When Leonard Bernstein was a 25-year-old conducting prodigy, Serge Koussevitzky, the musical director at the then-nascent Tanglewood Music Center, gave the budding maestro and composer what he thought was some sage career advice. “He was Lenny’s most important mentor and a huge father figure for him,” said Josh Singer, who has co-written the screenplay for Bradley Cooper’s epic new film on Bernstein, “Maestro.”
The charismatic conductor was being considered for gigs at Tanglewood, but Koussevitzky told him, “‘You’re going to have to change your name, because they’re never going to accept a Jew,’” Singer said. “Yet Lenny was never going to do that. He wasn’t going to hide his Judaism because it was part of who he was.”Yet “Maestro” does not focus on Bernstein’s Jewishness, nor even so much his stellar career, but rather the complicated relationship the conductor – known for his myriad homosexual dalliances – forged with his wife of 27 years, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre.
In the film, as in real life, Lenny and Felicia meet in 1943 at a party thrown by Bernstein’s sister, Shirley Bernstein (played by Sarah Silverman); their romantic and physical spark is instant. Yet around the time that the conductor substitutes for an ill Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic – his big break – he’s also shown in bed with a man, playfully tapping a drum beat on his lover’s nude derriere. But as much as Bernstein chased after men, he went on to become a devoted father and husband.
As a composer and conductor, the chain-smoking maestro was like a rock star of classical music, but he also wrote ebullient Broadway musicals such as “West Side Story.”
Bernstein was a person of “epic contradictions,” Singer said, as well as a “man of voracious appetites” both on and off the podium.
Singer, 51, grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Philadelphia, with a Jewish father and a mother who was a Jew by choice (her own mother had also converted from Catholicism to Judaism). A favorite childhood pastime was singing in his synagogue’s choir. Singer noted that Bernstein’s 1963 piece, the “Kaddish Symphony,” inspired by the Jewish prayer, is played in the film. “When I hear that melody, for me, especially having sung in the synagogue choir, it feels very much culturally where I musically come from, and musically where Lenny came from,” said Singer, who won an Oscar for co-writing the 2015 journalism saga, “Spotlight.”
During his senior year of high school, Singer was chosen as class valedictorian; eventually, he earned an MBA and a law degree from Harvard University.
It was his script about George Gershwin writing “Porgy and Bess” that eventually caught the attention of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, effectively launching Singer’s Hollywood career. He went on to write for the political television series, “The West Wing” and in 2012, the screenplay for “The Fifth Estate,” about the news-leaking website Wikileaks.
Later came “Spotlight,” the story of how investigative reporters from the Boston Globe exposed widespread sexual abuse and a coverup conspiracy within the Catholic church. The hero of the story is Globe editor Marty Baron, who tackled the church despite hostility from a public that viewed him as a Jewish interloper. Singer has called Baron a great Jewish American hero, which in part drew him to that project.
Singer also co-wrote Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film, “The Post” in which Washington Post journalists attempt to publish the infamous Pentagon Papers – classified documents about the United States and the Vietnam War.
About nine years ago, Singer’s agent called about a very different project. “He said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in writing about Leonard Bernstein?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know very much about Leonard Bernstein.’ So, I started researching Lenny.”
After Bradley Cooper signed on to direct and star in “Maestro,” Singer began writing a new version of the screenplay with the actor, often reading excerpts from the dialogue aloud to each other to fine-tune the script.
Singer was drawn to “Maestro,” in part, because Bernstein was “a prominent Jewish person who broke a lot of barriers,” he said. “He was not only the first great American conductor, but also the first great Jewish American conductor. Prior to him, nobody from the States had been given a major podium, let alone someone who was Jewish…That’s what interested me to begin with. But then I wondered, ‘What’s the story?’ And what I found as I researched was that this was a guy with many doubts and is torn in many different directions. That was interesting because we really struggled with what he was going to spend his time doing [in the film]: composing and conducting in his bravura style at the simplest level. And then, this was a guy who was troubled in his personal life. He loved his wife, but he also loved lots of other people.
