Critical Round-Up on Patricia Routledge

As promised, I spent some time in the campus library at SUNY New Paltz investigating their periodicals that consist of theatre reviews from the major news sources, mostly in the newspaper, but also some from transcriptions from television newscasts. (Which unfortunately meant that there was nothing about out of town shows in these volumes, so there was no Prettybelle for me to bring back for our beloved Sarah).

Here is the round-up on Patricia Routledge in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Darling of the Day:

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – 1976

“…and Patricia Routledge was often deliciously funny (although in an accent usually doggedly and oddly British) as all the First Ladies.”

– Clive Barnes, NY Times

“On the evidence of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, last night’s musical at the Hellinger, both the show and history would have been more fun if our Presidents had been women.
Certainly the liveliest sally of the evening, which whisks us through a hundred-year tour of the White House, is provided by Patricia Routledge who, as Rutherford B. Hayes is taking the oath of office, plays both a fluttery Lucy Hayes and a caustic Julia Grant in a Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner number called ‘Duet for One.’
That’s fun.”

– Douglass Watt, NY Daily News

“But Lerner’s book was potted historyballs and his lyrics swing dizzyingly between very bad and very good, the best being a one-person duet in which Patricia Routledge played both the outgoing First Lady, boozy Mrs. U.S. Grant, and the incoming one, flibberty Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. Ms. Routledge would have stopped the show, if there had been one to stop.”

– Jack Kroll, Newsweek

“The second and best of the two acts contains a glorious piece of vocal and histrionic foolery by Patricia Routledge. It occurs in a number called ‘Duet for One.’ With a toss of her head and an instant transformation of manners, Miss Routledge alternates between a feisty Julia Grant and a mincing Lucy Hayes. The resultant hilarity is worthy of Bea Lillie. You can’t do better than that.”

– John Beaufort, Christian Science Monitor

“And only once did a song hint at any real sass: The estimable Patricia Routledge, playing all of the Presidents’ wives to Ken Howard’s recurring husbands, was relieved of her whining matronly duties just long enough to engage herself in a one-woman duet in which a very blunt Julia Grant made mincemeat of a successor so refined that her very fingers were made of ‘delicate bamboo.'”

– Walter Kerr, Sunday NY Times, Stage View: “Moralizing is a Bore; But Good Music Helps”
Darling of the Day – 1968

“And then the widow, depressed on learning that she has wed a great artist instead of a lowly valet, repairs to the pub, gets tipsy all alone, and begins an ebullient song, ‘Not on Your Nellie,’ which is a real showstopper. This is Patricia Routledge in her prime.”

– John Chapman, NY Daily News

“Miss Routledge, who really can sing, has more to work with as the young widow slightly past her prime, and it is a joy to watch her. With those rosy cheeks and that comfortable bosom, she makes you think inevitably of buttered toast, crisp linen and good smells from the kitchen. Every artist’s dream wife-mother, in short: all common sense and unselfish solicitude.
But a lively wench with a couple of beers in her. The high point of Darling of the Day is a thumping good production number in the local pub (‘Not on Your Nellie’), in which Miss Routledge, somewhat sozzled, kicks up her heels with a bunch of boys. It would stop a livelier show; it starts this one, for a moment.”

– Dan Sullivan, NY Times

“Darling of the Day is a superior musical comedy, and Miss Routledge is a treasure.”

– Richard Watts, Jr., NY Post

“No such problems with Patricia Routledge, who played the wife as if an apple on a string, rosy bouncing and delicious. Miss Routledge had all the musicality the show hadn’t, not merely because of a strong singing voice (which could be legitimate when she chose) but because of her consuming sense of music and performing. She may have been the commoner but she had all the class.”

– Martin Gottfried, Women’s Wear Daily

“The chief attraction of the evening is the English actress Patricia Routledge, who secures her man through a matrimonial agency. Miss Routledge, equipped with a genuine English accent of the class and area she is supposed to represent (although Professor Henry Higgins might argue about it), is a joy all the way through. She is brisk, fresh and appealing, a comfortable yet lively youngish woman who can kick up her heels with a beer or two in the pub when the occasion arises. She projects a sort of jaunty domesticity in her pretty little Putney cottage.”

– Richard P. Cooke, The Wall Street Journal

(and my personal favorite:)

“And when she hiccups her way into a showstopper called “Not on Your Nellie” – this is a real showstopper, not a clamoring bargain-basement job that has figured out all the pressure points – she hiccups like a woodwind stealing into the pit at dawn. Becoming a coloratura in her cups, she lets you know the cups are mint Sevres. It’s all needlepoint, and nifty, and I warn you: If you don’t catch her act now, you’ll someday want to kill yourself. I’ll help you.”

