The new movie “Maestro,” which tells the life story of Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, has one big Philadelphia tie: Director, co-writer and star Bradley Cooper is a native of the area.
Cooper grew up in Jenkintown and Rydal, sported an Eagles jersey in “Silver Linings Playbook” and sat next to Jewish Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie at Super Bowl LII. The non-Jewish Cooper has drawn some fire, ever since the film was first announced, for playing the composer, especially with a prosthetic nose, although Maestro has the cooperation of Bernstein’s children. And comedian Sarah Silverman, a leading voice against “Jewface” casting, appears in the film as Bernstein’s sister.
But the film’s Philadelphia and Jewish ties go deeper, starting with its other screenwriter.
Josh Singer, credited as co-writer along with Cooper, was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Montgomery County, graduating from Upper Dublin High School. It was his time in synagogue choir that first introduced Singer to the work of Leonard Bernstein.
“I went to Temple Sinai, and Cantor Nathan Chaitovsky was my mentor,” Singer said in an interview during the New York Film Festival. “I grew up singing Jewish liturgy — that was my first musical background. One of the wonderful things about Lenny is, his first symphony was ‘Jeremiah,’ and it’s filled with these sorts of Hebraic tones and themes. He wrote ‘Kaddish’; that was his last symphony. Jewish music was central to him, as was Israel. He was there in ’47, conducting while there were bombs going off, as they were leading up to the war around independence.”
Cooper has never won an Oscar, but Singer has, for writing “Spotlight”; his other credits include “The Post” and “First Man.”
“For me, Lenny was always a great Jewish hero, and so when I had the opportunity to then come and work on a movie about Lenny, it was really a gift,” he added. “Like the Jews, I sort of wandered in the desert for— not 40 years, but two or three — until Bradley came on board.”
Indeed, Singer’s involvement with the film precedes Cooper’s, as he first wrote a script while working with producers Fred Berner and Amy Durning. At one point, he sent his script to Steven Spielberg’s team, which included Kristie Macosko Krieger. Cooper eventually came aboard, first to star, and eventually as director, while Spielberg, Krieger, Berner and Durning are among the film’s producers, as is Martin Scorsese. But even when Cooper became involved, he kept Singer in the fold.
There are other Jewish aspects to the film. Bernstein’s wife, Felicia María Cohn Montealegre, was Jewish on her father’s side, which set off a separate ethnic casting controversy when Carey Mulligan was cast to play her.
In one scene, Bernstein is told by a mentor that he wants to be a great conductor, he should de-emphasize the Jewishness of his name, and shorten it to “Berns,” although he rejects this advice.
In another scene, Bernstein wears a sweatshirt with “Harvard” spelled out in Hebrew letters, the type of item often found in college gift shops. According to Mark Bridges, the film’s costume designer, the production came upon a photo of the real Bernstein wearing that shirt and decided to include it, although he acknowledged that the photo was taken later in the chronology of Bernstein’s life than the moment when it shows up in the film.
As for Philadelphia ties to Bernstein and the film, Bernstein studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia between 1939 and 1941. He was taught there by the Austro-Hungarian Jewish conductor Fritz Reiner and the Russian Jewish conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Bernstein appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra many times over the years, including a benefit for Israel in 1953. Temple University gave him an honorary degree in 1951.
A Philadelphia conducting stalwart of more recent vintage, Philadelphia Orchestra Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, served as conducting consultant on ”Maestro.”
“We invited him to Philadelphia, and he was very happy,” Nézet-Séguin said of Cooper, after they had initially met in New York. “And we had his performance of ‘Candide’ with the Philadelphia Orchestra with Bradley and Carey together.” The two actors had narrated the orchestra’s performance of Bernstein’s opera back in June of 2019 when the film was being prepped.
“Of course, they kept wearing all the Philly jerseys you can imagine,” Nézet-Séguin said, prompting a call of “Go Birds” from Singer.
“Maestro” opens in local theaters, including Bryn Mawr Film Institute and Ritz at the Bourse, on Nov. 30. It lands on Netflix on Dec. 20.