buoyed by lyrics penned by future Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim, and a reunion with his On the Town choreographer Jerome Robbins. In 1961, West Side Story would be headed for the big screen – and just as it was with On the Town, the score went through changes before its release. Bernstein’s music was shifted all over, with songs like “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” was switched in the running order; the powerful “Somewhere” ballet was shortened to just a brief duet between the two lovers Tony and Maria. While the scoring adaptation earned an Academy Award, Bernstein was not involved in any of the work.
After West Side Story‘s highly-acclaimed release, Leonard Bernstein’s music was not a major player – and he would not write another original score for a Hollywood release. His individual compositions would be featured in the Oscar-winning dramedy Terms of Endearment, the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau sequel Grumpier Old Men, the hit Fox series Glee, and even Analyze That – where several West Side Story tunes were crooned by stars Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal. Yet over the course of a dozen years during Hollywood’s Golden Age, three motion picture projects saw Bernstein’s work as the melodic focal point. Two films feature his work but with significant changes that lessened his input, and an Oscar-winning labor drama saw his sole original credit for music writing for the big screen. For a composer and conductor of his stature, it may be a disappointment in the sense of Bernstein not doing more film work throughout his five-decade career.