On 11 February, 1955, Leonard Bernstein wrote to his wife, Felicia, from Italy. He had been in Milan for ten days, rehearsing Bellini’s La sonnambula with Maria Callas at the Teatro alla Scala. Callas, who was “singing like a doll”, was now unwell, he wrote, and “being a real old-fashioned prima donna, suffering, pale, Violetta.” The first night of the “slightly campy” new production would have to be postponed but Bernstein could not imagine until when. “It is a mess, with my having to go to London for the prima of Wonderful Town on the 23rd. Very complicated indeed. But pazienza: it will all work out. They love me at the Scala, & do everything to help.”

No musician of the twentieth century had a career like that of Bernstein. As a conductor, he is chiefly remembered for his symphonic recordings and his advocacy of the classical tradition for a generation of American television viewers. Yet he was equally at home in the opera houses of Vienna, Milan and New York, and conducted the American premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes at Tanglewood. As a composer, his work extended from musical theatre to film scores, witty conversation pieces and tough, gnarly orchestral works.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Bernstein’s breezy attitude to the potential clash between his commitments in Milan and London in 1955 was nothing new. Two years earlier he had written Wonderful Town in the space of just four weeks, working with his beloved writers and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and made his debut in Milan, conducting Callas in Cherubini’s Medea. A more extreme contrast of subject and style is hard to imagine.

Based on Joseph A Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s 1940 play, My Sister Eileen, itself adapated from Ruth McKenney’s short stories for The New Yorker, Wonderful Town was Bernstein’s second collaboration with Betty-and-Adolph. It was composed at Handelian speed in a setting that Bernstein’s biographer, Humphrey Burton, describes as “so blue with cigarette smoke that that they could barely see each other cross the room from piano to typewriter”.

The pitch is simple enough: two sisters, one smart (Ruth), one pretty (Eileen), leave Ohio to make their fortunes in New York, renting an apartment in Greenwich Village. This was territory that all three creators knew well, and inspired a dizzying flourish of lyrical and musical invention from an Irish reel to a Brazilian conga by way of ‘Swing’, a pseudo-scat tribute to the music played at the Village Vanguard (here named the Village Vortex). There is wisdom about dating, too, as shown in Ruth’s number, ‘One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’, in which the self-confessed pedant laments the need to hide her intelligence and independence on a date. Written for Rosalind Russell, star of His Girl Friday, this is screwball comedy material turned into song.

Contrast & comfort zones

Of Bernstein’s stage works, only the much revised operetta Candide, with its witty coloratura and hectic overture, is regularly produced by opera companies, although the short operas Trouble in Tahiti (composed for television) and A Quiet Place (its sequel) are held in affection. Where Bernstein could easily switch modes between classical and popular music, often blending the two to intoxicating effect, others could not.

The Making of West Side Story, a television documentary of Bernstein’s 1984 studio recording of the musical with an all-star cast of opera singers including Kiri te Kanawa and José Carreras, revealed what can go wrong when artists step too far out of their stylistic comfort zone. Te Kanawa diplomatically compared the experience of making the recording to working on a Mozart opera with Mozart as the conductor. But it is doubtful whether any of today’s superstar tenors would allow television cameras access to the excruciating process that Carreras endured while recording ‘Something’s Coming’.

The documentary was mercilessly parodied in 1990 by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as Lucia Poop and Renata Von Trapp, with Dame Sarah Walker and the conductor and composer Carl Davis as their accomplices, in an extended sketch on a cover of Kylie Minogue’s Lucky with full orchestra. Behind the clichés of neurotic diva behaviour there was a grain of truth: as Irving Wills’s lyrics for Duke Ellington’s 1931 hit put it, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing”.

A rare opportunity to see Wonderful Town

Despite a string of Tony Awards, warmly received revivals in 1986 and 2003, and two recordings by Sir Simon Rattle in 1999 and 2017, Wonderful Town remains the least well-known of the best of Bernstein’s musicals for the simple reason that you will never see a film of it on television. Bernstein’s earlier New York collaboration with Comden and Greene, On the Town, was lavishly filmed in colour in 1949 with a cast including Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, though almost all of his music was dropped from the score in the adaptation for cinema.

West Side Story, for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics, was also filmed in 1961, with spectacular choreography by Jerome Robbins in the hot bright hues of a hip new era. Needless to say it has the sass and bite and authenticity that Bernstein’s 1984 recording for Deutsche Grammophon could not match. Wonderful Town was instead broadcast on television in black and white by CBS on November 30, 1958: a landmark event in terms of American broadcasting and audience reach but one that stymied any chance of a wider legacy.

The show can be found on YouTube, with the original sponsors’ commercials: Westclox, the Carling Brewing Company, and Speed-Bath Lilt, a permanent wave treatment for hair. It’s a remarkable document of 1950s popular culture but Wonderful Town seen in black and white gives only half the picture. When Alex Parker and Quick Fantastic bring it to Holland Park, with Louise Dearman and Siubhan Harrison as Ruth and Eileen, it’s a rare opportunity to see this delightful, knowing tribute to youthful enchantment with the bohemian buzz of 1930s Greenwich Village in full living colour, performed at an opera house by artists whose mother tongue is musical theatre.