Susan Lacy, Celebrating Leonard Bernstein

Susan Lacy was the creator and executive producer of American Masters from its inception in 1986 until last September, when she left PBS to produce and direct documentary films for HBO
Susan Lacy’s film “Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note” will be presented by the Choral Society of the Hamptons on Sunday at Guild Hall, and she will participate in a panel discussion after the screening. Lorella Zanetti

The Choral Society of the Hamptons is joining forces with Guild Hall on Sunday to celebrate the life and music of Leonard Bernstein, with a 6 p.m. screening there of Susan Lacy’s “Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note” and a related panel discussion. On June 28, the choral society will present “Bernstein! From Bible to Broadway” at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church.

“Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note,” an award-winning 1998 documentary, was produced for the PBS series American Masters. Ms. Lacy will participate in the panel discussion with two of the maestro’s children, Alexander Bernstein and Nina Bernstein Simmons, and Cornelia Foss, an artist whose late husband was Lukas Foss, the composer. Adam Green, the theater critic of Vogue, whose father, Adolph Green, performed in Bernstein’s musical theater pieces, will moderate the discussion, which will follow the two-hour film.

Ms. Lacy was the creator and executive producer of American Masters from its inception in 1986 until last September, when she left PBS to produce and direct documentary films for HBO. Speaking from her Sag Harbor home the day after a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, she said, “The reason I chose to leave the series I created and love is twofold. When I started the series I didn’t realize I was going to become a filmmaker, but over the course of almost 30 years, I did. I loved every part of working on the series, but I really loved making my own films. So when I was given the opportunity to just do that after 35 years at PBS, I couldn’t turn it down. There was also a lot of appeal to being able to make films without having to raise the money for them.”

Ms. Lacy majored in American studies at the University of Virginia, where she received a B.A., and at George Washington University, where she earned a master’s. “I thought I was going to be either a journalist or a scholar,” she said, “but I found my way to Channel 13.” There, she started working with Jack Venza, who created the Great Performances series and became her mentor. “I learned a lot working for a person whose mantra was, if we can’t make the film as excellent as the artist whose work we’re profiling, then we shouldn’t be in this business.”

Mr. Venza set a high standard for television programs on drama, dance, and music. One day Ms. Lacy realized, quite suddenly, that there were no programs about artists.

Because her particular interest was American cultural history, she decided to focus on American artists. “Nobody thought this was a good idea,” she recalled. “I had to convince people that stories about people who create are amazing stories.”

She insisted that the series run in prime time, and recommended that it debut during the summer, when, in the early days of cable, network programming consisted mostly of reruns. “Because there was nothing else on, and the programs were good, it gave the critics something to write about.” After the first season, PBS decided to try a second. It was only after 10 years that Ms. Lacy began to relax and think the series might last. It has; after 28 years, 215 films, and 27 Emmy Awards, it is still going strong.

Ms. Lacy’s parents were both musicians, and she was raised in a house full of music. “Leonard Bernstein was a hero. I used to get teased that I started American Masters so I could make a film about Lenny, and there’s a bit of truth to that.” Early on, she approached the Bernstein children, who agreed to participate. “The three children were not involved in the making of the film, but they are a big part of why it is so successful. Their honesty about their father, and their insights, really separate the film from anything else that has been done about him.” Ms. Lacy explained that one of the fundamental principles of American Masters was that the films had to be independent from editorial control by either the subject or the families.

In an email this week, Bernstein’s older daughter, Jamie, a filmmaker, concert narrator, and broadcaster, discussed the family’s initial concerns. “I remember how anxious my siblings and I were at the prospect of this in-depth, rather intimate film coming into the world so relatively soon after losing our father,” she said. “We had barely had time to process the loss ourselves . . . and so Alexander, Nina, and I felt a keen trepidation as we sat down, each in turn, to be interviewed by Susan.”

“Susan’s fierce intelligence and compassion reassured us throughout that difficult process that she was doing this for love. We could have felt manipulated or exploited by such an experience, but we never did, and the resulting film glows with the authenticity of Susan’s own heart.”

One of the first things Ms. Lacy did was visit the Library of Congress, home of the Leonard Bernstein Collection. In a room “as big as my house in Sag Harbor,” there were 50,000 photographs, the white suit Bernstein wore in Israel, pencils he used to write scores, and all his letters and diaries.

Ms. Lacy didn’t have a title for the film until she came across this text in an essay written by Bernstein: “In the beginning was the note, and the note was with God, and whosoever can reach for that note, reach high and bring it back to us to our earthly ears, he is a composer, and to the extent of his reach, partakes of the divine.”

“Lenny saw composing as the most important thing one could do on this planet,” Ms. Lacy said, “and I think he was a little disappointed that his own ‘serious’ work was not taken as seriously as he hoped during his lifetime. You look at that film and realize he saw himself in relation to Mahler as Salieri did to Mozart.”

Ms. Lacy has made films about living artists, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Lena Horne among them, as well as subjects no longer alive. “The advantage of working with people who are alive is that they can become a big part of telling the story,” she said. “I was happy that there were so many of Lenny’s letters and diaries that his ‘voice’ was in the film. And that voice belongs to Harris Yulin, a wonderful actor who has a home in Bridgehampton. I thought Harris added so much to the film, because it never felt like a narration.”

Ms. Lacy stays in touch with Bernstein’s children. Alexander runs the Bernstein Family Foundation and is founding chairman of the Leonard Bernstein Center for Learning. Ms. Simmons worked with the Library of Congress to make the Bernstein Archives digitally available to the public. The fruits of that collaboration can be seen at the library’s American Memory website. Jamie is currently working on a film about El Sistema, a Venezuelan youth orchestra program that uses music to bring social transformation to disadvantaged children around the world.

At first, Ms. Lacy remembered, she submitted individual shows for Emmy consideration, but in 1999 she began to submit the series. It has been nominated every year since. It won nine times, three of which were for shows she directed: “Judy Garland: By Myself,” “Inventing David Geffen,” and “Reaching for the Note.” The series has also won 13 Peabody awards.

“I’ve just taken a turn in my life to focus on producing, directing, and writing films, and I’m loving that,” she said. “I miss working with the variety of subjects I was working with at American Masters, but I’m really proud of the legacy I created there, and I hope it continues.”