The First Cantata

The premiere of A White House Cantata was on July 8, 1997 at the Barbican in England. The concert rearrangement of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was aired on BBC radio a week later. Before each act, the radio announcer talks briefly about what is to be seen (as opposed to the Collegiate Chorale concert in 2008, which ran without intermission). After composer Leonard Bernstein’s death in 1990, his estate set out to revise the original failed musical since the music had remained mostly neglected. With both Bernstein and librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner dead, the estate hired Erik Haagensen to restore the original rehearsal script. From what I understand there was a sort of gypsy runthrough that went over well, then a full production was staged at Indiana State University in 1992. The production later played the Kennedy Center, but was abandoned afterward. In 1997, this revision was established which highlighted the historical musical scenes, eliminating almost all of Lerner’s script.

German baritone Dietrich Hensel played the Presidents, and sings the role with operatic gusto. However, it’s jarring to hear the Presidents of the United States speak in a German accent. American soprano Nancy Gustafson plays the First Ladies. While not quite Patricia Routledge, she’s worlds better than June Anderson, who replaced Gustafson on the studio cast recording of the score, and offers an engaging and colorful “Duet for One” (though she doesn’t cap it with the D above C). Thomas Young and Jacqueline Miura play Lud and Seena, whose energy makes up for their less than stellar vocals. The London Voices comprise the chorus and Alexander Bernstein, Leonard’s son, narrates a dry historical context in between songs.

The live presentation of the score is much better than what was recorded for Deutsch Gramophone the following year. For starters, the musical calls for a 2-disc recording. The musical had about two hours of score when it played in NY, which was trimmed and revised to approximately 90-100 minutes in concert form. The final CD release, listless and wan, runs 80 minutes and becomes highlights of highlights of a musical.

My quibble with the three presentations of this piece that I have encountered is that the powers that be insist on using opera singers. The songs of 1600 call out for theatre actors who can sing with legitimacy. The singers I have seen have serviced the score well, but provide very little color and range in their interpretation. And I’m sorry, but a spoken line in a musical shouldn’t be spoken like a spoken line in an opera. Also, musical theatre choruses are more colorful and textually driven than the staid choral groups who generally provide backup. I am still adamant that this shouldn’t be the final word on the score.

The BBC narration offered me my first glimpse, albeit small, into that showstopper for the ages, “Duet for One.” I’ve been searching high and low to find a production photo or a sketch or anything to give me an idea how the elaborate number was staged. As per the BBC announcer:

“Then comes a schizophrenic “Duet for One” as two First Ladies, the incumbent Julia Grant and the incoming Lucy Hayes – both sung by the same singer – comment on each other while they’re waiting for the election results to come in. Patricia Routledge, who sang it in the original production, described it as a wonderful cliffhanger presented in Busby Berkeley fashion, surrounded by ladies in parasols.”

Well, that sounds like fun.