– Walter Kerr, Sunday NY Times, Stage View: “Patricia is My Darling”

What I Did on My Summer, er, Fall Vacation

If I could find the person who decided the weekend could consist only of Saturday and Sunday, I would locate him, resurrect him from the dead and then kill him for it. The saddest part of my weekend out of town in New Paltz is the fact that it’s over. I went up Friday morning and spent the beautiful, sunny fall day wandering through the town and campus. I haven’t been up in the area in about a year and a half; most of my friends have graduated and moved on to bigger and better things. However, a few faculty members and the rare student remains who began their studies as I was ending mine. Before I could meet those people I knew, I first hit up two of my favorite spots on Main Street – Rhino Records and Jack’s Rhythms. These are the two places where I really developed a great core of my cast album collection (mostly LP, but a substantial amount on CD). I always like to frequent them because they are always a good time. Both owners are in the store almost always, and are awesome people. Jack especially always remembers me, and even if say a year and a half has gone by, he will ask me what theatre I’ve been seeing, as though we’re picking up our conversation exactly where we left off. This time around I found the cast album of Milk and Honey in Rhino and then traipsed across the hippie tinged block to Jack’s store where I unearthed the LPs of Bravo Giovanni, Hazel Flagg and would you believe it, Flahooley. I’ve also got him interested in seeing August: Osage County after relaying my usual story about what it was like to be in the Imperial on opening night.

As though passing through a surreal time warp, I walked onto the college campus which was exactly as I remembered it, yet entirely different. There is immense renovations going on across the campus, with the school’s Old Main closed for a three year refurbishing project. After wandering aimlessly through the detours, I found the theatre department and Stephen Kitsakos, the professor of musical theatre and musical director on campus. Stephen’s American Musical Theatre class is joy to take, and from my perspective, also to sit in. Because the class is listed fulfills core requirements for the four year curriculum, the class has evolved from a mere musical class into one that shows the American musical as a reflection of the history and popular culture. I sat on his class that day, which was focusing on representation of Asian Americans in musical theatre. One of the more interesting things about Stephen is the casual way he has of talking about the subject matter at hand. He starts such classes by asking for stereotypes regarding the particular culture in question. After getting the reluctant class to speak up (every time I’ve seen it, people sit on their hands – the P.C. police on patrol), he starts critical thinking discussions on what about our culture leads to such labeling. In this particular class, Stephen’s focus remained on Rodgers & Hammerstein using South Pacific, The King and I and Flower Drum Song. Looking at examples from those musicals, he discusses the tolerance and anti-prejudice that Hammerstein was trying to display, yet also how the writing was also clouded by inherent ethnocentrism and instrinsic yet unconscious condescension toward the other cultures. The class makes for some fascinating discussion – and is one of the most informative anyone could possibly take to learn about the art form.

After the class, I got to meet up with some of theatre students, whose company I enjoyed immensely. It was a bit strange, I graduated almost three years ago and moved out of the town six months later, so while many of my friends and cohorts have moved on, there are a couple of people remaining from my time there. I had never in my life had people so excited to meet me; I felt like a rockstar. This led itself into the evening’s performance of Company, the fall mainstage musical that the theatre department is presenting this month. One of the glories of educational theatre is that it allows students to test the waters with roles that they may either never get to play otherwise, or may not yet be old enough to play. With Company, that is most certainly the case. However, there was much to admire. Especially Paul Rigano and Kristen Alestra, who managed to crack me up (for the first time) on the karate scene – their physical comedy was exquisite. Charlotte Pines brought a seductive sass to Marta while Larissa Golberg was devastating as April. Andrea Green was one of the show’s highlights as Amy (and boy does that song and scene work like gangbusters). Freshman Adam La Salle was her Paul, with the voice, looks and naturalism that with the right direction could bring him musical theatre stardom. (Seriously, I’m not usually bowled over, but this kid stunned us all). Michelle Hines had a field day with “The Ladies Who Lunch” while Denise Townsend is doing Donna McKechnie proud as Kathy. If I’m forgetting anyone I apologize – all of them are doing hard work, plus it’s fun to see Sondheim on the college level, given the inherent challenges found in each of his shows. (The last Sondheim show they performed on their mainstage was Sunday in the Park With George, the only show I worked on – officially and appeared in during my college years). I also had the immense privilege of communicating with the production dramaturges, Russ Dembin and Chris Lavin, whose enthusiasm and intelligence are unending, throughout the entire course of the production. In that respect it was wonderful to see the show on its feet.

After the show, we went to the diner to discuss the show and get acquainted with Jenny Weinbloom of Alpha Psi Ecdysia fame (the campus’ burlesque club) of whom I briefly wrote about back in May. Her parents hated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue so much, they ate hot dogs in the front row in protest (for what I’m assuming is the second act – they hadn’t seen the “Duet” yet). Quote of the weekend is hers. When picking up the check. “You don’t have a job, you’re a blogger!” Only in New Paltz, kids.

