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Musical Theatre Review Print

Bernstein's White House Musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and What it May Mean Today - Part 2

April 26, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:

PART 2: Previews in Philly

Corsaro: "Philadelphia was four weeks of torture. I no longer had any faith that there was any way to repair this. The score, even then, had been cut and pasted. There was a lot of frantic activity. By this time civility alone characterized relations. Midnight oil was being burned. There was the need for an arbiter to persuade Lerner to either collaborate or walk away. Jerome Robbins (the director of West Side Story and Gypsy) came to Philadelphia to judge the show and give advice. But he behaved in his characteristic, hateful, baleful way."

The morning after the Philadelphia premiere, Robbins sent this communication to Bernstein:

"Dear Lenny. GOOD MORNING! I wanted to talk to you last night just for a moment. I understood your black moment of despair, but for God's sake, you are a big, capable, enormously talented man… with tons of energy…, and so is Alan (Jay Lerner)…. Now is the time to muster up all your wonderful optimism and get it still moving. And above all, as in the show, KEEP IT GOING! You ARE rehearsing in public, you are in SOME chaos, but as in our democracy, you must believe your system will work, which I KNOW you do, in order to move it. Your show now is exactly like the one you are writing about. Now you CAN make it work MUCH MUCH better. Take care of your house. You can do it. Come on kid, get the spirit up again. No limp cocks! Ole coach Jerry. See you about 1. LOVE"

Robbins spoke of this years later: "There was no book. They were re-writing it but it wasn't quite coherent. The cuts meant that there were scenes that referred to other scenes that were no longer there. Only two titans like Bernstein and Lerner could have a failure like this one."

Mike Nichols, the director of Barefoot in the Park and Annie, was brought in to give advice. He advised the team to fold up and go home.

Ken Howard said of the final weeks in Philadelphia; "It was the most painful and torturous experience I've had in the theater. There was a re-write every day and we were doing new material every night. One problem was: in 25 words or less, nobody knew what the show was about."

Despite all of this, Bernstein was ebullient. He told reporters, "I've never been so excited by a show while doing it. I've never felt this way about a show before. I've never felt so confident, so thrilled – much more so than when I was doing West Side Story or Candide." And then he went on to talk about the work itself: "In this work we are expressing a passionate love of country and we hope it will rescue the word 'patriotism' from the bigots. Subject matter of such stature, of such nobility, could lead to pretentiousness and sentimentality. But if there is anything I'm proud of it is that we have avoided those pitfalls. We're not preaching, we're just telling what we feel. I hope we have achieved it without being dogmatic, pedantic or sermonizing." Considering the later general reaction to the musical that it WAS "preachy," Bernstein was here indulging in wishful thinking.

The premiere kept being postponed for re-writes and cuts. Finally, on February 23, 1976, the show premiered in Philadelphia. And because the show was still a shambles, Bernstein gave an unprecedented speech in front of the curtain before the show to tell the sold-out audience that what they were going to see that night was "a work in progress." Bernstein was charm itself and Corsaro later said that Bernstein's speech was far more entertaining than anything that followed.

Here is a recording made of that speech, which includes the Prelude and the "humming chorus," which was later used in Bernstein's Songfest for his setting of Walt Whitman's homosexual poem "To What You Said."

It was not a good night. After the first act, many in the audience left. The show ended after four hours of agony. Afterward, one man in the lobby demanded to get his money back. When that was denied, he kicked in a glass pane.

Arthur Laurents was there that night. After the performance, Bernstein called him on the phone. Bernstein said; "Please, Arthur, you are my friend, my good close friend. No one will tell me the truth about this show. As my friend, please tell me honestly, what you think I should do?" Laurents said: "As your friend…, I think you should close the show." Bernstein replied, "You are not my friend."


The reviews in Philadelphia were not kind. The headline for the Philadelphia Inquirer review trumpeted: "Two Giants Fall Flat in 1600." The review went on to say, "They look back and see nothing but hypocrisy, chicanery and corruption. The tone throughout is one of simple-minded cynicism. They are properly outraged at the denial of equality to the black race. They are so depressed that they have written a big, long musical that makes the rest of us feel as bad as THEY do." Variety said: "The question is whether it belongs on a stage or a soapbox." The next day, Laurents sat with one of the producers until 3 in the morning begging him to close the show. Laurents wrote: "The producer was all for continuing the previews which were going next to the nation's capital. They said they had the money they needed to do that. I kept saying, 'Yes, but after that, when it gets to New York, Bernstein will be hurt. We are all sensitive to reviews but Lenny was overly sensitive.' What the producers DIDN'T tell me was that one of the terms of the contract with Coca-Cola was that the show HAD to open in New York. So they had to go through with it."

Frank Corsaro: "After that, I had no choice but to go to Bernstein and Lerner and tell them that they would have to concede that the basic premise of the show would not work. Lenny replied, 'Look, We're a couple of old, rich Jews. We're kind of tired. Leave it alone.'"

