Of the hundred-plus pre-Broadway tryouts that I’ve witnessed – literally in Philly, Boston and Baltimo’ – one of the most fascinating came on April 17, 1976 in Washington.
That afternoon at the National Theatre I saw the Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner musical that had already garnered much notoriety during its Philadelphia break-in.
There was a “break-in” in another sense – for a disgruntled first-nighter was so infuriated by what he’d just seen that he broke a window in the Forrest Theatre lobby to express his disgust.
The reviews there were as deadly there as they would be on Broadway. Complaints ranged from “most tedious and simplistic” (Clive Barnes, Times), “an absence of plot populated by anonymous characters” (Martin Gottfried, Post), “pedantic, invariable sophomoric ridicule” (Howard Kissel, Women’s Wear Daily) and “more suitable to a school pageant” (Douglas Watt, News).
No, it wasn’t nearly that bad, although watching Presidents and First Ladies from the Washingtons to the first Roosevelts (why stop there?) did seem to be, well, history repeating itself.
That one actor and one actress played them all got a bit wearing despite their being played by the charming Ken Howard and the always amazing Patricia Routledge. But when your main “character” seems to be The White House …
Lerner’s other conception wasn’t much welcomed, either. Perhaps in a nod to then-popular PBS series UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS – rich employers lived in the former; servants were relegated to the latter – Lerner decided to include two White House slaves, Lud and Seena. While the presidents changed, Lud and Seena for the most part didn’t, except to be “promoted” from slaves to servants after Lincoln released his Emancipation Proclamation.
Not that we heard it. One of Lerner’s strangest decisions was to not include Lincoln, although his predecessor James Buchanan, hardly as bright a luminary, got a big song.
(In Buchanan’s song “We Must Have a Ball” was Lerner making a comment on the oft-presented theory that the never-married Buchanan was homosexual? He did off-handedly include the word “gay” albeit in the old-world sense.)
Still, 1600 deserved more than a seven-performance run – if only for the phenomenal score – as well as an original cast album. Some say that Bernstein and Lerner didn’t want one; others say Capitol Records lost interest faster than Coca-Cola, which had put up the entire $900,000 capitalization but wouldn’t put up with the show or put its name above the title after the Philadelphia engagement.
Nevertheless, the three greatest mistakes in cast album history are that FOLLIES was recorded only on one disc; GREENWICH VILLAGE, U.S.A. was recorded on TWO discs and 1600, with its stirring score (and two leads who’d already received Tony Awards), got no discs at all.
More than 20 years later – after Lerner and Bernstein’s deaths – the latter’s family decided to let the score be recorded but changed its name in hopes that no one would identify it with 1600. Thus emerged a CD that proclaimed on its front cover BERNSTEIN — A WHITE HOUSE CANTATA. Listed underneath were the four primary soloists, the name of the chorus and the conductor. Alan Jay Lerner was included – but only on the BACK cover, where ”Scenes from 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE” was also mentioned in more demure type.
That album is truly terrible – at least to those of us who care for musical theater. It’s full of Beautiful Operatic Voices that don’t care much for character but whose every breath is meant to convey “See how magnificently I sing?” Not irrelevantly, the CD’s liner notes had the artists, in listing their credits, mention a total of 36 operas. And how many musicals? Two! And BOTH of those were Bernstein’s: CANDIDE and ON THE TOWN.
Earlier this month, Gary John LaRosa, an adjunct professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, gave us a much better solution to A WHITE HOUSE CANTATA’s CD woes. Although he was directing students from the school of music and not the theater department, LaRosa is first and foremost a musical theater man. His directing resume includes AIDA – but the musical, not the opera. It also mentions dozens of other Broadway musicals — and nary an opera.
So while LaRosa had Rarified Voices at his disposal, he wouldn’t just settle for Glorious Tones. His cast had to find their characters in the lyrics, which they admirably did.
Especially effective in this respect was Thomas Short as James Monroe. That, however, was the only president he played. Because LaRosa also had the man-and-woman-power to spread the musical wealth (and didn’t have to worry about paying the students) he didn’t opt for a single actor to play all the presidents; nor did he have one actress portray their wives. Lud and Seena, however, were solely and respectively played by Tony Perry and Mikyah Mott.
The show starts with George Washington deciding where to put the Nation’s Capital. Although the terms “red states” and “blue states” were hundreds of years away, Lerner showed the conflict between the North and South was raging even then. Each state wanted the honor of hosting the seat of government. It will be “On Ten Square Miles by the Potomac River,” decides Washington (played with decisiveness by Daniel Fullerton).
Soon after comes the song that even critics who hated 1600 pointed out was a beautiful one: “Take Care of This House,” Abigail Adams urged Little Lud (a promising Chris Reyes).
Brigitte Francis lived up to Mrs. Adams’ reputation as an extraordinary woman, still considered by many to be the first of the First Ladies.
One might say that including Lud and Seena was a mistake, for musicals always do best when they deal with Big Characters and Big Events. Granted, the abolition of slavery certainly counts in the latter category, but Lud and Seena still come in a distant second when compared to Chief Executives and their, uh, Chieftesses.
And yet, what songs Bernstein and Lerner wrote for them. Among the best is “Lud’s Wedding” in which the about-to-be-husband expresses emotions as almost as lickety-split quickly as about-to-be-wife Amy does in COMPANY – only Lud WANTS to be married. To paraphrase a FUNNY GIRL lyric, “the groom was giddier than the bride.”
What Perry and Mott did while jumping the broom had the audience jumping for joy. But because Perry seemed to be substantially older than Mott, LaRosa didn’t have them kiss any more than director Jack Sydow had 30-year-old Bruce Yarnell buss 58-year-old Ethel Merman in the ’66 revival of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.
The aforementioned Douglas Watt knocked 1600, but started his review by praising Routledge for her “Duet for One.” In this sui generis number, the future Hyacinth Bucket played not only Outgoing First Lady Julia (Mrs. Ulysses) Grant but also Incoming First Lady Lucy (Mrs. Rutherford) Hayes. Routledge had a very strange but workable headpiece that she flipped back and forth as she changed from one woman to the other.
“Duet for One” wasn’t listed in the Montclair State program, but “The First Lady of the Land” was the name chosen instead. When the number segued from Ms. Grant to Ms. Hayes, we saw why: “Duet for One” would here be a duet for two. Mo DeGreen expressed extraordinarily well how loathe Mrs. Grant was to relinquish her title to the loathsome (to her) Mrs. Hayes (a superb Lizzie Morse), who couldn’t wait to ascend to her throne. My saying that the duet turned into a catfight may sound inelegant, but Lerner, not I, actually put “Meow, meow” into the lyric.
Even under these circumstances, A WHITE HOUSE CANTATA didn’t emerge as a Broadway musical. The production took place in one of those ash-wooden concert halls where the house lights don’t quite dim to black. Most everyone was formally dressed in black — including, incongruously, the slaves/servants.
But by the time we got to our third chief executive, we realized that musical theater would win over opera in “The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon March.” This melody gets better and better as A-section gives way to B-section and then to C-section and others, too. On the CD, the high-falutin’ approach totally ruined this most felicitous of songs. LaRosa knew how to handle it, though, and made certain that his students learned to convey the fun of it.
Yes, the road LaRosa traveled was more of an Avenue – 1600 PENNSYLVANIA, in fact.