The next day I had some time to kill before the arrival of my second wave of friends – other alumni who were coming up for the Saturday night. And as promised, I went to the Sojourner Truth Library on campus, where I was employed in my college days (very June Allyson in Good News, huh?). After catching up with some old friends still working there, I sat down and did my obligatory research (did you know that Arthur Laurents was the first director Bernstein and Lerner wanted for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? I didn’t until Saturday). Unfortunately I didn’t find much on Prettybelle, but I was able to peruse the periodicals (the databases are for students only) and look up some fun facts.

Changing gears, I spent the evening with some of my closest friends in the entire world. I practically lived with them my freshman year of college and have considered them family ever since. We had drinks at Bacchus, a fantastic Southwestern restaurant just off of Main Street, where they serve over 200 beers, imported and domestic. (The favorite for myself and my Val was the Scottish ‘SkullSplitter’). After getting a good buzz on, we went to the motel at which they were staying before bundling up to go to the Headless Horseman Haunted Hayride in Ulster Park, NY. It’s apparently been named the number one Halloween attraction in America, and my goodness do they make a killing. I went there once before, with the same very group (a few changes in casting along the way), when I was a freshman in college. It was the event that I feel really cemented my friendship with them all. Anyway, we braved the cold for a raucous, strobe-light, fogged-filled sampling of haunted houses and a hayride (at which I either did nothing but provide running commentary, laugh or help the girls through) and then settled in for an old school night of an ipod shuffle, beer and wine, and some cards.

Sunday’s weather improved on Saturday’s. We went to the Main Street Bistro, one of our sentimental favorites in town, for breakfast and then spent the rest of the day milling through town. I made my first ever visit to the Water Street Market, an antique store in a barn, where I made the fascinating discovery of an entire Broadway section, complete with cast albums (LP), window cards, playbills and souvenir programs. Exercising unprecedented restraint, I limited myself to the original London cast album of Virtue in Danger with Patricia Routledge and Barrie Ingham and the souvenir programs of Robert Preston in Ben Franklin in Paris and Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love. There will most certainly be a field trip back to this particular store the next time I’m up there.

We wrapped up our weekend with drive up into the Shawagunk Mountains for a pastoral viewing of Ulster and Orange Counties, then wrapped things up with a trip to a farm market for your usual pumpkins, ciders, etc.

And then I came home.

So What’s All the Fuss?

That was the name of a reply thread to Terry019’s enthusiastic post about beloved PR in 1600.

Here’s my reply:

Though “Take Care of This House” was the breakaway song from the short-lived “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” the “Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)” creates what is arguably the most memorable onstage moment in the piece.

Routledge, who was playing all successive first ladies in the show, is given the task of portraying both the outgoing Julia Grant and incoming Lucy Hayes in the same scene, each soliloquizing during the Hayes inauguration; sharing their thoughts on the election results and insulting the other. Routledge accomplished this with a trick wig that she would literally flip; with an immediate change in voice and character to delineate between the two. Routledge started off the number as Mrs. Grant, introduced us to Mrs. Hayes, then in a fit of schizophrenic delight, juxtaposed between the earthier beltier Grant and the haughtier treacly-sweet soprano of Hayes. Again, all with the flip of a wig.

The musical number is the most challenging soprano showcase Bernstein had written since “Glitter and Be Gay”, a ten minute mini-opera in which Routledge utilized three octaves of her vocal range, which builds to a coloratura climax capped with a D above C. The audience response was overwhelming, as evidenced by Terry and many, many others fortunate enough to be in attendance. (Ken Mandelbaum in ‘Not Since Carrie’ calls it “one of the most brilliant and least known showstoppers in musical-theatre history”). Routledge, with her impeccable comic timing and glorious voice created an unforgettable tour de force that completely drove the audience wild.

As I wrote below, the individual attending “A White House Cantata” a few weeks ago commented on the “Duet for One” during the talkback. He said, and Routledge’s understudy Beth Fowler agreed, that the ovation for the number was unlike any they had ever seen before; the audience would not let the show continue until Routledge gave them an encore. And she did.Unfortunately, there was no official cast album recorded (the endlessly troubled show has enough of a fascinating history it could use its own book), but Judy Kaye performed the song on John McGlinn’s “Broadway Showstoppers” CD and June Anderson recorded it for “A White House Cantata.”

While I understand that there are many numbers on the boards today which one would consider a showstopper, the sort of ovation that “Duet for One” received (and still receives from those who remember fondly the thrill of that number) is one of considerable uniqueness and rarity, that just doesn’t come around too often.


Hell, I figure I give this lecture so much, I should take it on the road like Hal Holbrook on Mark Twain.

Has anyone ever seen a real showstopper?

Terry019 opened up this thread on All That Chat today and I had to share:

“Has anyone ever seen a real literal show-stopper? The only one I’ve seen in many years of going to the theater was the very short-lived “1600 Pennsylvania Ave”. It followed a number performed by Patricia Rutledge where she sung at once as both Lucy Hayes and Julia Grant. She then exited (her scene finished)and the actors assembled for the next scene. The audience however would not stop screaming and applauding. They tried to continue the show but the audience would have none of it. Finally, Ms. Rutledge returned, in a robe since she had obviously changed out of their costume and received the audience’s adulation. It was only then that the show continued. That was a REAL show-stopper. Anyone else have an experience like that?”

