If Bradley Cooper has been looking for an immersive experience to prepare him for the biopic on Leonard Bernstein he has undertaken, this week’s Candide program with the Philadelphia Orchestra arrives made to order.

As narrator for three performances starting Thursday, Cooper will be surrounded with Bernstein — in the operetta’s sound, of course, and also in the excitable frame of a conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is likely to be every bit as aerobic in these concerts as the legendary American conductor and composer of West Side Story.

Cooper’s film is in development, and the complexities of the subject — Bernstein’s straddling of the classical and pop worlds, his political activism, his fraught personal life and sexuality — are exactly what promise to make his life film-worthy.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the Curtis Symphony Orchestra with pianist Susan Starr in a 1984 performance at the Academy of Music.
Photo courtesy Curtis Institute of Music Archives
Leonard Bernstein conducts the Curtis Symphony Orchestra with pianist Susan Starr in a 1984 performance at the Academy of Music.

It’s a departure for the 44-year-old Rydal native, who has evolved from Wet Hot American Summer in 2001 to The Hangover in 2009 to his directorial triumph in last year’s A Star Is Born.

Why did Bernstein appeal to Cooper as a subject?

“He did tell us that he was one of those kids who would stand on the arm of the couch with a pencil in his hand and conduct in the air, and I think since childhood he has had this idea about conducting,” says Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, who is not a consultant on the film but is periodically updated on it along with her brother and sister.

Jamie Bernstein and I spent a little time together last year when I interviewed her on stage at the Free Library during her book tour for Famous Father Girl, her well-regarded memoir, and I was curious to hear her insights on Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein.

We chatted about this, as well as Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of Bernstein’s West Side Story, expected to premiere in December 2020.

Larger than life

Jamie Bernstein says Cooper was gripped by her father’s presence as a “larger-than-life human” and by the way “he navigated with other people in the world. And that is such a rich vein.”

Some veins may be more tender than others.

“The biggest challenge for whoever is in this biopic, not just Bradley Cooper but everybody, is to see whether they can convey the spirit of connectiveness that we experienced in our family that kept us together and whole even through the toughest times, of which there were many,” she says.

“Scenes between my parents, you can imagine it cuts both ways,” she says. “On the one hand, it would be a thrill to see an honest, warm evocation of our parents’ amazing relationship. [Their mother was the actress Felicia Montealegre.] On the other hand, it makes me shy to think that this is something that will be shared with the world, it was so personal to us. But overall, it’s very exciting.”

The Cooper biopic, which Bernstein says has not yet started filming and does not yet have a release date, comes as a postscript to a season or two of performances and celebrations around the 100th anniversary of the birth of her father, who graduated from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 1941 and regularly conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra here.

Spielberg’s West Side Story is in production now, “and we’ve been going to the recording sessions for the orchestral tracks and I can’t even tell you how thrilling it is to be sitting in a big ballroom on 34th Street [in Manhattan Center] and sitting at the table with Mr. Spielberg showing us storyboards,” she says. "Just pinch me. My brother and sister and I are trying hard to be grown-ups, but we are squealing like kids.”

After a January performance that included Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, Bradley Cooper, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and Jamie Bernstein gathered backstage at Verizon Hall.
Philadelphia Orchestra
After a January performance that included Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, Bradley Cooper, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and Jamie Bernstein gathered backstage at Verizon Hall.

“We thought after the centennial wound down we could unbuckle our seat belts, but now we’re looking for a tighter notch, because these movies are just driving us crazy” (in a good way), says Bernstein.

Spielberg’s West Side Story will have a screenplay by Tony Kushner and choreography by New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck. Millennial heartthrob Ansel Elgort has been cast as Tony and newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria. Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award as Anita in the first film, will make an appearance playing the wife of Doc, owner of the drugstore where Tony works, she says.

“Tony Kushner is formidable, he is the best,” says Bernstein. “He has found ways to make the story deeper and more resonant in all sorts of contemporary ways.”

Big personality, powerful scenes

For Cooper’s biopic, the film’s creative team will have its choice of any number of powerful scenes from Bernstein’s life. His New York Philharmonic substitution for an ailing Bruno Walter that launched his career? The “radical chic” party he and his wife hosted in their New York apartment for the Black Panthers? Leading Beethoven after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

“The scenes that were the most resonant for me are not necessarily going to work in a movie,” says Jamie Bernstein, “because they are so personal. It was always hard to get time with my father one-on-one because he was surrounded by so many people.

"So most memorable for me is the day when we went sailing in the sailboat, just the two of us, and talked about the world. For me, that was incredibly memorable and maybe it’s good in a film. But I have a feeling that it’s richer in my mind than on the screen.”

Another water scene she remembers would be a film within a film.

“When I was little, my parents and their pals put together very elaborate home movies on an 8-millimeter soundless camera, and one movie was a takeoff on The Ten Commandments, which had just come out that year, and it was this big potboiler.”

Part of the action took place on water skies.

“The climactic scene was crossing the Red Sea, which was the lagoon in front of our house on Martha’s Vineyard. That would be fun to recreate.”

Leonard Bernstein
WINSTON VARGAS
Leonard Bernstein

The word Bernstein says she keeps going back to to describe her father is broadband. “He did so many different things and could be so many different ways, I hope they are able to convey his multiplicity.

"When people saw him on the podium, it’s all so serious and grand and elevated, and people might not grasp or know at all that he could be hilarious. He could regurgitate vaudeville scenes he saw when he was 5 years old. That’s a part of my dad I hope gets conveyed in the film.”

Two Bernstein films in close proximity are “such a kind of one-two punch,” she says.

“Obviously, the centennial was a huge opportunity to remind people of his work and who dad was and what the legacy is. But it didn’t reach new audiences as much as we had hoped. But a film of West Side Story with a young cast by Steven Spielberg will be seen by multiple generations all over the world, and then comes along a biopic and everyone will have been prepped about who wrote the music.

"It raises the profile of dad and who he was in the world because most kids don’t know who Leonard Bernstein was. So with these two films they are going to find out.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Candide, narrated by Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan, will be performed June 20, 21 and 22 in Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. The orchestra is using a dynamic pricing system for tickets, so prices ranged from $140 to as high as $395 (plus 10 percent handling fees) as of Thursday, but could continue to change. No decision has been made about whether rush tickets will be offered, but if they are, they will be made available the day of each performance for $30 (plus the handling fee). philorch.org, 215-893-1999.