Walter & Lenny recreates the Hussey/Bernstein friendship in Chichester

After a successful premiere in Chichester's Minerva Theatre three years ago, Walter & Lenny '“ a one-man play devised and performed by Peter McEnery '“ returns now to the city as part of the Bernstein in Chichester Festival marking Bernstein's centenary.

Lenny Bernstein and Walter Hussey (right)
Lenny Bernstein and Walter Hussey (right)

It will be a key element in the Chichester Psalms Gala Evening – a double-bill of drama and conversation in the presence of the composer’s son, Alexander Bernstein, taking place in the Assembly Room, The Council House, North Street, Chichester on Friday, November 23 at 7pm.

Based on The Leonard Bernstein Letters, Walter & Lenny traces the friendship of Dean Walter Hussey and Leonard Bernstein (pictured), the fruit of which was the choral masterpiece, Chichester Psalms which will be performed in Chichester Cathedral the next day.

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In 1963, Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, wrote to Leonard Bernstein asking if he would compose a piece of choral music for the Southern Cathedrals Festival in 1965. Bernstein accepted. Peter’s piece tells the story of Hussey’s and Bernstein’s relationship through the letters they wrote to each other.

“It’s quite a luxury for an actor to have a part that you can digest over quite a long period of time and really come to terms with,” Peter says. “The production has moved on in terms of little improvements in some of the transitions between the one to the other, Lenny and Walter.”

Peter plays both – and in the original production, he wasn’t quite satisfied with the transition which included Bernstein’s arrival in England for the concert. It was over too quickly. The latest version features a photo montage instead – all part of the way the show has developed.

“I felt that it needed something more theatrical. Quite often you can be playing something and thinking that it doesn’t quite work, but you don’t generally get the luxury of further rehearsal in the commercial sense. But with this one, I have been able to work on it more. I have done quite a lot more Youtube research. But really I knew the characters and how I wanted to do them. I don’t look like either character, but I love the theatre of illusion, the way you can suggest the characters with illusion and then say ‘Look! There is nothing up my sleeve!’”

Peter doesn’t feel he has changed his thinking about the characters necessarily: “I just feel that I am more confident about the two of them. It is the story-telling that is vital, the fact that we book-end the piece with the Kennedy era, the funeral oration to the dead president and then the funeral service in St Patrick’s in New York for Bobby Kennedy.”

As for Lenny and Walter: “It helps that they are very diverse. There are not that many people who know what Walter Hussey looked like or sounded like. I am not trying to give an authentic portrait of either man. There is no make-up. The differentiation is the dog collar and Bernstein’s roll-top sweater. But also there is more than just the American accent. It was more of a question of finding a voice for Leonard Bernstein. He had a very distinctive sound. It was more than just getting the accent. He had a lot of sinus problems, so it was also a question of trying to give him a kind of nasal delivery.”

And also, a question of conveying the relationship, the fact, as Peter says, that Bernstein three times betrays Hussey: “He says that Chichester would have the premiere, which it didn’t. He snatched it and did it two weeks before in New York. He also said he would dedicate the piece to Hussey, which he didn’t. He dedicated it to his doctor in New York.

“And the third betray was that he promised Hussey the original manuscript, but then he had to write to him and say that the original had to go to the Library of Congress. I think it all makes Bernstein rather selfish and cruel possibly, but they undoubtedly became very close friends…”

After the interval, Nigel Simeone will be joined by Alexander Bernstein, who visited Chichester in July 1965 with his father, mother, and sister Jamie, to attend the first performance in the Cathedral of Chichester Psalms. He will discuss his father’s legacy