As much as I love hearing about my favorite show-stopper, alas I wasn’t alive to see it. In my theatre-going experiences, I have seen numbers stop the show, in varying ways, sometimes that extra burst of applause that keeps the praise going just a little longer than usual to the audience out of their seats going nuts sort of deal. Or sometimes, a great star appears onstage and that in itself is cause for the audience to erupt in an overwhelming display of vocal affection. The first memorable experience with a showstopping moment was the day my life changed forever. That was May 30, 2004 at the Shubert Theatre, where Bernadette Peters was playing her final performance in the Gypsy revival. Sondheim got entrance applause during the overture as he ducked into his seat. The overture got a standing ovation – and that itself should have warned for the Vesuvius to come minutes later. People were anticipating the moment. And there she was, in the back of the house shouting out “Sing out…” I didn’t hear the Louise. I don’t think anyone did. People rose as she walked down the aisle of the theatre, with the same reverence one would give at a commencement or wedding. Except we were loud, and there was no stopping us. They finished the scene and Bernadette had to wait until we were ready to let her go on. And that boys and girls was the first time I saw a show legitimately stopped. There were several other moments that very day, especially the “Turn.” Now, the theatregoing experience remains ranked high on my list of events, but it was because of that show I met Noah, and indirectly how I met Sarah, two of the great theatregoers whom I admire and respect greatly. Let’s face it, if it weren’t for BP, I wouldn’t be typing this blog at this very minute, because Sarah and Noah would never have convinced me to do it. So for that, one must be grateful to the kewpie-diva supreme.

Others that followed, Hugh Jackman’s “Once Before I Go” in The Boy From Oz, “La Cage Aux Folles” and “I Am What I Am” in the revival of La Cage Aux Folles. Brian Stokes Mitchell’s “This Nearly Was Mine” at the Carnegie Hall South Pacific (what you’ve seen on TV and heard on record is cut down considerably from the lengthy ovation he received that night). At the closing performance o The Light in the Piazza, several numbers got extended applause including “Statues and Stories,” “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” and “Dividing Day” (with an emphasis on the latter). Christine Ebersole’s entrance as Little Edie at the top of Act Two in Grey Gardens brought about an immediate standing ovation until Ebersole’s hands-on-hips pose broke and she covered her mouth from the emotional response she had. When it died down, someone shouted out “We love you” and completely as Little Edie, she countered with heartfelt “Oh – and I love all of you too.” and immediately continued into “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.” Audra’s “Raunchy” at a Saturday matinee of 110 in the Shade brought the proceedings to a screeching halt; “Totally Fucked” at Spring Awakening; and it goes without saying Patti LuPone as Rose last summer at the City Center and on her opening night at the St. James had a couple of showstopping moments, including the “Turn.” Paulo Szot’s “This Nearly Was Mine” on the opening night of South Pacific. Juan Diego Florez’s “Pour mon ame” from La Fille du Regiment; Emily Pulley’s “Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)” at A White House Cantata. And most recently, Beth Leavel’s “Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone Blues” at Encores! No, No, Nanette.
The only time I’ve seen that sort of reaction at a play was the opening night of August: Osage County after the second act button. The roaring of approval from the audience continued after the house lights had come up after intermission. I’ve never had that experience at a drama before, and doubt there are many plays that offer a moment of such adrenalized electricity.

What are yours, folks?

What Do You Do on a Friday Night Alone…?

I blog. Or as I already know and you will soon find out, I ramble.

Had an interesting week. I almost did something theatrical. I missed out on a ticket to the final preview of the legendary flop of the season Glory Days, the one-night stand at the Circle in the Square that came into town against everyone’s better judgment (as per the bloggers and chatterati… then came the reviews… ouch). The one performance flop is that rare phenomenon – a show with either the arrogance or blind faith that they will be a hit, not seeing the writing on the wall during previews, rehearsals, try-outs, etc. The most recent one night closure was The Confederate Widow Tells All in 2003. Aside from that, many flops try to push as far as they can, like Urban Cowboy’s rescinding their initial closing notice to run a few more weeks. Amour’s 17 performances comes readily to mind. In spite of that show’s drastic failure, it still copped several Tony nominations, including Best Musical – once again proving that anything is possible. (I believe Rags, with its 4 performance run in August 1986 holds the dubious distinction of shortest lived Best Musical nominee). It was surprising to see the musical fold so abruptly, you’d think they would have tried to eke out some sort of a run however brief. It was deemed ineligible for Tony consideration, which I think is more because the nominators didn’t have time to see it as opposed to its actual quality, however poor.