And now, true desperation set in. Corsaro was fired. The chorographer was fired. The costume and set designer were fired. To many, the show was insensitive about race relations, and the black characters seemed to be stereotypes. And because of that, someone had the "brilliant" idea of hiring the directors from The Wiz', the very famous and financially successful all-black version of The Wizard of Oz. Gilbert Moses and George Faison were both African-American. Moses had been nominated for a Tony Award for directing the black play Ain't Supposed To Die a Natural Death. Faison had danced in the black musical Purlie. However, it was also common knowledge that both Moses and Faison had been replaced before the New York opening by Geoffrey Holder, who revised it and HE was the one that was REALLY responsible for its success. Nonetheless, it was thought that Moses and Faison, being black, would have fewer problems with cutting out the endless references to racial injustice that seemed to drag the show to a standstill. The two men saw the show, thought they could fix it, and were hired. Soon after that, Moses told reporters: "The show is too apologetic, it sets out a cynical hypothesis, and it fails to celebrate the vitality and intellect that has made the country what it was." Years later Moses said, "The whole concept was very obscure and one HAD to get rid of the original concept. It was not a concept one could build from. The original concept was Lerner's…. I think at first he wanted to do it simply but somehow it just grew and grew into a monster. Bernstein's music made the monster larger and larger." He also believed that both the collaborators were too old to contend with the revisions he thought were needed to make something of this unwieldy musical. Both Bernstein and Lerner were 57 at the time. Moses was 34. (Moses died in 1995 at the age of 52.) One of the musicians who worked on the show recalls his shock at seeing at a rehearsal a quite humble Bernstein being LECTURED by Moses.

Corsaro said of this phase of the project, "Bernstein started to complain about the changes…, but it was no use. He and Lerner – these two great figures of Broadway – were then forcibly kept out of the rehearsals."

So, remarkably, the director, with the backing of Coca-Cola, had two of the theatrical giants of our age, and some of the producers, literally locked out of the theater for many of the remaining rehearsals.

The new cuts somewhat helped the show. Moses stripped the show of some of its moralizing but left in other awkward scenes that portrayed the blacks as being only wide-eyed innocents. But for many observers, the show still had an anti-white orientation. One person said, "The overall theme of the show can be summed up by one line of dialogue spoken in the show by a black character: "Y'all can stay with the white folks if you want. I feel safer with the snakes and the alligators."

Cothran flew to Washington to see this new version. He wrote in his diary: "This will be a sure flop due to college production incompetence and speed freak twitching Alan Jay Lerner… a musical in itself…."

Before the Washington premiere the new directors lost hope. Moses suggested to the producers that they close the show down, move it to California and start all over again. This idea was categorically rejected. Coca-Cola was already pouring a hundred thousand dollars a week into the show…and now the director was asking for MORE money?! California was ruled out and the rehearsals and revisions continued …without Bernstein and Lerner.

This version of the show opened in Washington on March 24, 1976. It was one hour shorter than the Philadelphia production. However, at three hours it was still 45 minutes too long…which would kick it into overtime. And no Broadway production can afford overtime for eight shows a week. Remarkably, Bernstein was not at this D.C. premiere. The reviews were kinder than they had been in Philadelphia. The New York Post said, "The musical won enthusiastic acclaim when it officially opened last night in the capital." So, after this, there was some hope this show might make it after all.

And then, there were six additional weeks of changes, after which the show went to New York for more previews and more changes.

Bernstein biographer Joan Peyser saw one of these later previews and said, "One curious aspect of the show was that, in addition to attacking the whites the way it did, it also humiliated blacks. For example, one scene had Thomas Jefferson exhibiting to his White House guests exotic foods that he had discovered on his travels. As he shows the waffles, spaghetti and brown Betty, the servants register wide-eyed surprise. Another scene had the blacks showing terror at a simple display of magic."

Even at this last stage, there was much about the show that was awkward and inexplicable. Oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln does not appear in this musical. But in the last revised version (done of course without Bernstein's input), there is a ludicrous moment when at the back of the stage we see the silhouette of Lincoln wearing his stove-pipe hat as the orchestra softly intones "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." At this point, André Previn, who was in attendance, later said, "I sank down into my seat and thought, 'I'm going mad."

Jamie Bernstein especially remembers a cringe-making moment when a black actor sang "I got red, white and blues,", in falsetto… – and in drag.

Close to the offical Broadway premiere, Bernstein gained permission from the director to attend a performance as long as he made no requests for changes. Upon seeing a New York preview he then became more optimistic about the show. He saw a performance with his daughter Jamie and later, back at their home…, after many scotches…, he said to her, "You know, I think this is going to be a really important show." Jamie said to herself "Oy vey." Many of Bernstein's collaborators including Stephen Sondheim often said that Bernstein suffered from "importantitis:" his wanting to make the ultimate epic statement about a topic that was "important."

To continue to Part 3, click here.


To return to Part 1, click here.