Leonard Bernstein at a 1971 rehearsal of 'Mass'

Photo via Library of Congress

Leonard Bernstein at a 1971 rehearsal of 'Mass'

UCF Celebrates the Arts goes all in on a colossal production of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass' 

Massive attack

Pretentious is the artist who conflates religion and politics; bold is the composer who defies authority and dogma. Leonard Bernstein was both, and more: liberal Jew, progressive reformer, unabashed showman and revolutionizer of the American musical. Call him what you will, you can't question the man's knack for the theatrical, the daring and the unsubtle.

If West Side Story was a multicultural smash and a worldwide phenomenon, the lofty Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers reached a new zenith: an iconoclastic 20th-century setting of the Roman Catholic Mass, steeped not only in the kaleidoscopic music and culture of the time, but in the political tumult of the Vietnam War era.

Bernstein's Mass is a mixed bag of styles, from gospel, blues, rock, jazz and Broadway to more serious orchestral and choral episodes, sprinkled with Orientalism and serialism; it runs the pluralist gamut. Its structure, devised by Bernstein and co-librettist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell), leans on the traditional segments of the Catholic liturgy, interspersed with all those popular styles. It is also a moving – though some might say hokey – story.

"Think of it as an oratorio with more staging and dramatic content than a typical oratorio," says stage director Michael Wainstein. Fresh in his new position as director of the UCF School of Performing Arts, Wainstein was approached last fall by music director David Brunner with the idea of inaugurating this year's UCF Celebrates the Arts festival with the Mass, joining the worldwide celebration of Bernstein's centennial.

UCF's original production – Wainstein and the creative team used no references to past performances – opens this weekend at the Dr. Phillips Center. It is one of the largest-scale productions UCF has presented, "like a dance concert, a theater show and an oratorio all rolled into one," says Wainstein. With four choirs, the UCF Symphony Orchestra, a marching band, a rock group, vocal soloists and dancers, more than 140 people will gather onstage at the Disney Theater to re-enact Bernstein's exploration of faith, deepened by the restless anti-war culture that dared to protest the Vietnam War and demand transparency from authorities.

That unrest, palpable at the 1971 premiere that opened the Kennedy Center in D.C., is relevant today. Though the show doesn't comment directly on it, the production team was moved by the sociopolitical movement following the Parkland shooting, says Wainstein. "The kids rising up has been a wonderful inspiration for us to question authority and bring the youth-versus-traditional culture argument alive."

A Celebrant (played by UCF faculty member Jeremy Hunt), carries the narrative of Mass. The libretto juxtaposes the serenity of the devoted with the harsher voice of the disaffected; in the hymn-like "A Simple Song," the Jesus-like Celebrant croons, "Sing like you like to sing/ God loves simple things/ For God is the simplest of all" over clean electric guitar chords, somewhat naively. It has the spirit of contemporary nondenominational church music.

In "I Believe in God," the opposing Street Chorus challenges with "I believe in God/ But does God believe in me?" The chorus represents youth voicing their concerns and feelings about authority, says Wainstein. For the production, he is having them carry cell phones, playing the part of contemporary students who have had it with governmental policy and political opacity.

There's also plenty of kitsch in the libretto: "I believe in F-sharp/ I believe in G/ But does it mean a thing to you/ Or should I change my key?" sings what you might call a more pragmatic character, as if arguing for belief in only that which can be submitted to self-referential scrutiny. Bernstein's catchy melodies support the narrative arc; in the end there is a final return to the "Simple Song," a symbol of the human capacity – maybe the need – to still believe in God, in something, despite all adversity. Maybe because of it.

And it's a great show. The Mass largely works because of the cathartic narrative to which we all can relate, to various degrees. At its most daring, it questions "the purpose of a creator and what we should expect from religion," says Wainstein. This reaches a climax in "Things Get Broken," an extended spiritual-breakdown aria in which the Celebrant defies his Creator: "Are you still waiting? Still waiting for me/ Me alone/ To sing you into heaven?/ Well, you're on your own," he condemns Him.

Still, faith prevails, as the Street Chorus empathizes with him and they praise the faith that brought them together in the first place, even if it seems too easy a solution to the problems society has built up for itself. In the end, says Wainstein, the Celebrant "realizes – I think – that faith is possible regardless of its challenges."

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