When Leonard Bernstein was asked to compose a piece of music to honor the late John F. Kennedy, the nation’s only Roman Catholic President, Bernstein chose a Mass. It premiered in 1971 at the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
A controversial, lavish and technically difficult production, it’s rarely performed and some have called it Bernstein’s forgotten masterpiece. But Bernstein’s Mass will be performed the Paramount Theatre in Rutland June 29 and 30.
The work was controversial from the start and early critics couldn’t agree if they loved or hated it. One referred to it as little more than fashionable kitsch, while others were distressed about the music’s treatment of the Catholic liturgy. One Washington area pastor, however, who’d attended the 1971 premiere, said Bernstein interpreted the Roman Catholic Mass with such sensitivity, such awareness and honesty that it hurt ; and the music, he said brought him to tears.
Rutland’s Jamie Willis plays the part of the celebrant – the priest at the heart of Bernstein’s Mass. He sings "A Simple Song," perhaps the musical’s best-known work and says the words laudo, laudas "means praise . . . and not even specifiying necessarily God in those moments, just praising everything – life!"
Stage director and choreographer Maris Wolff says the show opens with just the priest and a tree that’s been made into a rustic cross. "It starts out as this very simple, pure – almost like a young child," says Wolff. "Like the beginnings of religion. Because I believe every religion starts out with love and brotherhood," she says. "And then something happens and it gets bigger and there’s this power structure and hierarchy and it starts to pollute people." And Wolff says, "we lose the beauty and simplicity of how religion should be."
The simple cross becomes more garish, an alter becomes heavily decorated and the priest adorned with more and more extravagant clothing. "Until in the end," says Wolff, " he’s got the pope’s hat with lights on and it becomes way too much."
Manchester resident Marietta Formanek sings in the street chorus, a group that challenges the priest and causes him to question his own faith. "We’re disenchanted," says Formanek of the chorus. "We’re fed up and we’re not happy with our lives." She says the lyrics she sings to the priest include, "That you worked six days and rested on Sunday. We could tear the whole mess down in one day. "Which," says Formanek, "I think is very appropriate for our times. "
Formanek has sung for many years with the opera company of Weston and says Bernstein’s Mass is one of the most technically difficult performances she’s ever been part of. It also one of the largest, with rock and blues bands, brass ensembles, a stringed orchestra, dancers, a children’s choir – even kazoos. "It’s not conventional," says music director Rip Jackson. "And one of the biggest criticism people said was that he (Bernstein) used too many styles of music and I think that’s actually the opposite. I think that’s the genius of the piece."
Jackson says the way Bernstein layers all those different sounds to tell the story of a simple priest who loses and then regains his faith is something not to be missed. "Whether you’re religious or not," he says, "you can’t help but be moved." Leonard Bernstein’s Mass will be performed at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 29 and at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 30.