About a year and a half ago, I made a ritualistic pilgrimage from Los Angeles to New York to see the Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park With George. It is my favorite musical of all time (which, if you know anything about me, you’ll know is a title I don’t bestow lightly.) I was about six months pregnant, and knew this would likely be my last chance to travel much. My son roiled and kicked with excitement inside me the entire time.
The production starred Jake Gyllenhaal as Georges Seurat, the artistic genius who invented the painterly technique known as pointillism, in the role originated in 1984 by Mandy Patinkin. Any doubts I had that the relatively untried Gyllenhaal would be unable to sing the role were immediately assuaged; he sounded great. What’s more, his typically introverted, watchful performance was a perfect incarnation of Georges, as meticulous and controlled a musical theater character as ever existed, his eloquence and emotion reserved solely for his engagement with his work.
Now, in the upcoming film The American, Gyllenhaal is set to star as another genius: The legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. An extroverted, larger-than-life figure, the outspoken and social Bernstein (Tom Wolfe’s famous satire Radical Chic was a chronicle of the party Bernstein and his wife Felicia, a famously prolific hostess, threw for a group of Black Panthers in their luxurious Manhattan apartment), couldn’t be more temperamentally different than the hermetic, secretive Seurat. Lenny, as Bernstein was universally known to his fans, knew everyone and went everywhere, conquered the worlds of Broadway and classical music, and had an ebullient, uncontainable personality that matched his artistic brilliance. It’s hard to imagine him staying up all night in the studio, painting tiny dots on a canvas and not speaking to anybody for days at a time.
Except, of course, that’s exactly what he did, because that’s what every artist does. The reason I love Sunday so much is that its central dramatic conflict is the struggle one must engage in with oneself in order to make great art. This is also the primary conflict in the life of every artist.
It is not, however, the primary conflict in most Hollywood biopics. This is understandable. There are only so many scenes you can show of a person working alone in a room, a process that often consists of much snacking and napping. Putting the focus on a drug addiction, or a troubled romantic life, or the incredible obstacles (blindness, poverty, abuse, addiction and/or a troubled romantic life, etc.) that one had to overcome in order to scale the heights of human achievement, makes for a much more dramatic story, with the kind of real-life uplift that audiences–or, at least, Academy voters–love. Bernstein’s life, however, was relatively short on that kind of thing. He was raised in Boston by affluent parents, immediately recognized as a musical wunderkind in his adolescence, and basically spent the rest of his life as a beloved, successful artist. Even his personal life, while unorthodox (Bernstein was married to the Chilean-American actress Felicia Montealegre from 1951 until her death in 1978; their marriage, while loving, was also more or less open, due to his homosexuality), was not particularly tortured; as his collaborator, the director and writer Arthur Laurents once said: “He was a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”
So that leaves his work, probably the truest expression of Bernstein’s essence and the most difficult to dramatize. How the film will deal with this is anybody’s guess. I’m eager to see what they come up with; Michael Mitnick’s script, based on Humphrey Burton’s 2001 biography, is apparently arranged in “five distinct movements, like a symphony,” a clever device for a film about a classical maestro whose life was devoted, above all else, to his music. Gyllenhaal, in a statement, said: “Like many people, Leonard Bernstein found his way into my life and heart through West Side Story when I was a kid. But as I got older and started to learn about the scope of his work, I began to understand the extent of his unparalleled contribution and the debt of gratitude modern American culture owes him. As a man, Bernstein was a fascinating figure—full of genius and contradiction—and it will be an incredible honor to tell his story.” If his track record holds, he’s more than up to the task.
Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.