Leonard Bernstein set Broadway on fire in 1957 with “West Side Story,” a jazzed-up version of “Romeo and Juliet” in which the Capulets and Montagues were turned into Puerto Rican Sharks and American Jets. It was the most significant musical of the postwar era — and the last successful work that Bernstein wrote for the stage. His next show, 1976’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” closed after seven performances. For the rest of his life he floundered, unable to compose anything worth hearing.
What happened? Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein’s collaborator on “West Side Story,” told Meryle Secrest, who wrote biographies of both men, that he developed “a bad case of importantitis.” That sums up Bernstein’s later years with devastating finality. Time and again he dove head first into grandiose-sounding projects, then emerged from the depths clutching such pretentious pieces of musical costume jewelry as the “Kaddish” Symphony and “A Quiet Place.” In the end he dried up almost completely, longing to make Great Big Musical Statements — he actually wanted to write a Holocaust opera — but incapable of producing so much as a single memorable song.
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