Great Performances Premieres “Leonard Bernstein Mass” from the Ravinia Festival on Friday, May 15 at 9 pm

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Features performances by Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Tony-winner Paulo Szot, conducted by Marin Alsop


Priest with children's choir in the production of Mass
Paulo Szot and members of Chicago Children’s Choir.

Great Performances presents Leonard Bernstein Mass, premiering Friday, May 15 at 9 p.m. on PBS, and the PBS Video app. Featuring 200 artists,including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ravinia Festival’s 2019 production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” embraces elements of musical theater, folk and rock music with Latin text from the liturgy, as well as music and lyrics by Bernstein and additional text by “Wicked” composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Tony Award-winning baritone Paulo Szot (“South Pacific”) stars as the Celebrant, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director and Bernstein protégé Marin Alsop conducts. The choral ensemble Vocality, the Chicago Children’s Choir, and the Highland Park High School Marching Band also perform. Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich called the production “simply quintessential, stylistically unbound, anything-goes Bernstein, presented on the grandest scale possible.”

Great Performances: Leonard Bernstein Mass begins with a brief overview of the work’s history as a commission by Jacqueline Onassis to open the Kennedy Center in 1971 and features comments from the director, conductor, Bernstein family members and more. As the performance begins, the Celebrant declares his faith but faces resistance from the Street Chorus who questions him and sends him on a journey of discovery. With metaphorical themes and letters written by cast members addressing social issues such as oppression, immigration and bullying, the musical is as relevant today as when it premiered in 1971.

Cast members of “Leonard Bernstein Mass.”
Cast members of “Leonard Bernstein Mass.”

Notable Talent

  • Paulo Szot, stars as “The Celebrant,” Tony Award winner for his leading role in “South Pacific” and recently appeared as “U.S. Consul Sharpless” in Great Performances at the Met: Madama Butterfly
  • Marin Alsop, conductor, music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music curator for the Ravinia Festival 2018-2019
  • Kevin Newbury, director, recently directed 2019’s Great Performances: Doubt from Minnesota Opera and 2017’s Great Performances: Bel Canto the Opera from Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • David Horn, executive producer of Great Performances


Priest singing in the production of Mass
Paulo Szot and cast members of “Leonard Bernstein Mass.”

Noteworthy Facts

  • Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “Mass” opened the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in September 1971. Leonard Bernstein was eager to honor the occasion with a new, large-scale work because he had always wanted “to compose a service of one sort or another.”
  • In search of a collaborator, Bernstein asked Stephen Schwartz to work with him on the text, based on Schwartz’ work on “Godspell,” a hit musical based on the Gospel of St. Matthew.
  • While working on “Mass,” Bernstein consulted with a Catholic priest and anti-war activist who had been on the FBI’s “10 Most-Wanted” list before being apprehended and imprisoned. As a result, the FBI warned the White House that the show’s Latin text might contain coded anti-war messages and that Bernstein was mounting a plot “to embarrass the United States government.” President Nixon was strongly advised not to attend and was absent at the premiere.
  • Leonard Bernstein’s long association with Great Performances began during his lifetime when Mass became the series’ first music program in 1974; in 2018, Bernstein’s extraordinary career was commemorated in Great Performances: Leonard Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood.