Elmer Bernstein: Lost & Found

Way back in October of 2000, I interviewed Elmer Bernstein, and it was a bit tough trying to ask the least possible questions within a twenty minute period in spite of the fact Bernstein was a living legend, and a composer whose career spanned more than 50 years in pretty much every conceivable genre.

Besides his jazz work (click here for Parts One and Two of a Film Score Monthly retrospective), there was his Film Music Collection and Notebooks series, and a few lesser-known works that we covered within that 20 min. chunk, including the play Laurette (1960), and a poetry recording he was involved with in early seventies - both released at one point on LP.

Laurette was released as a one-sided promo platter, and it took 48 years for the music to finally get a commercial release, via Kritzerland, as a limited CD. The label has coupled it with another very short Bernstein score, Prince Jack (1985), written and directed by longtime film editor Bert Lovitt.

(The film, based around the recollections of John F. Kennedy by peers, associates and colleagues, is still unavailable on DVD. Bernstein’s association with Kennedy material, however, can also be traced to The Making of the President 1960, Mel Stuart’s 1963 documentary of the presidential race. The doc was broadcast on ABC after the Kennedy assassination. Bernstein won an Emmy Award for his music, and I'll upload a film review near the end of January.)

Another album we briefly discussed was There Are Men Too Gentle To Live Among The Wolves, read by author/poet James Kavanaugh, and released by Karo Records back in 1973. Bernstein’s score was a mix of chamber cues, pop-rock, and small orchestra, and his original score flowed or turned sharply between musical styles during the reading.

The album featured 17 sections with lengths varying from a minute to just over four, and while the music was in stereo, the vocal track was often panned left to right, and not all readings featured a full underscore.

So here are Bernstein's brief (and slightly edited) comments regarding those works:

Mark R. Hasan: I wonder if we can talk about a couple of lesser-known works that you've done. One I'm particularly curious about is Laurette.

Elmer Bernstein: Laurette. Yes… I have the [original recording], but I never did anything with it. Of course, it would have been recorded for the show - it wasn't played live - it was a recording. There was this one really nice piece in there - a waltz - from which I'm sure you remember very well… But of course none of the stuff I did on Broadway was a happy experience. That was not a happy experience at all.

MH: Laurette?

EB: Yes. Well, that was the play on which Judy Holiday found out she had cancer, and Jose Quintero was drunk all the time... It was a show about Laurette Taylor. She had been an alcoholic and then recovered. At the end of her life she did [Tennessee Williams'] Glass Menagerie and became a Broadway darling. The play itself was a disaster.

MH: Oh really?

EB: There were a lot of good people in it… [Robert Mulligan] produced it and Jose Quintero directed it, and Judy Holiday was in it, Patrick O'Neal was in it, Joanie [Joan] Hackett was in it. It was a good cast. I mean, they were good people, but Judy Holiday was sick, weird and uncooperative; she spoke everything in a whisper… There's a very funny thing: there was an amazing set in the play, but the set was so amazing that it dwarfed the actors.

MH: Oh dear.

EB: No, it was not a happy experience. It never got to Broadway.

MH: Well the theme itself - I remember it so clearly because it's so beautiful.

EB: Oh thank you.

MH: When you're asked to write something of such a sensitive nature, is it one of the hardest things to write?

EB: No, as a matter of fact I prefer the sensitive things which come more naturally to me, and I don't go very well in between, because I think most of my best things are either like that very sensitive or like that very grand - grand in the sense of the Ten Commandments (1956) or the Magnificent Seven (1960).

MH: One of the other recordings that you did later on is a poetry record called There Are Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves.

EB: Where did you get a hold of it?

MH: Actually, a collector, and he managed to find it courtesy of A-1 Record Finders, probably 20 years ago. I'd never heard of it before. I just wonder if there were special challenges required for that project?

EB: I have zero memory of that! Those were a bunch of poems written by James Kavanaugh, who’s a very interesting guy - he's a former priest [and] a lovely man - and he approached me with these poems... I liked him a lot and … we conceived and set up an evening in which all of this stuff was performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It was a one-shot thing.

MH: Oh it was?

EB: Yeah, but I didn't realize there was a record of that.

MH: Yeah, there's a record of it.

EB: My goodness. I can't imagine what that's like.

- MRH (2009)


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