Freed the house from the shackles of the oppressive Cablevision and their evil optimum for Verizon FiOS… (Let the Marxists among you bask in the irony of that statement). So far, so good. The internet is a faster and more reliable connection. On the amazing front – I get TCM, FXM, IFC, Showtime, Sundance, and every show I ever wanted on demand. Oh the goodies. I have season three of Weeds and season four of Entourage at my disposal. (I can actually watch a first-run episode of Weeds, what? Choir of angels is that you hosanna-ing on high? Yes. Wondrous). Seriously, its just nice to feel further in the digital age. Hell, we even got wi-fi going on in here. This is some impressive technology, folks. Not to mention as all this exciting new-age digital technology was being installed, my parents were having the windows replaced. All of this happening on one of the wettest days in recent memory. Yeah, we all got all sorts of wet.

I’m uber-psyched for Sunday morning brunch. I look forward to meeting other bloggers and having a generally kick-ass sort of day. There’s a poll. I can tell you’ve all devoured the idea with ravenously reckless abandon (all two voters… one of which was yours truly…). Oh well.

Did anyone catch the 30 Rock season finale…? Ohhhhh my. Some interesting goings-on with our favorite Lemon. Only wish there were another Stritch appearance. (Does anyone else share my enthusiasm for wanting Jack to encounter Nathan Lane, Molly Shannon and Stritchie in a good ol’ fashioned Irish-Catholic Walpurgisnacht?) I’m also looking forward to the season finale of The Office next week. Oh what a weird and tragic year for the sitcom in general. Hopefully we can be spared an encore with the negotiations involving SAG & AFTRA.

I have to admit I’m surprised at myself. May 4-7 came and went and I didn’t even think to blog about my beloved 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Been a crazy week folks, a crazy week. Hopefully, next week brings nothing but good things.

Tony nominations will be revealed shortly, as will the recipients of the 2008 Theatre World Award. It may surprise you, but I’m more excited for the latter than the former. Perhaps that’s because I’ve actually attended the Theatre World event in the past and it is a good time had by all. You get a feel of that community that industry professionals talk about when they work in NY theatre. Nothing but positive energy all around – and since there are no nominees, there’s no sense of competition. As I’ve said before, when it comes to the Tonys, I’m interested in the plays and revivals, but not the new musicals. Sad to say it, but not one title that has opened this year has made me go “I’ve got to run and see this!” That’s already not true of next season, because Billy Elliot is opening at the Imperial. I am uber-psyched for this one (Elton John’s score, while hardly Sondheim, or even Schwartz, is his best theatre composition yet). And the fact that they aren’t dumbing down the show’s political undertones and anti-Thatcher sentiments makes me even happier. Other shows have got to learn: trust your audience once in a while, sometimes we can be insightful, intuitive and understand context and subtext. Then again, if we live long enough, someone might write a musical adaptation of The Hottie and the Nottie. I realize that you are laughing, but that laughter is tinged by your underpinnings of fear because you and I both know it could happen.

I also re-read Marc Acito‘s How I Paid for College and the recently released sequel Attack of the Theater People this week. (I am an incredibly fast reader: I’m already well into book three: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, a first person plural narrative about the goings on in a Chicago ad agency on the skids). It was fascinating to revisit the first book, since I hadn’t read it in about two and a half years. I was still in New Paltz at the time and we had a wonderful independent bookstore in town called Ariel’s (that sadly closed my final semester of college) and I happened upon the title accidentally. When I noticed “musical theater” on the cover, it sounded like it would be an interesting time. It certainly was. The characters created, while on the broad side, bring to mind many of the theatrical people I knew both in high school and college. While extreme in their actions (ohhh the reveling in crime), at heart the characters genuinely care for another (in spite of their severe aversion to monagamy). As the title suggests, you follow protagonist Ed Zanni’s highly illicit heists and capers to secure his tuition for Juilliard (master-minded by his nerdy sidekick Nathan Nudelman, who, really, is the hero of us all – and the character with whom I most identify, minus the interest in dubious financial practices). The follow-up takes us two years down the line to Edward being rejected from his third year at Juilliard by Marian Seldes, who wants him to discover life and rediscover the raw truth that was present at his audition, but never in his classwork. Many of the old crew are along as he unwittingly becomes involved in illegal insider trading, masquerading as a British vee-jay for a party planner and once again fights off his mortifyingly unbearable ex-step-mother Dagmar. A lot of the gang is along for the ride, The Music Man with a deaf Harold Hill, Starlight Express is a major plot point (and hilariously described by Ed) and we get a few new additions, the most notable being Willow the sprightly, not quite there, but lovable actress (sort of the Juilliard equivalent to Luna Lovegood). It’s too involved and farcical for me to describe, just pick up the book.

