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Best Leonard Bernstein Musicals

Published on: Oct 17, 2022
Last Updated on: Dec 31, 2023
By: Kathryn Willingham
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Leonard Bernstein is an American composer, conductor, pianist, and author who was extraordinarily influential to musical theater and the performing arts. In this article, we’ll walk you through his award-winning musicals, let you know where to listen to some of his best-known works, and point you toward some of the best books and interviews about the man himself. 

Who Is Leonard Bernstein?

Over the course of his career, Leonard Bernstein won seven Emmy Awards, sixteen Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, and two Tony Awards. In theater, he is perhaps best known for composing the music for West Side Story, which has since been revived many times and adapted for film twice. He was also influential in the classical music, symphonic and orchestral spaces, conducting the New York Philharmonic and composing three symphonies. He also provided the score for the film On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando. 

A Comprehensive List of Leonard Bernstein Musicals:


ON THE TOWN opened on Broadway in 1944 with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Based on an idea from Jerome Robbins for his ballet “Fancy Free,” On the Town Follows a group of sailors on shore leave in New York City and includes songs like “New York, New York” and “Lonely Town.” The Broadway musical was later adapted into a film of the same name starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.


PETER PAN opened on Broadway in 1950 with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and based on the book by J.M. Barrie. It starred Boris Karloff as George Darling and Captain Hook, Jean Arthur as Peter Pan, and Marcia Henderson as Wendy. Not to be confused with the more successful 1954 musical, this version of Peter Pan is rarely staged today, but you can listen to the music here.


WONDERFUL TOWN opened on Broadway in 1953 with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov. The musical won five Tony Awards including Best Musical and has been revived on both Broadway and the West End. Wonderful Town follows two sisters trying to make it as a writer and actor. The New York Times called the original production “the best new musical of the season.”


CANDIDE opened on Broadway in 1956 with music by Leonard Bernstein, a libretto by Lillian Hellman, and lyrics by Richard Wilbur. Based on Voltaire’s novel of the same name, the show follows Candide’s engagement to the courtesan Cunegonde and the series of misadventures that keep them apart. 


WEST SIDE STORY opened on Broadway in 1957 with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. Conceived by Jerome Robbins, this Romeo and Juliet story follows star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria and a rivalry between two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. This popular musical has been adapted for film twice – once in 1961 directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, and again in 2021 directed by Steven Spielberg. 


A PARTY WITH BETTY COMDEN AND ADOLPH GREEN opened on Broadway in 1959 after an off-Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre. This musical revue had a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Andre Previn, Saul Chaplin, and Roger Edens. 


THE RACE TO URGA never actually made it to the stage. It was meant to be an adaptation of The Exception and the Rule by Brecht with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by John Guare. Jerome Robbins was directing and choreographing, and the musical was set to premiere at Lincoln Center in 1969, but Robbins left the show, and it was never produced. A workshop did eventually take place in 1987 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. 


BY BERNSTEIN opened off-Broadway at the Westside Theater in 1975. This musical cabaret featured songs from Leonard Bernstein and was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with lyrics by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, John Letouche, Jerry Leiber, and Stephen Sondheim. 


1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE opened on Broadway in 1976 and ran for only seven performances. With music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, this musical followed residents of the White House from 1800 to 1900 and was directed and choreographed by Gilbert Moses and George Faison. The show received mostly negative reviews from critics and audiences, and Leonard Bernstein refused to allow a cast recording for the show. 


THE MADWOMAN OF CENTRAL PARK WEST opened in 1979 with a book by Arthur Laurents and Phyllis Newman and songs by many composers and lyricists including Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Fred Ebb, John Kander, Sheldon Harnick, Barry Manilow, Mary Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim. Phyllis Newman starred in this semi-autobiographical musical that followed an older actress trying to balance work and family. 

Cast Recordings and Albums of Leonard Bernstein’s Music


WEST SIDE STORY has music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The cast of this Original Broadway Cast Recording includes Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, and David Winters. 


ON THE TOWN has music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The cast of this 2014 Broadway revival includes Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, Megan Fairchild, Allison Guinn, and Jackie Hoffman. 


BEST OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN includes some of his best-known works from musical theater as well as his interpretations of other celebrated composers and his work with the Philharmonic. Tracks include: “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “America” from West Side Story, “Rhapsody in Blue” from George Gershwin, “Allegretto – Presto” from Mozart, and many more. 

Where to Find Even More Information About Leonard Bernstein:


THE LEONARD BERNSTEIN LETTERS: Edited by Nigel Simeone, this collection of letters shows Leonard Bernstein as a charismatic and versatile musician—a brilliant conductor who attained international super-star status, and a gifted composer of Broadway musicals (West Side Story), symphonies (Age of Anxiety), choral works (Chichester Psalms), film scores (On the Waterfront), and much more. Bernstein was also an enthusiastic letter writer, and this book is the first to present a wide-ranging selection of his correspondence. The letters have been selected for the insights they offer into the passions of his life—musical and personal—and the extravagant scope of his musical and extra-musical activities. Bernstein’s letters tell much about this complex man, his collaborators, his mentors, and others close to him. His galaxy of correspondents encompassed, among others, Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Thornton Wilder, Boris Pasternak, Bette Davis, Adolph Green, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and family members including his wife Felicia and his sister Shirley. The majority of these letters have never been published before. They have been carefully chosen to demonstrate the breadth of Bernstein’s musical interests, his constant struggle to find the time to compose, his turbulent and complex sexuality, his political activities, and his endless capacity for hard work. Beyond all this, these writings provide a glimpse of the man behind the legends: his humanity, warmth, volatility, intellectual brilliance, wonderful eye for descriptive detail, and humor.


