A WHITE HOUSE CANTATA—RECONSTRUCTED FROM 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE
LEONARD BERNSTEIN and Alan Jay Lerner once had an immense Broadway flop. Bernstein, the composer of West Side Story, 1957. And Lerner, the lyricist who brought us “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” all from My Fair Lady, 1956.
The Bernstein/Lerner production of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was topical when it opened on Broadway on May 4, 1976. Yet it closed on May 8, after only seven performances.
On the other hand, this musical’s themes of White House occupants and race relations are as timely today as they were back in 1976. An abbreviated concert version, A White House Cantata, is a reconstruction of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and well worth a listen. Here are tidbits about both.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, 1976. Music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Playbill magazine, 1976.
A Broadway Flop in the Making. Out-of-town tryouts of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue prompted cuts and editing made without Bernstein’s consent. Because of this and other problems early on, he and Lerner refused to allow the typical original-cast recording.
The plot focused on four prototypical occupants of the White House: the President, his First Lady, and two of their African-American servants. Episodes of these foursomes from 1800 to 1902 certainly didn’t avoid controversy, including Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, James Monroe’s refusal to halt slavery in Washington, D.C, and the post-Civil War impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
A scene from the short-lived Broadway production of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, early May 1976. Image from The New York Times, March 31, 2008.
Maybe Just the Wrong Time. In retrospect, one reason for the show’s 1976 failure was that Broadway audiences that year preferred to be celebratory about the country’s 200th anniversary, not critical of its history.
According to Wikipedia, “The initial critical response to the show was resoundingly negative. Critics savaged Lerner’s book while largely praising Bernstein’s score.”
The Concert Version. After Bernstein’s death in 1990, A White House Cantata arose phoenix-like from the ashes of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. By the way, a “cantata,” from the Latin “sung,” is a composition for voices with instrumental accompaniment, often with solos, chorus, and orchestra.
A White House Cantata, by Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner; Thomas Hampson, June Anderson, Barbara Hendricks, and Kenneth Tarver; Kent Nagano conducting the London Voices and London Symphony Orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon, 2000.
In the 2000 Deutsche Grammophon CD of A White House Cantata, the Presidents’ various roles are sung by Thomas Hampson, his First Ladies, by June Anderson, the African-American servants, by Barbara Hendricks and Kenneth Tarver.
In The New York Times, March 31, 2008, Warren Hoge’s “Bernstein’s Singing Presidents: A Recount” reviewed the New York City premiere of A White House Cantata, performed by the Collegiate Chorale and Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Hoge wrote, “The score is Bernstein at his most exuberant and all-embracing. Identifiable in it are anthems, ballads, blues, calypso, drinking songs, Dixieland, torch songs, waltzes, jazz, hymns, spirituals, marches and a cappella barbershop harmonies.”
“Lerner’s lyrics are witty and percussive,” Hoge wrote, “but they often go by at a Gilbert and Sullivan patter-song pace and can confound listeners. On Monday, they will be presented with supertitles.”
My CD rig doesn’t show supertitles, but it has a Repeat function, all the better to enjoy A White House Cantata. ds