Marc Blitzstein & Lenny Bernstein

by David Ronis

Composer Marc Blitzstein at work on a new piece.

In thinking about research, historic reading rooms in places like London, New York, and Washington D.C. come to mind. But sometimes there are great riches to be found in one’s own backyard! In 2016, when I was casually scouting for ideas for a creative research project, I became aware that the Marc Blitzstein Papers were part of the collection of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. At that moment, it seemed as if the stars had aligned.

Blitzstein had only marginally been on my radar. I was familiar with a few of his works and I very much liked them. But my knowledge was far from comprehensive and I was eager to learn more. Not having an extensive background in research (before coming to teaching, I was a full-time performer), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on my first visit to the archives reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society. But it was a transformative experience. Mary Huelsbeck and the staff could not have been more welcoming and helpful as I started examining the Blitzstein Papers.

What took me by surprise was the immediate intimacy I felt with Marc Blitzstein upon sitting down with his things. Not only seeing, but touching the bits of Blitzstein’s life and his work mad his joys, sorrows, triumphs, and tribulations almost palpable. Yet I couldn’t help reflecting on the voyeuristic nature of this pursuit. Voyeuristic, perhaps. But, also compelling and kind of intoxicating!

I knew that I wanted to create some sort of show utilizing the resources of the collection, but I wasn’t sure what kind of form it would take. So, I just sat and read, trusting that by immersing myself in the material, ideas would emerge. At one point, I came across a short poem scribbled on TWA stationery (Trans World Airlines, for those reading this who are not of a certain age):

Dear lovely, quarrelsome my Marc:

Just above the Empire State
(so high, so high)
Lies a deck of well-arranged cumuli,
Inert, benign, and gray.
Just above that all-benignant deck
Lies sunshine, brilliant, out of view;
For someone’s benefit, whose?
And just above someone’s benefit
Another deck of well-arranged mackerel.
(maybe not so inert, but
So gray, so gray.)

Love, Lenny

I thought: “Lenny…? Bernstein, probably!” I knew that Blitzstein had been close with Leonard Bernstein and was the godfather to Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, who happened to be a friend of a friend of mine. So I scanned the excerpt and sent it to my friend who shared it with Jamie Bernstein. Jamie hadn’t been aware of its existence, confirmed that it was indeed her father’s handwriting, and was so happy to know about it. (The last bit about the mackerel is an example of a kind of humor that the two composers shared, most probably an in-joke.) But, again, I was struck by that sense of being a voyeur into Marc Blitzstein’s life and the intimacy I had been granted by virtue of having access to this and so many other documents.

Blitzstein photographed with his friend and fellow composer Leonard Bernstein.

The poem didn’t figure into my project, but it made a lasting impression on me nonetheless. The project – a biographical revue interspersing songs from Blitzstein’s shows with spoken excerpts from his letters and working notes, tied together with a narration I wrote – slowly began to take shape. And three full years later, I completed a script for I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – The Man in His Music. I visited the Blitzstein Papers a number of times throughout the process and the resources continued to feed my work.

I Wish It So became UW-Madison University Opera’s fall 2020 presentation. I had conceived it as a stage show, but it was the perfect pandemic project as it was easily adaptable into video format. Complying with COVID-19 protocol, we rehearsed and shot video in Music Hall on the UW-Madison campus with four singers and two pianists, the singers each working one at a time, and allowing for long ventilation breaks in between. Using green screen technology, the project came together beautifully, featuring photographs from the collection of Blitzstein, his family, and friends. Those, plus additional vintage photos depicting moments from the early and mid-20th century fleshed out the storytelling and made for an evocative biographical piece. It was especially gratifying that the video shoot took place literally across the street from the Wisconsin Historical Society – that the source material for the creative project and the venue for realizing it were just a few hundred feet away from each other!

All of this was made possible by having access to the Marc Blitzstein Papers at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. In the end, it was wonderful to share the richness of Marc Blitzstein’s life and his work with the UW-Madison students who worked on the project as well as those in Madison and beyond, who watched the video.