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New York City played such a prominent role in every aspect of Leonard Bernstein’s career, from his lengthy tenure as conductor and musical director of the esteemed New York Philharmonic, to his grand symphonic compositions to his dynamic Broadway scores.
Think Wonderful Town, On the Town or West Side Story, musicals (and movie musicals) told with broad, daring strokes that brought the pulsating energy of the Big Apple into focus for folks in Everytown, USA. Despite his status as one of the 20th century’s greatest American composers, Bernstein remained a populist who never lost the common touch.
Leonard Bernstein’s New York, a musical by composer and musical theater scholar Rob Fisher, opens Friday at freeFall Theatre (the latest in the freeFall “drive-in” series). The two-person revue concentrates on the late master’s relationship with the city, through his working relationships with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolf Green, and Stephen Sondheim, along with choreographer Jerome Robbins and others.
“There is kind of a loose thru-line where you have a boy and a girl,” says Tampa singer and actor Emanuel Carrero, who shares the stage with singer and actor Julia Rifino in the St. Pete production.
“The girl is that kind of ‘broad’ who’s been in New York before, knows how it goes, the ups and downs of it. The boy is the newcomer, coming in like ‘I’m going to make my dreams come true! I don’t care what anybody says.'”
The female character, Rifino offers, is his “reality check.”
Still, through songs and situations from Bernstein’s most beloved stage productions, “fun ensues,” promises Carrero. “We get to play off each other. It’s a nice story that ends in a very beautiful way.”
The two performers were interviewed together via Zoom; during the interview, Rifino and Carrero discuss, among other things, the five-piece band playing behind them in Leonard Bernstein’s New York, director Eric Davis, and the process of learning about the man and his music.
“We even got to watch a documentary about his whole life journey, which was really helpful from the start,” says Rifino. “But overall it’s just all over the spectrum. We have songs in the upper parts of our range, the lower parts of our range, completely different styles back to back. So it really is like a workout, vocally, too.
“But it just goes to show how much Bernstein felt everything so powerfully. If he was sad, he was SAD. If he was happy, he was ecstatic. I feel like you can see that as well in his music. It’s really all over the place.”
Although they both appeared in the American Stage production of Mamma Mia! in 2019, the two University of Tampa graduates, longtime friends, had never performed together – as in, singing together – on a professional stage before Bernstein, Davis and music director Michael Raabe brought them together for Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway.
They were both more or less out of work for much of 2020.
“I think everyone kind of felt an identity shift, especially as performers,” offers Rifino, “because that whole chunk of our lives was just gone, out of nowhere. It put in perspective just how easily things can change – especially this industry.”
A fine artist and graphic designer by day, Rifino found her silver lining in the extra hours she was able to devote to creating her art. “I got to spend a lot of time investing in that whole part of myself,” she explains. “I was really grateful to have that.”
As for Carrero, “I was fortunate enough and blessed enough to be able to do some performing work for the holidays,” he says. “That kind of gave me a little bit of warmth back. And fast forward to here. We feel very blessed and lucky to be here.”
Details and tickets are here.