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10 Facts You Didn’t Know About Leonard Bernstein

21 Nov 2023

Spotlight on: Leonard Bernstein

Famously known as the composer of West Side Story and Candide, Leonard Bernstein was a truly fascinating figure professionally and personally.

So before catching his famous musical operetta, Candide, discover what made him so exceptional.


  1. Leonard Bernstein was actually born Louis Bernstein.
    His grandmother had final say on his first name, despite this he preferred to go by ‘Lenny’. So, on the year his grandmother passed away, when he was 16, Bernstein’s legally changed his name to Leonard.
  2. Bernstein’s childhood synagogue exerted a lasting influence on his music.
    Raised in Boston by Jewish Ukrainian parents, Bernstein attended a conservative synagogue. However, when it came to music, it was progressive, allowing for a mixed-gender choir. All of this had a lasting impact on Bernstein, and that legacy can even be heard in the overture of Candide, with a sound resembling the shofar, a traditional Jewish horn instrument.
  3. His parents hoped for Rabbi, not a composer.
    Bernstein’s family hoped he would takeover his father’s beauty supply business or become a rabbi. However, his talent at music was undeniable, learning the piano from just five years old.
  4. Bernstein’s father tried to dissuade him from music.
    Famously, whilst praising the love and talent his child had for music, Samuel Joseph Bernstein wrote a letter to Leonard’s piano teacher explaining “I prefer that he does not regard his music as a future means of maintenance.”
  5. One of Bernstein’s mentors encouraged him to conceal his Jewish identity in order to succeed.
    With antisemitism on the rise, Serge Koussevitsky renounced Judaism to further his own career. He encouraged Bernstein to do the same, and change his name to ‘Leonard S Burns’, to which he famously responded, “I’ll do it as Bernstein or not at all.”

6. The Youngest Person To Conduct the New York Philharmonic
Bernstein’s made a huge professional jump into the role of Assistant Conductor for the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, when he stepped in for a sick conductor with less than 24 hours notice. After flu-stricken Bruno-Walter couldn’t conduct, Bernstein’s performance put him in the front page of the New York Times the very next morning.

At 25 years old, Bernstein was the youngest person to ever conduct the New York Philharmonic. A fitting achievement, especially since he later served as its music director for over a decade.

7. Social Justice Pioneer
Whilst being a trailblazer in the music industry, Bernstein also championed many social justice causes throughout his life.

  • He held concerts for unity and hope in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall.
  • He conducted the Hiroshima Peace Concert in Japan 1985 in commemoration of the bombings, whilst being an activist for nuclear disarmament.
  • And he participating in many civil rights marches and demonstrations.

In 1944, Bernstein’s Broadway debut musical, On the Town, featured African American artists playing high-profile roles.

“[On the Town] made a strong statement by hiring African Americans to play full fledged citizens who were portrayed equitably with their white colleagues. The show responded to a movement on the part of civil rights organizations to promote mixed race casting and non-stereotyped racial representation, and individual choices about how to deploy black actors on stage shifted as the show took shape.” 

8. Almost every accolade
Bernstein had no shortage of gongs to his name. He received 16 Grammy awards, an 7 Academy Awards and 2 Tony Awards, plus the Kennedy Center Honours, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now that is a full pool room!

9. A gay man, who got married to a woman
Bernstein married actress, Felicia Montealegre Cohn in 1951, however she famously knew of Bernstein’s sexual preference, writing to him “You are a homosexual and may never change.” Despite his many affairs, they were happy together, having three children. They separated in 1976, but he moved back in with Felicia shortly after her diagnosis of Lung Cancer, which sadly led to her death in 1978.

10. Bernstein announced his retirement in 1990, but sadly died only 5 days later.
At age 72, Leonard passed away from a heart attack caused by lung failure, leaving behind an unforgettable legacy.

Witness the famous music of this extraordinary man at the Palais theatre, February 2023, in Candide – a musical theatre/opera fusion of philosophical wit and adventure.
Tickets linked below.


Author: Greta Doell

Book Your Tickets

Filled with sparkling wit and humour, Candide is utterly irreverent.

Prepare to witness St Kilda’s iconic Palais Theatre transform into “The Best of All Possible Worlds” in this thrilling new production, directed by Dean Bryant, and starring Eddie Perfect and Lyndon Watts.