1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Alan Jay Lerner approached Bernstein in 1972 with
an idea to write a musical about the presidency.
At that time Nixon was in full flow in the White House and both Lerner and Bernstein were in cynical
and satirical mood. The show would be a history of the House on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but would
become a history of the American presidency with special reference to the condition of black Americans.
Lerner and Bernstein initially thought they had an idea worth developing. Successive drafts proved
unworkable but they both were fully behind the project.
Other commitments prevented real progress until 1975 when apart from orchestra engagements in New
York and Paris and the festivals in Salzburg and Edinburgh, Lenny spent the entire year on the project.
Rehearsals began early in 1976 and opened out of town in Philadelphia on February 26th. It transferred
to Broadway and closed within a week. Bernstein's music was liked but Lerner's book was widely
criticised, perhaps in retrospect unfairly, but Bernstein was devastated. He later admitted that 1600
Pennsylvania Avenue was not just dead but extinct.
He resurrected a couple of the better numbers in other works. There was no cast recording made so
there was no public record of the work and only a couple of songs had been published until in 1997 Kent
Nagano and the London Symphony resurrected a version of the original show in London,
billed as the 'world premiere' of A White House Cantata. David Murray of the FT wrote :
We were assured that it included nearly all
the music he wrote for the 'historical' scenes (some
rejected before the show opened), but shorn of the linking action. There, the two leading couples,
who sing respectively all the Presidents and First Ladies and a brace of down- through-the-ages
black servants, stepped out of their roles to play themselves as actors anxiously rehearsing the show.
With that strand removed, the 'cantata' we heard was only a string of historical vignettes: sometimes
jokey, sometimes earnest, some with scraps of dialogue attached.
It ranged from solemn anthems to wistful solos to razzmatazz show-numbers - three or four reasonably
memorable things, a lot of routine material enlivened only by Bernstein's nifty syncopations. Nagano
was deft with those.
Dietrich Henschel and Nancy Gustafson sang the presidential couples with a will, though neither
sounded quite at home; Thomas Young and Jacqueline Miura were fine as the long-suffering blacks,
and Alex Bernstein was an affable narrator. As exhumations go, this one had its bright moments.
Out of town tryout
in April 1976
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