As the world’s most flamboyant conductor, Leonard Bernstein on the podium made music physical. “Score,” adapted by Jocelyn Clarke from the writings of Bernstein, takes that conceit one step further by casting an actor-dancer, Tom Nelis, in the role of Lenny. If only Clarke had gone all the way and brought in Terrence McNally to write a play.
As with her previous solo acts (“Room,” about Virginia Woolf, and “Bob,” about Robert Wilson), Clarke attempts to get at the inner workings of the artistic process. “Lenny,” of course, would have made a wonderful title for her third piece, except that Julian Barry beat her to it over 30 years ago with his bio play on Lenny Bruce.
More recently, McNally’s “Master Class,” about Maria Callas, offered up the lecture format that Clarke uses for “Score.” And last season, McNally’s “Prelude and Liebstod” (from “The Stendhal Syndrome”) pretty much mined the same emotional landscape of conductor as narcissist. Fortunately, for both his plays, McNally had the necessary questionable taste to goose up the proceedings with lots of backstage gossip, rumor and roman-a-clef insights.
Left on their own with no such trappings, Bernstein’s ramblings by way of Clarke run the gamut, from the sublime (Mahler and the Holocaust) to the ridiculous (Beethoven and charm), with no comment or perspective on the man we’re watching. What Clarke and her director, Anne Bogart, give us instead are Christopher Akerlind’s gorgeous play of lights over Neil Patel’s set of scattered music stands and Nelis’ high kicks.
Bernstein, however, made music physical in another sense — one that went way beyond his dancing on the podium and one that’s crucially missing from this interpretation. Lenny became a sexual figure for concertgoers. (What fun McNally would have with this!) In the 1950s, Bernstein gave his famous Young Peoples Concerts and turned on a whole TV generation of girls and boys who had little desire for Bach or Mozart and much interest in losing their virginity via Lenny. (And in many cases, this satyr conductor-composer later obliged them.) He made classical music downright carnal.
Under Bogart’s direction, Nelis captures the arm swinging and the jumping around. He also has Bernstein’s toe-heel, toe-heel walk, something not seen this side of an Atlantic City beauty contest. But like Clarke’s edited manuscript, he completely misses Bernstein’s animal magnetism. This might be a minority opinion, but when Nelis speaks Bernstein’s words, he gives the impression of channeling them through Calvin Klein (the man, not the ads).
In the end, “Score” represents the kind of art with a capital A that Bernstein in his lectures, TV shows and, yes, Broadway musicals, spent a life trying to debunk.