Cambridge MA: Samuel J. Bernstein is a gentlemanly 73-year-old professor of English at Northeastern University, but lurking inside him is a feisty soul that likes to knock theatrical tradition on the head.
“That’s a fair thing to say,” Bernstein said after a workshop performance of his latest show, The Untitled Musical Revue: A Strangely Structured Musical Revue. The piece concerned four actors in a nameless revue who sing their way through various romantic troubles. It wasn't as bold as some of his other efforts, such as the play he co-authored that featured an African-American actress as Adolph Hitler, or Bernstein's musical version of The Hairy Ape, but it was offbeat enough to confirm Bernstein’s reputation as a non-traditionalist. "In the arts," said Bernstein, "there is always room for experimentation."
Nonetheless, as the characters in “Untitled” offered bromides about the mystery of love, it was the music that stood out above the Pirandello plot. Thanks particularly to the neat piano work of musical director Stephanie Tham, the jazzy flourishes made one think Bernstein is, at heart, a misplaced Tin Pan Alley figure. One hears a bit of everything in Bernstein’s music, from torch song angst, to standard Broadway panache. Bernstein’s melodic touch may be inborn: his father was a mandolin virtuoso, his mother a pianist.
Stepping away from a cast party at the Cambridge Center for the Performing Arts, Bernstein explained the music of his childhood, and how "music was part of my life, every single day."
Bernstein’s father was a member of the Mandolin Orchestra of New York and was known for playing a variety of styles. It wasn't unusual for young Bernstein to hear his father playing classical, show tunes, or ethnic music, all in the space of an evening.
"Those notes,” Bernstein said, “made their way into my consciousness more powerfully than words.”
Singer Lisa Yves included nine songs from Bernstein’s oeuvre in a recent concert performance at The Bickford Theater in Morristown, New Jersey. Her set was called “Love & Dreams,” and also featured songs by George Gershwin and Cole Porter. The startling power of the Yves/Bernstein collaboration can be heard on a YouTube clip of Yves singing Bernstein’s “Hand in Hand.”
“Sam's songs have a classic flavor to them,” Yves said via email, describing Bernstein’s music as “reminiscent of an earlier era.”
Although Bernstein felt a strong kinship with Yves, he admitted he was a bit anxious at having his songs interpreted along with such heavyweights as Gershwin and Porter.
“I was concerned,” he said, “ although I noticed in rehearsals she made my songs sound better than they've ever sounded. She’s good enough, in my opinion, to go into New York and become a star. Still, I was somewhat intimidated, because those are two major figures in American music. But the audience was very kind, and seemed to like what she did. It was a memorable experience for me.
“It is my profound hope that Lisa will honor me by continuing to perform my songs, because I consider us a kind of artistic team. We are meant for each other.”
Working with Yves was just one of a series of career highs Bernstein has enjoyed lately. Many of his plays are being produced or given staged readings, including one epic that producers have told him would cost around $14-million to mount in New York. He doubts the current economy could support such a production, but he remains exhilarated by all that is happening for him. He has more plays in development and is beginning his 52nd year as a teacher.
“I’m able to do all of this because of my wife. We've been married 46 years. To have someone so dedicated to my welfare, to have someone so intelligent and so perceptive as part of my life, is the key to everything I do,” Bernstein said.
When told of her husband’s tribute to her, Arlene Bernstein shrugged.
“That’s nice,” she said. “But I told him he has to stop for a while.”
Bernstein didn't hear her. He was back in the lobby serving cake to the cast.
- Don Stradley