December 4, 2013

Sun Spotlight: Danny Bernstein ’14

Print More

In honor of the premiere of Company tonight at the Schwartz, The Sun spoke to the play’s director and biggest fan


Breaking into the theatre industry is a frightening prospect for almost every college-aged actor and dramatic writer hoping to enter the game — but not for Danny Bernstein ’14. At least, not anymore. A senior music major, Bernstein has lost most of his inhibitions about going into “show business,” though it has taken him a while to do so. When Bernstein first entered Cornell he was a double major in music and psychology — psychology being his safety net and intended major — but he has since dropped psychology … twice. Now, after some reassurances from the right people, he is moving at full speed toward his dream: writing musicals for Broadway.

At first glance, Danny is small, maybe 5’5”, dark haired and automatically friendly. He has a self-conscious air about him, speaking just a bit too quickly and emphatically, but after we talked for a few minutes it was clear that Bernstein is far from timid — he has no reason to be. During his three-and-a-half years at Cornell, Danny has directed a play every year, even as a freshman; won the Heermans-McCalmon playwriting competition two years in a row; and played piano for a slew of impressive theater actors and actresses. He is also having his original, full-length musical produced at the Schwartz Center next semester. Those I’ve spoken to at Cornell only sing his praises (no pun intended) and the Schwartz center set aside one of their largest theaters, The Flex, for his upcoming show. Oh, and he is a prodigy on the piano.

All of these things put together could make for an ego the size of Les Miserables, but Danny handles his talent humbly, for the most part. Whenever I mention his talent he confirms it shyly and politely — he gets the praise a lot.

Even though Bernstein has shed most of his fear about going into the biz, he understands what a gamble it is. However, as he says, he “has a plan” for his future.

Bernstein began the first of his estimated 10,000 hours on the piano at age three, when he first crawled over to the family instrument.

“I’m one of those kids,” he laughed.

After witnessing their toddler’s inherent interest to the piano, his family realized that they would have to start giving him lessons. Yet it wasn’t until he stopped taking lessons and started practicing for 10 to 20 hours a week on average after that, developing his talent by playing songs by ear.

After a while, Bernstein could hear a song a few times and “understand it,” he said. As he explained, he did so it without sheet music or aids: “I hate [sheet music]; it makes me sad,” he said dejectedly over our table at CTB. This is probably because has never really needed it, though he has been working to get better at sight reading in more recent years. The skill has definitely come in handy. Once when he was sitting in on a master class in New York, Donna Vivino (Young Cosette in the original production of Les Miserables, and Elphaba standby for Wicked on Broadway at the time) forgot her sheet music and the accompanist wasn’t able to play for her without it. Bernstein, who had heard the song she was planning to sing many times before, however, hardly needed sheet music, and had no problem playing for Ms. Vivino. He took over on the piano for the song and had one of his more memorable brushed with a Broadway star when she introduced herself to him afterwards and said he was great. Suffice it to say that Bernstein is an anomaly, both among his peers and the music and PMA departments. In fact, entering the game ahead of the curve has left some Cornell professors a little unsure what to do with him — the student who is somehow always doing well without really having to try. Fun fact: Bernstein isn’t the only musician in his family. His great-grandfather was the writer behind the popular children’s song “I Scream You Scream” and an inductee to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

After pushing him a bit to tell me more about his piano playing, I jokingly made a (very original) Rain Man reference to which he responded, “I always tell people that and they’re like, ‘wow you’re impressive,’ or like, ‘Do you have Aspergers or something?’ and it’s like, I can be good at something without having something wrong with me!”

He gets the question less at Cornell than he did in his home town, but it is still frustrating for him to deal with — not that he spends much time thinking about it. Right now Bernstein is spending his mental energy thinking about his musical, Far From Canterbury, which he wrote himself and is currently helping cast. Once this project is finished, he will start preparing for his hopefully-not-too-starving-artist years.

As reassured as Bernstein is about going into theater, it is clear that he is not the norm. Life seems to come to him as simply as music — he can observe and replicate success with relative ease. That not-just-lucky streak will likely be what makes the difference between being a “Pianist for Hire” or writer of the next off-Broadway upstart.