DINNER WITH LENNY: THE LAST LONG INTERVIEW WITH LEONARD BERNSTEIN: In November 1989, just a year before his death, Bernstein invited writer Jonathan Cott to his country home in Fairfield, Connecticut for what turned out to be his last major interview--an unprecedented and astonishingly frank twelve-hour conversation. Now, in Dinner with Lenny, Cott provides a complete account of this remarkable dialogue in which Bernstein discourses with disarming frankness, humor, and intensity on matters musical, pedagogical, political, psychological, spiritual, and the unabashedly personal. Bernstein comes alive again, with vodka glass in hand, singing, humming, and making pointed comments on a wide array of topics, from popular music ("the Beatles were the best songwriters since Gershwin"), to great composers ("Wagner was always in a psychotic frenzy. He was a madman, a megalomaniac"), and politics (lamenting "the brainlessness, the mindlessness, the carelessness, and the heedlessness of the Reagans of the world"). And of course, Bernstein talks of conducting, advising students "to look at the score and make it come alive as if they were the composer. If you can do that, you're a conductor and if you can't, you're not. If I don't become Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky when I'm conducting their works, then it won't be a great performance." This full-length version of the interview provides the reader with a unique, you-are-there perspective on what it was like to converse with this gregarious, witty, candid, and inspiring American dynamo. The New York Journal of Books called it “captivating.”


ON THE ROAD AND OFF THE RECORD WITH LEONARD BERNSTEIN: Charlie Harmon was hired to manage the day-to-day parts of Bernstein's life. There was one additional responsibility: make sure Bernstein met the deadline for an opera commission. But things kept getting in the way: the centenary of Igor Stravinsky, intestinal parasites picked up in Mexico, teaching all summer in Los Angeles, a baker's dozen of young men, plus depression, exhaustion, insomnia, and cut-throat games of anagrams. Did the opera get written? For four years, Charlie saw Bernstein every day, as his social director, gatekeeper, valet, music copyist, and itinerant orchestra librarian. He packed (and unpacked) Bernstein's umpteen pieces of luggage, got the Maestro to his concerts, kept him occupied changing planes in Zurich, Anchorage, Tokyo, or Madrid, and learned how to make small talk with mayors, ambassadors, a chancellor, a queen, and a Hollywood legend or two. How could anyone absorb all those people and places? Because there was music: late-night piano duets, or the Maestro's command to accompany an audition, or, by the way, the greatest orchestras in the world. Charlie did it, and this is what it was like, told for the first time. Kirkus Reviews called the book “an affectionate portrait of an eminent musician who was driven by demons.” 


FAMOUS FATHER GIRL: A MEMOIR OF GROWING UP BERNSTEIN: This book by Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest daughter, shows this revered composer/conductor as she knew him: the man in the scratchy brown bathrobe who smelled of cigarettes; the jokester and compulsive teacher who enthused about Beethoven and the Beatles; the insomniac whose 4 a.m. composing breaks involved spooning baby food out of the jar. He taught his daughter to love the world in all its beauty and complexity. In public and private, Lenny was larger than life. In Famous Father Girl, Bernstein mines the emotional depths of her childhood and invites us into her family’s private world. A fantastic set of characters populates the Bernsteins’ lives, including: the Kennedys, Mike Nichols, John Lennon, Richard Avedon, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and Betty (Lauren) Bacall. The New York Times calls the book a “wry and wonderful memoir.”

Maestro Film on Netflix


MAESTRO: This film about Leonard Bernstein, his work, and his relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre Bernstein is directed by and stars Bradley Cooper and is currently available to watch on Netflix. The New York Times says the film “takes flight with a terrific whoosh of exuberance…’Maestro’ is a fast-paced chronicle of towering highs, crushing lows and artistic milestone.”

Broadway Cast Recordings

Check out our article on the Best Broadway Cast Recording and Movie Musical Soundtracks to listen to some of musical theater’s best composers. 

Kathryn Willingham

Head of Creative Development at Jean Doumanian Productions

Kathryn Willingham has worked in entertainment for over ten years, and recent credits include: Co-producer of SHRINK currently streaming on Peacock, Associate Producer of the independent film UNA, and Creative Executive on multiple theatrical productions including HANGMEN by Martin McDonagh on Broadway, NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour Off-broadway and Associate on productions EVERY BRILLIANT THING by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe and THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble. She was Producer of Todd Almond’s musical travelogue “Wyoming and Parts of Kansas” and Production Coordinator for Karen O and KK Barrett's “Stop the Virgens.”


Education: B.A. in English, Literature & Creative Writing from Rhodes College
Knowledge: Theaterical Production


Oct 17, 2022

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