In spite of all the fun to be had, it’s Acito’s two wonderful choices in the later chapters that left the greatest impression on me. In lamenting the then-current state of the fabulous invalid, his protagonist encounters an older woman who ushered in Broadway theatres for years and years, and magically recounts the moment when the opening night audience gave itself over wholeheartedly to My Fair Lady. It’s magical. Plus, Ed and Paula have what I call musical theatre zen when they second act Barbara Cook’s A Concert for the Theater. I especially relate on the latter, having seen Ms. Cook’s Mostly Sondheim a few years ago, she remains one of my all-time favorite solo performances. Everything that he feels, my friends and I felt as well (even at 75, she could still hit the B natural in “Ice Cream” and how). However there are certain questions that I have for Marc: what happens to Mr. Lucas? Why is Kelly’s mother missing from the story this time around? and when does the third book come out? (oh, you’ve got to…)

For reasons I won’t reveal here, I’m in a very bizarre mood. When I get into this particular mood I usually spend money to make me feel better. Needless to say, a brand new laptop is suddenly looking really, really lucrative right now… Oh boy, temptation is a wonder, ain’t it?

But should I see No No Nanette on Sunday instead? Oh, the decisions… And I just realized I forgot to pick up a MegaMillions ticket for tonight. Well, maybe next time…

"1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" – a synopsis of sorts

I found this posted by WesternActor on ATC this evening and felt that it was worthy of sharing; it takes a close look at the songs and scenes of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as it played in NY in 1976.

Act I

1. Overture (different from the one played at A White House Cantata, but more on that later), a mixture of “American Dreaming” (see below), “Rehearse!”, “Take Care of This House,” and “The President Jefferson March.”
2. Prologue: A march-and-tambourine opening in which the “actors” playing the four leads introduce themselves, their characters, and what the evening will be about.
3. “Rehearse!”: The complete casts sings about the American virtue of trying things over and over agqain until you get them right (“In the course of human events / There’s only one event that makes sense / Rehearse and rehearse / Rehearse and don’t stop / And if we do / And if we don’t drop / It’s gonna be great!”)
4. “If I Was a Dove”: Little Lud, a runaway slave, tries to hide from the people who are trying to track him down in the night.
5. Abigail Adams’s carriage, lost en route to Washington, almost runs over Lud. They strike up a friendship when he gives Abigail directions, and she takes him with her. Along the way, she explains how President Washington founded the city (“On Ten Square Miles by the Potamac River”).
6. “Welcome Home Miz Adams”: The black White House staff greets Abigail and Lud as they begin to get situated in the unfinished White House.
7. President John Adams arrives and immediately begins making plans to leave the house he already hates (“On Ten Square Miles by the Potamac River” reprise, sung by Abigail in Cantata).
8. “Take Care of This House”: Abigail, though distressed at the distressed state of the house, is nonetheless enchanted by it, and sees it as a symbol for the freedom the United States represents. She convinces John to give the house a chance, and he agrees; Lud stays on and joins the serving staff.
9. “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”: Adams writes an invitation to Abigail for a house-warming party to christen the new Executive Mansion. (“May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof).
10. When Thomas Jefferson becomes president, he insists that all the serving staff, including Lud, learn to write.
11. “The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March”: Lud writes a letter to Abigail telling her of Jefferson’s latest innovation: music during brunch. During the number, it becomes clear that Jefferson has been having an affair with one of the servants. (In different lyrics in the “oom-pah-pah” section, the women sing “Father of democracy / And I’m told there is proof.”
Lud finishes his letter and time passes).
12. “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” reprise: Dolly Madison writes an invitation to a Presidential reception during the war of 1812. Lud, now an adult, prepares for the celebration with Jefferson’s daughter, whom he happens to love: “Seena.”
13. “Sonatina”: The Madisons escape from Washington when the British invade Washington, afraid that all the city’s black residents will defect. Lud alone stays behind in the White House and confronts the British. They burn down the city, but a torrential rain prevents the White House from being completely destroyed.
14. “They Don’t Have to Pull It Down”: The original White House architect returns to inspect the damage house, and declares it fixable, though it will take three years.
15. “Lud’s Wedding (I Love My Wife)”: Lud, overjoyed, asks Seena to marry him, and she accepts. The proceedings are overseen by Reverend Bushrod (“Lord look into da window / Where dere’s love dere is life / Take de cake from de oven / We got a lovin’ / Husband and wife!”) and a dance follows.
16. “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” reprise: Eliza Monroe begins writing an invitation to the official reopening of the White House, but can’t see to complete it because none of the furniture has arrived.
17. “Auctions”: Eliza complains to her husband James about the slave auctions in the streets, which she finds especially detestable because the auctioneers are snatching free people off the streets and selling them into servitude. (This, for the record, is what Lud and Seena are discussing in their duet “This Time,” in the Cantata but not in the show on Broadway.) James is afraid to do anything about this, and proposes ending the problem once and for all by sending all black Americans to Liberia—beginning with the White House staff. Outraged, Eliza goes to bed.
18. “Monroviad (The Little White Lie)”: James tries to convince Eliza this plan is the best way to make things better for everyone, but she refuses to accept it.
19. “The President Jefferson March” reprise: A parade of presidents leads us to
20. “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” reprise: On the eve of the 1960 election, President James Buchanan writes an invitation to a party celebrating the arrival of the Prince of Wales.
21. “We Must Have a Ball”: Buchanan, aware of the troubles brewing in the country, believes a party between representatives of the North and South will reduce tensions.
22. “Take Care of This House” (reprise): It doesn’t work. Abraham Lincoln is elected, South Carolina secedes, and the curtain falls.

