This article first appeared in Limelight‘s February 2012 issue and was published online August 16, 2012.

Conductor, composer, writer, teacher, legend… Leonard Bernstein is a towering figure of 20th-century music; classical and popular. Works such as West Side Story have defined the American stage, while his performances with orchestras rank among the most electrifying in the history of recorded music. In the article that follows, we hear the inside story of Bernstein’s musical life from those who knew him best; his friends, family and colleagues.

If a screenwriter working for Metro Goldwyn Meyer in the 1940s was asked to provide a character sketch of a great American classical musician (then almost a hypothetical entity), the result might have looked very much like Leonard Bernstein. A humble background – the son of poor immigrants who sail to America in the quest for a better life. Prodigiously talented – able to compose, play and conduct with dazzling fluency. Charismatic. Dashing good looks. A man who could surmount all boundaries through sheer force of will and self-belief. The “manifest destiny” of musicians…

It sounds corny, but it’s only a few factoids short of reality. Bernstein’s parents, while not exactly penniless, were very far from...

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