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A White House Cantata

By Matthew Murray

Should they have stayed another week in Philadelphia?  Another month?  Another year?

These questions might be apt with regards to America's Founding Fathers, who in the Pennsylvania city declared independence from Great Britain in 1776 (you might have seen the play about them) and drafted the United States Constitution 11 years later.  Their actions, defined as much by what they failed to do as by what they did, have never stopped rumbling.

They seem even more apt, however, when applied to two leading lights of Broadway.  Composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist-librettist Alan Jay Lerner stopped in Philadelphia for the first tryout of their 1976 musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and might well have regretted it for the rest of their lives.

1600 began as an artistic response to the Nixon era and its embarrassment of Watergate, an attempt to "rescue the word 'patriotism' from the bigot," and depict an America that was built on precepts of freedom that had not yet coalesced into a home for all of the nation's brave.  But it didn't take long for this complicated show, a sort of mixed-race "Upstairs, Downstairs" contrasting the lives and racial politics of the nation's Presidents and First Ladies with those of the black servants who served them in the White House, to spiral into tryout hell.

Leonard Bernstein
photo courtesy of NY Philharmonic Archives
The show received acidic reviews in both its Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. tryouts.  The creative team dissolved and was haphazardly reconstructed, with prospective directors and designers vanishing nearly as soon as they appeared.  The writers argued bitterly over the endless rewrites and rethinking of the material, and eventually were locked out of rehearsals.

By the time the show opened at Broadway's Mark Hellinger on May 4, with a cast led by Ken Howard (the Presidents), Patricia Routledge (the First Ladies), and Gilbert Price and Emily Yancy (the two lead servants), what should have been a fitting (if critical) adornment to the reflect Bicentennial was little more than a patched-together footnote.  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a look at America as a play "that's always in rehearsal," was also a super-fast flop, closing on May 8 after only seven performances.

But though no cast recording was made, the Bernstein and Lerner's luminosity guaranteed that 1600 would not fade willingly into the twinkling lights of Times Square.  The score, which filtered traditional styles from our country's melting pot of cultures through Bernstein's own urbanely urban sensibility, was too good to forget, and certain numbers—invocational "Take Care of This House," the rousing "The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March," the showstopping "Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)"—even found their way into concerts and recordings.

It was thus no surprise when the Bernstein estate spearheaded the creation of a strictly concert version of the score called A White House Cantata and comprising fragments culled from the various versions of the show.  It made its debut in London in 1997, under the baton of Kent Nagano, and was recorded for Deutsche Gramophone.  The 90-minute Cantata allowed audiences to focus on what has long been 1600's most-praised aspect - its score - while reducing the impact of a book many critics have considered rickety and convoluted. 

The Collegiate Chorale will present the New York premiere of A White House Cantata tonight at 8:00 PM at the Rose Theater in Frederick P. Rose Hall (Broadway at 60th Street).  The semi-staged evening will be directed by actor Roger Rees (also the director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival), conducted by Collegiate Chorale Music Director Robert Bass, and feature the Orchestra of St. Luke's.  Baritone Dwayne Croft will portray the Presidents, soprano Emily Pulley the First Ladies, tenor Robert Mack will be the servant Lud, and soprano Anita Johnson his wife Seena.  (For information about tickets, call the Collegiate Chorale at 646-792-2373, or visit

We asked Bass and Bernstein's daughter, Jamie, to share with us their thoughts about this new version of the legendarily troubled property.

Robert Bass, Musical Director

How do you think the music Leonard Bernstein composed for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue stacks up against that he wrote for his bigger Broadway hits?

I think A White House Cantata is closer in compositional style to On the Town and Wonderful Town.  The craftsmanship and inspiration is Bernstein at his best.

How would you describe the style of Bernstein's music in this score?

The score is wonderfully eclectic, including jazz, calypso, minstrel music, waltzes, marches, hymn, and anthems—a melting pot of American idioms.

What unique challenges do you feel the score provides, for both the musicians and the singers?

The challenges for the singers and actors are clearly articulating text at rapid speed.  Each soloist sings many characters, and finding different vocal colors to differentiate the characters is challenging.

Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein

photo by Steve Sherman
How well do you feel that Leonard Bernstein's music and Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics work together to tell the story of American race relations between the years of 1800 and 1900?

Maybe this work was ahead of its time.  A dark story about the White House and its black and white inhabitants was something Americans were not in the mood for at the time of our self-congratulatory Bicentennial—people mostly wanted good news.  But I think my dad and Alan Jay Lerner hit the nail right on the head when they defined racial injustice as the fundamental seismic fault in the American landscape. And I think the music and lyrics describe that landscape brilliantly, within the confines of a single white house.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a work originally written for the theatrical stage that, as of today, is performable only in this concert version.  Why was that decision made?  

Because of the calamitous one-week Broadway run and the severe book problems, the two authors lost heart over the entire project and withdrew the work.  Not even a cast album.  What a shame!  The concert version was devised posthumously so that audiences could at least hear the wonderful music and lyrics.

Will the Bernstein estate ever license or authorize any theatrical version of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for public performance?  

Mind you, it is not entirely up to the Bernstein estate; it is also up to the Lerner estate.  Thus far, there hasn't been a revision that has received a go-ahead.  But I suppose it's possible that it may happen one day.

How well do you feel A White House Cantata lives up to what its creators intended with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

It's probably not that useful to measure A White House Cantata directly against 1600.  The concert work does not purport to be or represent the Broadway show.  But it is a useful way to recirculate the music and lyrics; it doesn't purport to do more than that.

I'd like to add one more thought. Oh, how I wish my dad and Alan Jay had been here ... to hear Barack Obama's [recent] speech on race relations in America. Senator Obama was, of course, making the same point that the two authors were making in 1600: that the "original sin" of slavery casts a shadow across our entire history and the very core of our democracy, and that until that injustice is first acknowledged and then rectified, our grand experiment in government will not reach its true fruition. Both 1600 and Obama's speech took that crucial first step of acknowledging the situation.  I like to think that we've all come quite a long way in our thinking since 1976; Senator Obama was quite right when he pointed to the progress that has in fact been made. My father and Alan Jay Lerner would be thrilled to see a black American running so strongly and so positively for a chance to be the next resident, upstairs, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

-- Matthew Murray

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