“I think he was queer – that’s the term we’d use today, meaning that he needed his wife, and they did have a physically and emotionally deep relationship,” Singer continued. “Bradley and I took pains to show that he really loved her. But he also had physical relationships with men.”
Both Cooper and Singer delved into meticulous research to write the script, watching myriad interviews with Bernstein and reading the numerous books that have been written about him, among other endeavors. Particularly helpful was John Gruen’s biography, “The Private Life of Leonard Bernstein,” which includes “tons of interviews done during a summer when Gruen was in Italy with Leonard and Felicia and their three kids,” Singer said. “We have the tapes from that as well. And then there were the interviews with Bernstein’s children, which offered more insight into their family life.
“Maestro,” Singer said, “is a movie that really is about the many ways in which we love and the many ways we form these intimate relationships. I think it’s more about love and the emotional and the romantic than it is about the physical, which is a component and certainly plays a role, but is not the only component in love… I would say that Felicia was the love of Lenny’s life, no question. And I would say, he was hers.”
“But I wouldn’t call theirs an open relationship,” Singer continued. “I’m not saying that she took lovers, but he had a number of lovers. He really didn’t tell her about them or what he was doing. Yet she became aware. And as they got into the 1970s, he’s struggling more and more with, ‘Should I just be living an out gay life?’
“I don’t believe that she had issues with his affairs when they were not emotional,” Singer added. At times, Bernstein wasn’t so discreet. But when one of his gay relationships turns more serious, “that’s when it became too much to bear for her,” Singer said.
So why did Felicia put up with all of her husband’s extramarital affairs? Singer cited a missive that Felicia penned Bernstein before their marriage: “She wrote him a letter that had been private for many years at the Library of Congress,” he said. “And in this letter, she basically writes to Lenny, ‘You’re a homosexual; you’ll never change. But I happen to love you as you are, so let’s see what happens if you are free to do as you like without guilt or possession.’ And so, they basically went into this marriage with their eyes open.
“In some ways, that worked incredibly well for them. And in some ways, it was challenging.” But Felicia stays with her husband because “she loves him,” Singer added. Later in their marriage, when Bernstein absconds with a male lover, “he tried to leave her but in fact, found that he couldn’t live without her…The reality was both of them coming back together and realizing they couldn’t live without each other.”
During a question-and-answer session after a recent screening of the movie, Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, said that she and her two siblings gave Cooper the rights to their father’s story because they liked the proposed focus on their parents’ marriage. In her 2018 memoir, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein,” Jamie notes that shortly after their wedding, her mother wrote to her father: “I’m willing to accept you as you are without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar,” according to CBS news. “I feel like it cost her everything to stick with it. It was really tough for her, and I think it contributed to her early death, in a way.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” her brother, Alexander told CBS. “I think, you know, probably she regretted a lot of things looking back.”
Singer said that early on in the film, “It’s very clear that Lenny was very much trying to get beyond his father’s very strict black-andwhite view of the world, which was that of a Jewish immigrant. His father was very successful for where he had come from. But Lenny wanted to go beyond all of that. He didn’t want to take over the family business; he didn’t want to be just an Orthodox synagogue boy. He wanted to be more.”
The film has drawn some controversy because Cooper is a nonJew playing an iconic Jewish figure – and even more so because of the prosthetic big nose Cooper wears to portray Bernstein, prompting some to charge that his depiction reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes. Singer pointed out that Bernstein’s children and the Anti-Defamation League don’t regard the nose – designed to make Cooper look more like his character – as problematic.
Singer doesn’t think so. “Steven Spielberg [and the producers] and me are all Jewish, and frankly it was a little upsetting to hear this,” he said. “And given how focused we all were… I think the idea that we would do something that is even vaguely anti-Semitic is almost offensive.”
Singer emphasized that “Maestro” is “not a biopic. It’s the story of a marriage,” he said.