If you missed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during its Broadway run, you are forgiven. The show lasted only 13 previews and seven regular performances at the Mark Hellinger Theater (now a church!) in 1976, although it boasted music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, and a cast that included Ken Howard, Patricia Routledge, Emily Yancy, Beth Fowler, and Reid Shelton. Even Michael Lichtefeld was in it!
At the behest of the Bernstein estate, about 90 minutes of music from the score was later adapted as a concert piece titled, "A White House Cantata." Kent Nagano conducted the 1997 premiere in London, and the work was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. But, believe it or not, the cantata has never been heard in New York -- until now.
Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center is the place to be on Monday, March 31, 2008 at 8pm, when Robert Bass will conduct The Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke's in the New York premiere performance. (The timing is fortuitous in that 2008 is the 90th birthday year of both Bernstein and Lerner.)
"I think the cantata includes the best music from the show," says Bass. "The choices that were made in putting it together were really wise. What remains is a pastiche of a lot of American musical styles: love songs, minstrel music, jazz, marches, hymns, and anthems, all connected by the history of the White House itself. It's a very exuberant work -- and, in concert form, the strength of the music and lyrics is first and foremost."
The idea of a musical set in the White House may sound like a joke to present-day audiences, given the awful things that have been going on there for the past eight years. But 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the cantata drawn from it are by no means celebratory. Indeed, the show was subtitled "a musical about the problems of housekeeping."
A press release for the upcoming performance of the cantata describes it as depicting "the absurdity of period social hierarchies within the first 100 years of the United States' executive mansion, using 11 presidents, selected first ladies, and three generations of black servants."
Some of the sequences explore James Monroe's refusal to halt slavery in Washington, Andrew Johnson's impeachment, and Thomas Jefferson's affair with a black maid -- still only alleged in 1976, but later proven to have occurred.
Roger Rees will direct the semi-staged concert performance, with soloists including Anita Johnson as Seena, Emily Pulley as the First Lady, Robert Mack as Lud, and baritone Dwayne Croft -- a stalwart of the Metropolitan Opera -- as the President. "There is some spoken dialogue in the cantata," says Bass. "There's a movement with the British characters, where they burn down the White House and destroy the furniture at a state dinner. It's called a sonatina, but it's mostly spoken. Roger Rees is not only directing, he's also got the lead speaking role of Admiral Cockburn."
The most famous song from the score is probably the moving anthem, "Take Care of This House." Bass says that his favorite sections include, "`The President Jefferson March' and the beautiful love ballad 'Seena,' which sounds a little bit like `Somewhere' from West Side Story. I also hear a lot of Wonderful Town in the score, but some of it is very grand and operatic. For example, there's a huge, climactic hymn at the end. It's called, `To Make Us Proud,' and it reminds me of the finale of Candide. The cantata is a wonderful piece, and I'm delighted that we're presenting its New York premiere in Rose Hall, which is the perfect venue for it."
(clockwise: Leonard Bernstein, LCT promo logo; Robert Bass)