Act II

1. Entr’acte (not in the Cantata in any form), a combination of “The President Jefferson March,” a bit of “Yankee Doodle,” and “Rehearse!”
2. “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” reprise: President Andrew Johnson’s staff celebrates his impending removal from office.
3. “Forty Acres and a Mule”: Johnson’s staff holds a mock trial while the real trial is being held in the Senate.
4. “Bright and Black”: The staff celebrates the better world that will result from Johnson’s absence.
5. Mrs. Johnson, suffering from consumption, worries about her husband’s fate. Johnson returns, in high spirits, and sends her to bed. Alone with Seena, he confesses he expects to be found guilty. She’s cold to him at first, but he convinces her that he truly has black Americans’ best interests in heart, however the opposition may have made it look. He is saved from removal from office by a single vote.”Hail”: Ulysses Grant is elected.
6. “Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)”: Grant leaves office and is replaced by Rutherford B. Hayes, following a complicated and controversial vote recount. Grant’s wife, Julia, believes he stole the office, while Hayes’s wife Lucy revels in her new role.
7. The servants roil at the results of the election, with Lud saying that Hayes is “repealing the Civil War” all by himself.
8. “American Dreaming”: Lud, outraged, screams that Lincoln’s advances are being destroyed (this is also not heard in the Cantata).
9. “When We Were Proud”: Lud and Seena, in despair at the state of affairs, leave the White House, Lud’s promise to Abigail echoing sadly in his ears. (This song uses the same melody as the Cantata‘s finale, “To Make Us Proud,” but has entirely different lyrics.)
10. “Hail” reprise: James A. Garfield is elected and assassinated.
11. Chester Alan Arthur assumes the presidency but finds himself fighting powerful forces of corruption.
12. “The Robber-Baron Minstrel Parade” and “Pity the Poor”: These and the two following songs are presented in the form of a minstrel show, complete with tambourines, end men, and blackface. Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York wields much power, and the rich men of America can’t stop singing about their impact over the powerless president.
13. “The Mark of a Man”: Arthur resists the allure of wealth and power, and stands firm in the face of adversity. (In the Cantata, this song is sung following “The Little White Lie.”) He feels good about himself, even if the rest of the country isn’t convinced.
14. “The Red White and Blues”: The robber-baron minstrels, however, are too powerful, and Arthur can’t win against them. He isn’t even nominated for reelection, but escapes the White House with his morals intact.
15. “Hail” reprise: Grover Cleveland and William McKinley are elected, and McKinley is shot.
16. Funeral sequence: The music heard as the overture in the cantata serves as the music playing under the country’s mourning for McKinley.
17. The actors—or their characters—make speeches about how far they and the country has come since 1800. “A fine old house. I’ve seen an enemy try to burn it and fail, one part of the nation try to divide it and fail, one branch of the government try to capture it and fail, and a group of men try to buy it and not fail,” the president actor says… “Until now.” Teddy Roosevelt assumes the presidency.
18. “Rehearse!” reprise: The Roosevelts and the country rejoice in the new opportunities ahead. “1900 is here / Stand up and cheer / It’s gonna be great / 1800 adjourned / The corner is turned / It’s gonna be great / All of the wrongs we never put right / Can have a happy ending in sight / If we will rehearse / Rehearse and don’t stop / And if we do / It’s gonna be great!” Everyone continues rehearsing as the curtain falls.
19. Exit music: Several different variations on “The President Jefferson March.”

"A White House Cantata"

Colossal failure. That’s the summation I generally give 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner flop that played a tumultuously chaotic out of town tryout and limped into New York for a 7 performance run. Where did it go wrong? Probably at the very start. Lerner was frustrated over the Watergate scandal of 1972 and collaborated with Bernstein on a concept musical that would examine the first hundred years of the White House, with an emphasis on race relations through that time. Highly ambitious stuff.

Tonight I was at the condensed revision of the piece (which eliminated practically the entire book and focused on the historical musical scenes) called A White House Cantata. The event was presented by the Collegiate Chorale under the artistic direction of Tony award winning actor Roger Rees and marked the NY premiere of this revision, and the first time the score had been heard in NY since it closed May 8, 1976.

