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The Movie Offer He Couldn't Refuse

Leonard Bernstein avoided Hollywood film scoring, with one exception. As an orchestral work, 'Waterfront' continues to earn praise.

April 01, 2001|JON BURLINGAME | Jon Burlingame is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Leonard Bernstein composed just one original movie score-for "On the Waterfront" in 1954. He was a somewhat reluctant New York traveler to Hollywood, and his experiences here famously didn't make him want to return.

Still, the score he produced made a big enough splash: It earned an Academy Award nomination and excellent reviews. And Hollywood was excited to have lured a high-art celeb into the fold, however temporarily.

A year later, Bernstein took the major themes for "Waterfront" and turned them into a single movement orchestral work that has had a respectable life of its own. According to Times music critic Mark Swed, Bernstein "wrenched his atmospheric themes into something far grander, a symphonic suite, that the composer would conduct with an overpowering insistence."

This week, former Bernstein pupil Yakov Kreizberg will lead the L.A. Philharmonic in the Suite.

"It has a tremendous variety of expression, of musical ideas," says the Russian-born conductor of the music inspired by Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando and company. "The way he uses percussion, for example, clearly foreshadows 'West Side Story.' It has a virtuoso quality to it. It has very driven and barbaric moments about it, very lyrical moments, very sensual moments. It has chamber music in the midst of all this bombastic stuff. It's incredibly exciting."

One key to the music and its impact is the material that inspired it. Bernstein was 35 when he was hired to score the movie after having already enjoyed success as a conductor and a composer for the ballet ('Fancy Free'), the concert hall ('The Age of Anxiety') and Broadway ('On the Town'). He had steadfastly resisted movie offers, he later wrote, "on the grounds that it is a musically unsatisfactory experience for a composer to write a score whose chief merit ought to be its unobtrusiveness."

But producer Sam Spiegel convinced Bernstein to look at a rough cut of the film, with its towering performance by Brando as an inarticulate longshoreman caught up in union corruption on the New Jersey docks. Bernstein said he felt "a surge of excitement" at the screening and was "swept by my enthusiasm into accepting the commission to write the score."

In fact, according to both screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Kazan, Spiegel's primary interest in Bernstein was for publicity. 'I don't think Sam was that enthusiastic when we got the film done," Schulberg said recently. "He told Kazan that he was worried that people might not go to see it. That's really what motivated his thinking-it would get an extra 'utz' if he could get Lenny to do something he'd never done before, which was to write a film score." For Kazan's part, he noted in his autobiography that Spiegel was "anxious to get another prominent name on the advertising copy."

Bernstein began composing in February 1954. As he later explained: "Day after day, I sat at a Moviola, running the print back and forth, measuring in feet the sequences I had chosen for music, converting feet into seconds by mathematical formula, making homemade cue sheets. And every time I wept at the same speeches, chuckled at the same gestures."

Over the next several weeks, he wrote 48 minutes of music based on three primary themes: one expressing Brando's reluctant heroism; a love theme for Brando and Eva Marie Saint; and forceful, percussion-driven music for the violence on the docks (most dramatically heard at the outset of the movie as a longshoreman is hurled off a rooftop).

Morris Stoloff, Columbia Pictures music director, conducted the score over three days in late April of that year. At its largest, the orchestra consisted of 47 musicians (including, one day, Bernstein, who played jazz piano for a saloon scene between Brando and Saint and was paid all of $48.21, union scale, for his efforts).

Composer Herschel Burke Gilbert attended the scoring sessions. "It was a big event in town," he said. "Everybody talked about it. Lenny Bernstein was coming to do a score in Hollywood? What would he do?"

What he did was break with Hollywood film-scoring tradition. Instead of the usual sweeping orchestral overture, the score opens quietly, with the sound of a single instrument. French horn player James Decker, who played that solo and now teaches at USC, remembered that "the opening being what it was, it allowed me to do a little phrasing, which was nice. I was able to milk it a little bit. You don't get that chance much in the studios."

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