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Musical Theatre Review Print



Bernstein's White House Musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and What it May Mean Today - Part 3

April 26, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:


PART 3: Broadway… and Beyond….

Finally, the Big Day arrived. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had its Broadway premiere on May 4, 1976, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre.

Bernstein and his family were in attendance. Jamie writes about that evening in her memoirs: "I remember only two things about the opening night of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: my blinding headache and the way Daddy, who was sitting to my left, would grab my knee each time he wanted the audience to be particularly ravished by the beauty and emotion of his music….as if he were WILLING the show to be good through my patella."

The evening had some highpoints. As usual, Patricia Routledge stopped the show with her rendition of "Duet For One." In fact, that night she received a standing ovation. In this tour-de-force, the actress played two very different First Ladies; the coarse Julia Grant and the elegant Lucy Hayes.

Routledge also sang the lyrical masterpiece of the score wherein First Lady Abigail Adams tells the young slave boy, Lud, that when she leaves he must "Take Care of this House."

Be careful at night
Check all the doors.
If someone makes off with a dream,
The dream will be yours.

(These lyrics refer to the post-Watergate period and are equally appropriate for our current era.)

After the performance, a picture was taken of Bernstein with his family. The smile plastered on his face is the biggest fake smile you've ever seen. The big, festive ritual opening night party was held at Sardi's. Then the Bernsteins went home in a state of gloom, fearing the worst about the next morning's reviews. As Bernstein got drunker and drunker that night, his fake smile and restraint vanished and he verbally tore into his wife, Felicia, like he never had before. He kept shouting "It's YOUR fault. You FORCED me to work with that lunatic, Lerner! It's YOUR fault!" Etc., etc.

That night, Bernstein received a telegram from Stephen Sondheim:

"New York, NY May 4, 1976 The point is it's over and you're still the only artist writing musicals with one exception that is. Love, Steve"

The reviews the next morning were catastrophic. The music was universally praised but the show itself was not. The adjectives most frequently used by the reviewers were "amateurish," "embarrassing," and "racist." Variety wrote: "It is a bicentennial bore. It relentlessly chastises the whites in the house for their forbears' inarguable mistreatment of blacks. Three hours of mea culpaing (apologizing) seems an odd way to lure audiences seeking gaiety rather than guilt." Alan Rich in New York wrote: "It is an epic disaster. It cannot be understood why the producers worked so hard to sustain a failure. When we learn the answer to that question, we might also know why moths fly into flames." Jack Kroll in Newsweek wrote: "The show is a victim of myasthenia gravis conceptualis, otherwise known as a crummy idea."

After the morning reviews, later that afternoon, Bernstein's manager, Harry Kraut, called him up to say that the producers, after reading the reviews, had decided to close the show after six more performances.

Vacationing in Bermuda a few weeks later, Lerner shrugged the whole thing off: "I am not discouraged. If failure discouraged me, I would have quit long ago. This sort of thing happens in the theater all the time."

Bernstein however was disconsolate: "I am so shattered by the whole thing. I never saw anything as execrable on stage or heard anything so stupid. The score was completely fragmented, not at all as I wrote it. I've decided to choose my future collaborators with a little more care. I might do another musical, but not until the wounds heal."

To the dismay of those who loved the music for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bernstein kept the score from being published and did not allow a cast recording to be made. He never wrote another musical.

However, he did incorporate highlights from this show in several later works, including his Divertimento for orchestra, Songfest, and the opera A Quiet Place. After Bernstein's death in 1990, his estate forbade the musical from ever being performed again. However, the estate did eventually give Charlie Harmon, a Bernstein assistant, and Sid Ramin, one of the original orchestrators, permission to assemble some of the other highlights into an hour-long work titled A White House Cantata. Here is a studio recording of the rousing "The President Jefferson March."

On May 8, a few days after the premiere of 1600, Ramin wrote this letter to Bernstein:

"Dear Lenny: Just a note to thank you again for your marvelous gift. Not only is it lavish but the inscription on the inside of the beautiful Gucci leather case is something I will always remember and treasure. As you know, Lenny, I'm always on cloud nine when I'm in the same room with you. The show made it possible for us to spend some time together and I savored every minute. I'm sorry the show didn't work out for you (for us!) but I will be eternally grateful for the wonderful moments I've had in just being with you. Always, Sid."

Incidentally, as I was wrapping up my text for the lecture version of this material, I googled Sid Ramin and to my surprise I found out that very day was his 100th birthday! (January 22, 2019) I wished him a happy birthday in an email later that night and the next day received a gracious reply from his son, Ron.

A recording of A White House Cantata may be found on YouTube, here. In addition, there exist some bootleg recordings of 1600 (including the Philadelphia and the New York versions: start a Y-T search here).

And in conclusion: In Lerner's memoirs [On] the Street Where I Live, there is only one sentence about this musical: "As for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, well, you remember the Titanic."

***

To return to Part 1, click here.