The piece calls out for a more theatrical staging rather than the staid classical production it received tonight. The Collegiate Chorale stood and sat upstage in a semi circle, with four chairs and four mike stands (everyone had a binder) downstage. Chills were to be had several times throughout. “Take Care of This House” and “To Make Us Proud” (which reminded me so much of “Make Our Garden Grow”) are stunning pieces. The crescendo of the latter was beyond gorgeous. (“To Make Us Proud” should never have been cut as the finale. It is a stunning summation of liberal patriotism – and that last note is held forever and a day). Hearing those original orchestrations (by Bernstein, Hershy Kay and Sid Ramin) was worth the price of admission alone. Dwayne Croft was amusing as the President, and in stellar voice, if no great shakes as an actor. Emily Pulley‘s “Duet for One” was well executed – she found the comedy where June Anderson failed in the initial presentation/recording ten years ago. And needless to say, the number stopped the show. However – she did not take the high D above C at the end which separates the good First Ladies from the superlative First Ladies (like Patricia Routledge and Judy Kaye, who made the first official recording of the showcase for John McGlinn). Robert Mack and Anita Johnson were fine as Lud and Seena; especially with the infectious “I Love My Wife.” Rees also made an amusing cameo as Admiral Cockburn during the “Sonatina.”

As the show is performed now, with practically nothing left of the book it runs an intermission-less 90 minutes. Basically it’s everything you hear on the disappointingly lifeless album they recorded after the London premiere ten years ago (with Thomas Hampson and June Anderson). But I feel though that by removing the entire book, you’re left with just songs and little context. They tried to make up for that with a historical Powerpoint presentation that lasted the entire performance. They also wisely used supertitles for lyrical clarity. Which brings me to my aforementioned quibble. The piece is eminently theatrical and not classical – it would have fared better with musical theatre actors in the leads. Say for instance, Marc Kudisch and Victoria Clark as the President and First Lady. (Let’s face it, Victoria Clark should just do the Patricia Routledge songbook). There was a lack of cohesion that was made even more obvious with the lack of dialogue or even a narration. Hmm.. That sounds like an idea for the cantata, link the fragmented musical sequences with narrative. That would make more sense than just jumping from one musical piece to another. It could also help the audience care more for Lud and Seena, since they are the fictional characters of the piece, who really come out of nowhere and go nowhere, except to serve as catalysts for racial discussion within the musical numbers. We should have an opportunity to care for them. But let’s face it, it is a problematic show, otherwise it wouldn’t be obsessed by elitists and curious flop fiends.

I am, as many of you are well aware, fascinated to no end by the piece, especially since it’s one of such breadth and scope. And there seems to be a masterwork yearning to break out of the confines of the show in each of its revisions. I found that there was more fun to the piece when it was a Broadway musical and not an oratorio (the piece demands the energy and acting, especially in regards to the satiric numbers). They’ve reinstated the much more reserved original Prelude as opposed to the lively overture that opened the show on Broadway (which is decidedly Bernsteinian) and the framework of “Rehearse” which is infectious and little tidbits, like “The Honor of Your Presence is Requested” which for whatever reason I just love the melodic line. The impeachment scene between President Johnson and Seena is one of the most compelling dialogues that the show had to offer. It was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the servants rarely interact with the President and First Lady in the revision. The fragmentation sort of defeats the author’s original intent, doesn’t it?

The following quote from John Adams’ correspondence with his wife Abigail, written on his second day of occupancy was missing – and it makes for a beauty of a line:

“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

After the show, there was a highly engaging talkback hosted by Seth Rudetsky with Richard Muenz, Beth Fowler, co-director George Faison and Fowler’s husband John Witham (they met during this production and were married a year later). Also present was Warren Hoge, who covered the show during its preview period in 1976 – and told an amusing anecdote about how he sang “Take Care of This House” to Ronald Reagan at a White House dinner. One of the audience questions was actually a comment from a man who was at the closing and recalled how Routledge received such an ovation for “Duet for One” that she performed an encore. Fowler backed him up saying it was the only time she had ever seen anything like that “They wouldn’t let the show go on.” She also does a rather amusing Pat Routledge impersonation. They mused on what worked and didn’t work. The chaos of rehearsals and being out of town. The confusion of having rehearsed half a scene, only to perform the new first half and the old second half at the evening perform. Yikes. Many mixed reactions on the original work from all onstage. “A wonderful-terrible experience.” They were all thrilled to hear the score again – and Faison summed it up best when he said that Lerner and Bernstein were trying to say too much.

Erik Haagensen, who was cited in the concert notes as having written an article about the musical for Show Music magazine in 1992, has worked on an estate-approved revision of the work that was done in the early 90s. What a shame we can’t get his work out in the open, because I feel that there is a masterwork among this ruin that has yet to surface.

One final quibble. For a show that deals with race it was jarring that the chorale was almost all white, with nary an African American woman in sight, save for Ms. Johnson.

While it was a treat to hear the piece live in NY, A White House Cantata is not and should not be the final word on this score.