Originally billed simply as, "A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers," Leonard Bernstein's Mass stirred up great controversy when it debuted September 8, 1971 in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The force behind the controversy was the show's content itself -- showing one man (the Celebrant) struggling greatly with maintaining his spirituality and faith amidst a congregation that thoroughly questions and mocks the validity of their church.

The basic structure or the play is deceivingly simple: A Roman Catholic Mass. The heart of the libretto is taken from the Catholic liturgy; however, Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz add the words of members of the congregation, lapsed or otherwise. Paul Simon even contributed a couplet as a gift to Bernstein:

Half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election
Half of the people are drowning and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction
The score intertwines rock/blues and choral elements (a la church polyphony), illustrating well the confusion between ancient, sacred values and modern philosophy and advancements. The stage setting dissolves in and out between the Celebrant alone with his simple, pure faith (characterized in a piece called "A Simple Song," one of several musical themes that recur throughout the show) and abject chaos -- at the most turbulent point in the show, the entire cast, company and orchestra mill about on stage. (During the Prefatory Prayers, an entire marching band appears on stage... I suppose this falls somewhere in the middle.)

Mass is not one of Bernstein's most popular works today, although some pieces, especially the Prayer for the Congregation (Almighty Father) and Gloria Tibi, remain in use by small ensembles for their rich choral quality. Others, such as "Things Get Broken", "World Without End" and "God Said", while interesting to the ear, are less known (heresy?). The show, in all, is, according to Bernstein, not meant to denounce faith, but rather to ask each person who experiences it to explore his or her spirituality further, in light of the pressures that modern times place upon those who simply believe in something beyond themselves.

(Final moments, entire cast and orchestra sings)
Almighty Father, incline thine ear
Bless us and all those who are gathered here
Thine angel send us
Who shall defend us all
And fill with grace
Us and all in this place

The Mass has ended. Go in peace.


I recently learned that the ending above, though provocative in its way, was not the original intention of Mr. Bernstein. Much of the music of Act II involves the reincorporation of elements and themes from practically every song in the first act and top of the second ("Things Get Broken," the penultimate piece of the show, is essentially 14 minutes of warped adaptations of the preceding tunes). Though Bernstein was a crafty composer, he actually merely ran out of time to devise new material, and he was forced to reuse his material to complete the show. The show had barely been rehearsed by the time opening night rolled around. In that light, the show could be an even greater accomplishment.

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