Actress and singer Angelina Reaux met Leonard Bernstein completely by accident. She became his protégé almost immediately afterward.
At a screening of Franco Zeffirelli's La Traviata, during which Reaux sat by chance directly in front of Bernstein, the giant of American music invited a group from the theater back to his apartment. To Reaux's great surprise, once she was properly introduced to Bernstein, he remarked with his characteristic vivacity, "Angelina Reaux? I know you!" That was the beginning of their long friendship.
Bernstein had first made a name for himself with his musical On the Town. His success soon continued with such classics as Candide and the legendary West Side Story. Besides composing, Bernstein also brushed shoulders with other American celebrities like Boris Karloff when he worked on film scores and as a conductor. During one such engagement, Bernstein hand-picked Reaux for the role of Mimi in his 1987 production of La Bohème in Rome.
She recalls the many lessons that Bernstein taught her throughout their years together.
"'Remember the joy of music,' he would say, 'the joy of life,'" she recalls. "He infused life into every single thing that he did. And everything became so visceral and so vibrant when you were performing with him."
This vibrancy no doubt comes from another of Bernstein's guiding principles, and one which he imparted to Reaux as well: Do not allow them to put you in a box.
"Follow your instincts," he told her, "and don't ask for permission to be who you are."
Among Reaux's performances with Bernstein, her role as Francesca in West Side Story the only time Bernstein ever conducted the film score stands out among the rest. She remembers the wonderful energy he brought to the production.
"He was like a child in a candy store," she says, "He was absolutely ecstatic. I mean, it was unbelievable!"
Reaux continued to find Bernstein's intelligent enthusiastic spirit mesmerizing. She recalls how, at a dinner party, Bernstein held conversations with other guests about baseball or a symphony he had just conducted in Europe, while simultaneously talking with her about music. She was dumbfounded.
She thought, "How can he keep up all these conversations and juggle them at the same time?" But, as she reminds us, "He was just filled with all of life, and all of the world."
Bernstein changed Reaux's life forever, much as he changed the lives of countless Americans he never met by chance at the theater. His music, from Broadway to Hollywood, is a testament to the indomitable spirit of a true American master.