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A White House Cantata

In 1976, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue opened and promptly closed on Broadway (7 performances). Written by Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein, it featured, by all accounts, a striking, lengthy score and a silly, episodic book - the show was something of a concept musical about the White House. Ken Howard played all of the presidents from Washington to Teddy Roosevelt, and Patricia Routledge played all of the first ladies. Gilbert Price and Emily Yancey were present as Lud and Seena, black servants who never aged.

Despite many positive words for the songs, Bernstein refused to allow a recording. He then proceeded to reuse portions of the music in later compositions. He did allow a few songs out - among others, "Take Care of This House" gets performed semi-regularly, and Judy Kaye recorded "Duet For One (First Lady of the Land)." Now, finally, ten years after Bernstein's death, eighty minutes of the score of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been recorded on Deustche Grammaphon under the title A White House Cantata , with a cast of opera singers.

A White House CantataThe material is undeniably glorious. The score varies between standard length songs and fascinating extended sequences, and both are equally well pulled off. It's difficult to figure out what songs to highlight, since so many are so good, but "The Monroviad," a ten-minute late night duet for James and Eliza Monroe about the treatment of slaves, is intriguing, and "Sonatina (The British)" is a wild and funny sequence for the British soldiers invading the White House and burning Washington during the Madison administration - it's mostly rhymed dialogue with an orchestral accompaniment based on "To Anacreon In Heaven," the British drinking song that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

And there's "Duet For One." It's one of the most brilliant little known songs ever written, and predates Jekyll & Hyde's similar "Confrontation" by quite a few years. One woman plays both exiting Julia Grant and entering Lucy Hayes at the Hayes inauguration. Performed well, it's extraordinary. Unfortunately, opera soprano June Anderson does a lousy job - she manages to sing the two characters in almost the exact same voice, robbing the material of any power and humor it might have. Her "Take Care of This House" is a little shaky as well, but her work in "The Monroviad" is somewhat stronger.

The rest of the cast fares quite a bit better. Thomas Hampson, who has a stronger track record with musicals than many opera singers (surprisingly good work on the John McGlinn Annie Get Your Gun with Kim Criswell, and the London concert of On The Town), does a fine job as The Presidents, leading the way in five songs. His voice fits the part far better than Ken Howard's lack thereof did 24 years ago. Kenneth Tarver and Barbara Hendricks are fine as Lud and Seena, doing a particularly fine job with their "This Time."

One wishes that the recording had perhaps been two discs and included more of the massive amounts of material written for the show, and perhaps that theatrical performers had been used instead of opera singers. However, despite these wishes I can still recommend A White House Cantata.


-- Guest columnist, Seth Christenfeld


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