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An Interview With Susan Goldman Rubin — Author of “Music Was IT”

Young Lenard Bernstein, being a boss.

Susan Goldman Rubin has written several nonfiction books for young people. Her latest work, Music Was IT: Young  Leonard Bernstein, has been nominated for the 2012 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. For an in-depth review of the book, take a look at Mark Flowers’ post from his YALSA Nonfiction series. This post will give you a look behind the scenes at the creation of this biography of an American legend.

Music Was It covers Leonard Bernstein’s early life, beginning in childhood and ending at his Carnegie Hall debut. Why did you choose this focus for your book, as opposed to covering Lenny as a famous, prolific, American institution?

I thought that the story of Lenny’s struggle as a teenager and young adult  to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician despite his father’s plans for him to go into the family business would be more meaningful to young people. The conflict between doing what you want to do and following a parent’s wishes is  a universal theme.  And I thought that if readers didn’t know who Lenny was, they might relate to the arc of the story and be drawn into listening to his music. Because introducing readers to the joy of hearing Lenny’s music as performer, conductor and composer was the point of the book. But I did want readers to know something about his  prolific career so we included information in an epilogue, a timeline and a section titled “Lenny’s Music.”

The conflict between Lenny and his father, Sam, about Lenny’s choice of music as a career is a major theme in the book. In another interview you described this as “the universal story of a young person striving to pursue a dream in defiance of a parent’s wishes.” How do you hope this will inspire teen readers who have their own artistic dreams?

I hope readers will see that it’s possible to do anything in the world of the arts even if the obstacles seem insurmountable.  An important aspect of this true story is that Lenny loved and respected his father, yet felt driven to achieve his goal. And his father’s worries about Lenny’s security and the obstacles he faced in the world of music were well grounded. I was thinking of how this conflict took place years later for my friend and high school classmate Ed Kleban who wrote the lyrics for “Chorus Line.” But as a young person Ed faced the same argument from his father about his choice of a career. That’s why I dedicated the book to him.

In a related question, how do you see this book, a book about a classically trained composer and conductor, influencing young people, whose primary musical role models may be Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift?

Lenny loved all kinds of music. As a young pianist he played everything from blues to show tunes and boogie-woogie and drove his Harvard classmates crazy by playing loudly till all hours of the night. Later, as a teacher on his television shows, he included popular songs, jazz and Latin rhythms in his programs as well as classical music. So I think that readers who admire today’s top performers will relate to Lenny. If he were alive today he too would probably enjoy Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift and appreciate their youthful success.

Lenny’s story is an underdog story in a lot of ways–a young man in a career for older men, an American going up against the European old guard, a Jew in a time when being Jewish meant you were locked out of certain opportunities altogether. It makes his eventual triumph very satisfying. Was this part of what attracted you to his life story?

Yes. This aspect of Lenny’s story as an underdog definitely attracted me. As a first generation Jewish American I could totally relate to his background and obstacles. When I was growing up there was still a quota in colleges and being a Jew from New York made acceptance to schools much more competitive. Of course, as a woman, I felt another kind of obstacle in pursuing a career as an artist rather than being content with the role of wife and mother.

There’s a passing reference in the epilogue to Lenny being attracted to and having romantic relationships with men as well as women. Would you care to go into that? I don’t think that’s something a lot of people know about Leonard Bernstein.

This was a delicate issue that my editor and I discussed at length as we tried to decide what to include in this book. As an adult Lenny was bisexual. He married and had children but he also had homosexual relationships. This part of his personal life has been written about in biographies geared for adults. But I felt that Music Was IT was going to be about Lenny’s music and his struggle to establish his career. And in all the research I did I could find no valid documentation about his sexual life as a teenager and young adult so I thought it would be best to focus on his music and family life. Yet I wanted to be honest so I included a brief mention in the epilogue of his romantic relationships with men and women. My editor and I carefully went over that wording.

You include a discography of Bernstein’s work in the back of the book. For our readers, what would you say are the essential three to five pieces that people should listen to if they have little to no experience with Bernstein?

Oh, my goodness. That is a tough question to answer. I was lucky enough to grow up with so much of Bernstein’s music and the joy of listening has stayed with me all these years.

To experience Bernstein as a composer I think that people should listen to him conducting his ballet score “Fancy Free,” and the overture to his opera “Candide.” I’ve played these pieces for friends who thought they didn’t like classical music and they’ve loved them. To experience the brilliance of Bernstein as a pianist I think people should listen to him playing and conducting George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” one of his favorite pieces. And to enjoy Bernstein as a composer for musical theater they should see the movie “West Side Story” or listen to the original cast recording of the show. And not to be missed is Bernstein passionately conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which includes the choral section “Ode to Joy.” But I have to recommend Bernstein conducting Aaron Copland’s “El Salon Mexico” and “Rodeo,” works by his dear friend and mentor.

You’ve written many biographies of artists besides this one: biographies of Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud and Magritte, to name a few. Why would you say it’s important to expose young people to the life and work of famous artists?

Seeing art is such an enormous pleasure for me that I want to share that enjoyment with young people. And a way of introducing young people to art that they may not be familiar with is to present entertaining stories about artists and the work they’ve created. Of course, nothing compares to seeing the actual art in a museum or gallery. But with top quality reproductions I hope that readers will become interested and curious to see more. And feel encouraged to nurture their own imaginations and originality.

Exposing kids to the lives of famous artists is important because they may find inspiration to make their own art and develop critical thinking. Studies have shown that art is a tremendous source of learning on many levels. Kids come to art and music with open minds and are not afraid to interpret and question. If my books are helpful along those lines I am delighted.

— Maria Kramer is currently reading The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.

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