With simple songs, students make Leonard Bernstein’s music their own

Senior Austin Shields, a theatre arts and music major from Maryland, opens A Simple Song at the Ring Theatre by singing the title song.
By Maya Bell

Senior Austin Shields, a theatre arts and music major from Maryland, opens A Simple Song at the Ring Theatre by singing the title song.

With simple songs, students make Leonard Bernstein’s music their own

By Maya Bell
Theatre arts students open the Ring Theatre’s 2018-19 season with a tribute to the creative genius who is being celebrated around the world.

The school bell rings and the entire cast of A Simple Song assembles on the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre stage to portray the students they actually are during the turbulent times they’re actually in—through the enduring music of cultural icon Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th birthday has spawned more than 2,000 celebrations on six continents.

In the University of Miami’s tribute to the acclaimed classical conductor, composer, educator, and social liberal whose works have come to exemplify the American spirit, 25 students from the Department of Musical Theatre Arts share their own hopes and dreams by presenting a retrospective of Bernstein’s contributions to the most American of theatrical art forms, the musical.

Like senior Nick McCarthy, who embodies Lenny in the production that opens on Thursday, Sept. 27, most didn’t know much about Bernstein’s music or his social activism before Michael Bush, the Ring Theatre’s artistic director, and NDavid Williams, head of the department’s Bachelor of Fine Arts Conservatory program, conceived the idea for UM’s commemoration.

Now, after four intense weeks of rehearsing more than two dozen songs from Bernstein’s six Broadway musicals—the first to put white and black actors on stage with equal footing—the students are enamored of his music, and the relevance of his messages of optimism, understanding, hope, and tolerance.

“I think most of us knew Bernstein from West Side Story, which I was in in high school, but he wasn’t on my radar,” said McCarthy, who grew up singing and dancing in Seattle. “So I feel truly blessed to be part of this production because it takes these amazing songs, all of them works of art, and uses them in a true celebration of not just the places they came from and the people who created them, but as a lens to look at our society today.”

 

For their tribute to Bernstein, who made his legendary conducting debut for the New York Philharmonic as an emergency backup in 1943 at age 25, Bush and Williams turn the gentle command conveyed in “A Simple Song” into the narrative thread for their celebration. The son of Russian Jews who fought for social justice and civil rights his entire life, Bernstein wrote “A Simple Song” for MASS, the musical extravaganza Jackie Kennedy commissioned for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. 

Sung by a priest to congregants suffering a crisis of faith, the song’s opening lyrics are: “Sing God a simple song. Make it up as you go along. Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things. For God is the simplest of all.” 

But when senior Austin Shields, a theatre arts and music major from Maryland, opens the show strumming a guitar and singing the title song, he is not a priest, but a student. Upon finishing the melody, he walks among his fellow students, encouraging them to express who they are by singing their own simple song, which accompanied by Williams and assistant conductor Michael Harris on two grand pianos, they do. Through two acts and in solos, duets, trios, quartets or with the entire cast, they sing and act their way through tunes from Bernstein’s On the Town (1944), Peter Pan (1950), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956), West Side Story (1957), and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), making each of the songs their own. 

“What I’m doing is getting everyone excited about Bernstein, and America and life in general,” said Shields, a tenor who starred in his first play, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in fifth grade. “‘A Simple Song’ is just this sweet, simple melody but, in reality, it’s not simple at all. It’s very complex. It has a lot of chord changes and a lot going on. But in execution, it should be simple.”

Which is exactly why Bush immediately agreed when Williams, a classical pianist who grew up watching Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on primetime CBS, suggested “A Simple Song” as the title and theme for UM’s tribute to the first symphonic composer to collaborate on an American musical. It is the first of four productions the theatre arts program, which the OnStage Blog just ranked No. 5 in the nation for acting and performance, will present this season to give theatre arts students the experience they need to compete for jobs on Broadway, in Los Angeles, or wherever their talent takes them after graduation. 

“The irony of Bernstein is that hardly anything he wrote was simple, but if it’s done right it seems effortless and that is a metaphor for America,” said Bush, who joined UM's College of Arts and Sciences in 2017 after guiding new plays and musicals at the Manhattan Theatre Club for 26 years. “When it is effortful and burdensome, the country gets weighed down. Freedom is a simple song. Equality is a simple song. Tolerance is a simple song. It’s not complicated.”

A four-time Tony Award-winner, Bush carefully chose the Bernstein songs and the performers who sing them to convey that message in today’s America, which like Bernstein’s America, is deeply polarized, riven by numerous issues—growing nationalism and isolationism, police brutality, mass shootings, gun control, and the backlash against immigrants, among them. Bernstein, who died in 1990 at age 72, composed through the tumult of World War II, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam War, the Kent State shootings, Watergate, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism.

While Bush didn’t change a note of Bernstein’s original music, or the lyrics that accompany his songs, the props and backdrops projected on a giant screen behind the stage make it clear his students are singing about today’s America. 

When the school bell rings, and the show opens in the classroom with students singing “Best of All Possible Worlds” from Candide, they hold textbooks titled “Alternative Facts.” 

When junior Alecsys Proctor-Turner, who grew up in Miami with the songs from West Side Story, sings her breathtaking version of “Take Care of This House,” images of the White House under storm clouds flash behind her. Bernstein wrote the song for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which, by exploring early presidential administrations through their African-American domestic staff, was a commentary on the complex contradictions about race and equality in the U.S. 

But to Proctor-Turner, who dreams of following numerous UM alumni to Broadway, the song isn’t just about her disapproval of “people who are letting what is happening in the White House change them.” The song is, she says, about students making their voices heard. 

“It’s about protecting the ones you love and about inspiring people to fight for what is right,” she said. “It’s about common decency, and keeping the world safe. It’s about individual thought, and not letting the world choose your value. ‘Take Care of This House’ is not just about the White House; it’s about my house, my temple, and our world. The preamble to the Constitution starts with ‘We the People,’ which means it’s on all of us.” 

Which is no doubt the poignant message that Bernstein, 100 years after his August 25th birth in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Bush intended. 

“If you feel something at the end of the show then we were successful,” Bush said. “Theatre is an emotional journey. If it generates dialogue, so be it. But it’s got to hit emotions first.” 

Tickets for A Simple Song, which includes musical staging by theatre arts lecturer Tim Ellis and runs through Oct. 6, are available through the Ring Theatre box office.