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.

Alan Bennett & Patricia Routledge

Since I’m spending my Sunday immersed in the Anglophilia of The Norman Conquests, I figured I would post something very British in honor of the occasion. Alan Bennett considers Patricia Routledge his favorite actress. The British playwright has written a great many things for her to perform over the years, both onstage and on television. Meanwhile here on our side of the pond, I have been talking to a lot of people about the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and espousing the brilliance of Routledge. I realized there hasn’t been a mention of her in quite some time here, so here is a clip of Pat and Alan on a British talk show in 1992 discussing Talking Heads:

Seance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard

The lovely Patricia Routledge made a guest appearance on Steptoe and Son, a popular Britcom that was refashioned for American audiences with Redd Foxx in Sanford and Son. I post the episode because not only does she play a medium in the Madame Arcati vein, but I find her changes in persona to be a look into how she played her “Duet for One” in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Happy Birthday, Patricia Routledge!

The site’s resident Britcom favorite turns 80 years old today. Though she never had much success in the NY theatre scene, her performances were always greeted with love letters from the critics and winning her a Tony in the process. In her native England, she found greater success appearing in the original cast of Noises Off! as Dotty Otley and would become internationally known as Hyacinth Bucket in the series Keeping Up Appearances. While I still search for that lost clip of “Not on Your Nellie” from an appearance with Ed Sullivan, here is a brief clip from her last series, the successful but short-lived Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. Her co-star is Dominic Monaghan from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the TV series Lost.

And for old time’s sake….

Quote of the Day: ‘At Large’ Elsewhere

From Peter Filichia’s Diary on 1.30.08:

‘Staying on the subject of the presidency, Bruce Haberkern wrote that “With the events of this month’s Inauguration, it might be a chance to revisit the Bernstein-Lerner unsuccessful musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The musical had a lot to do with the black servants’ participation in maintaining the White House, especially in the lyrics of ‘Take Care of this House.’ Today their descendants are actually taking care of that (White) House.”

Kevin Daly mentioned 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, too, and cast Victoria Clark in the Patricia Routledge role should the show ever materialize. (Given the estates’ feelings about the quick flop, that will only happen when the show goes into the public domain.) But Daly came up with an even more fetching idea that really should happen — and could: “Let’s have the upcoming cast of Blithe Spirit present a one-night concert performance of High Spirits for their Actor’s Fund performance.” If it happens, I’m there!’

Hey Bernstein and Lerner estates, let’s talk, shall we?

Hyacinth wants a part in "The Boy Friend"

One of Patricia Routledge’s most inspired moments as social climber Hyacinth Bucket on the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances. Emmet, the next door neighbor who she constantly “sings at,” is director of the local amateur opera company, who is putting on a production of The Boy Friend. Deliciously oblivious Hyacinth, who fancies herself a great musician and singer, drops some far-from-subtle hints that she wants a part. Hilarity ensues.

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”