- Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein by Jonathan Cott, and: Creating Musical Theatre: Conversations with Broadway Directors and Choreographers by Lyn Cramer
A widely accepted assumption in the arts (especially in educational arts) is that the creative process of the artist is often more interesting and insightful than the artistic product itself. Jonathan Cott’s My Dinner With Lenny and Lyn Cramer’s Creating Musical Theatre: Conversations with Broadway Directors and Choreographers both focus on the artist’s journey from the seed of conceptuality to the manifestation of the artistic work just prior to its completion. The interviews by Cramer with established Broadway choreographers and directors mostly explore the stages the artists pass through to gain a foothold in the musical theatre world and their rehearsal techniques as they move toward a Broadway production. In many ways it serves as a “how to” book from the perspective of professional practitioners. In contrast, Cott’s informal interview with Leonard Bernstein elicits an eclectic range of artistic, social, and political topics that demonstrates the breadth of Bernstein’s long career as a conductor, composer, social activist, and cultural icon. The interview is not about Bernstein’s reflections on his oeuvre, but rather a dissection of how he approached his work and the influences that guided him. His voice is very present throughout the interview, giving credence to his statement, “You can reverse time through memory when memory becomes an anticipation of the event remembered, thereby making it into the future. So that when you remember it, it becomes the now” (139).
Cott’s Dinner with Lenny is publicized as “the last long interview with Leonard Bernstein,” conducted over the course of twelve consecutive hours in one evening, a year before Bernstein’s death. The interview was supposed to be an eight thousand-word assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, which published excerpts of it in 1990, but Cott’s transcript far exceeded the maximum length. Dinner with Lenny encapsulates the full interview in this slim, but copious book. The transcript balances Bernstein’s energetic combination of charisma and chutzpah with his erudite and perceptive commentaries. Cott is the author of several books and interviews with musicians including Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon. He does not disguise the fact that he is a longtime fan of Bernstein, and the conversation reveals Cott’s own astuteness and education in music theory and history.
In his prelude, Cott chronicles Bernstein’s career “high points,” beginning with his transilient national debut on November 14, 1943 as a last-minute substitute to conduct the New York Philharmonic. It was this performance that previewed [End Page 182] Bernstein’s theatrical, passionate, and animated conducting style, which would later provide fodder for those critics who would deride his flamboyant showmanship. Cott briefly recounts Bernstein’s successful televised New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, his 1973 Charles Eliot Norton lectures, his receipt of numerous Grammy and Emmy awards, and his own authoring of five books.
In the interview Bernstein is polemical yet humble, opinionated though scholarly on a wide spectrum of topics. At times, the interview is a free-association collage of overlapping subjects and musical events fueled by Bernstein’s chain-smoking, vibrant discourse and supplemented by the glasses of wine and vodka in which both men indulged throughout the course of the evening. Yet the conversation never veers off to sloppy or garrulous banter. Cott’s skill as an interviewer is knowing when to let his subject speak at length and how to pursue follow-up questions in a manner that maintains the informality of casual conversation over drinks and dinner. In this setting Bernstein comes across joyfully loquacious and thoughtful in his evaluations and anecdotes of classical and contemporary composers, his enthusiasm for teaching, and his often self-effacing commentary on his own legacy—not only in music—but also...