ON THE RECORD: Bway Surprises from Bernstein and Menotti

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Bway Surprises from Bernstein and Menotti A WHITE HOUSE CANTATA (Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 448-2)

A WHITE HOUSE CANTATA (Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 448-2)

Back during the Watergate hearings in 1972, Alan Jay Lerner - world famous lyricist-librettist of My Fair Lady — conceived a Broadway Bicentennial celebration. A patriotic pageant, showing the growing pains of democracy in America by examining the first hundred years of the White House. Leonard Bernstein - world-famous composer of West Side Story - soon signed on. The financing was arranged in one phone call; a boyhood friend of Lerner's was chairman of the board of the Coca-Cola Company, and what could make a better Bicentennial gift to America?

Bernstein and Lerner had little in common other than shared political leanings and strong Kennedy connections. (Lerner and Jack Kennedy were classmates at Choate. All three were at Harvard together, although they moved in decidedly different circles.) What Bernstein and Lerner did have in common was no successful show between them in years. The multi faceted Bernstein hadn't written a musical since West Side Story in 1957. Lerner had written plenty, but all were unsuccessful. (Lerner was to write seven musicals after 1960’s Camelot, all severe failures.)

So you had star creators, unlimited financing, a viable concept, and a catchy title in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As so often happens in such cases, there was no show. That is, the authors wrote material by the mile; but they appear to have never figured out what, exactly, they were writing about. Despite the money in the bank, original producer Saint Subber threw up his hands in horror and walked away. The show went into rehearsal unfinished - it never was, in fact, finished - and the director and choreographer were fired during the first week of the tryout. Not only did designer Tony Walton walk away from the shambles, but the folks at Coca-Cola - who were obliged to continue to foot the bills - painted their name out of the houseboards and pulled their billing off the programs. Bernstein and Lerner could not hide, however. As Jerome Robbins commented after an out-of-town house call, "Only two titans could have a failure like this."

Other failed musicals - notably Bernstein's Candide and Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle — were recorded for posterity, and a good thing, too! There was no such movement to preserve 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; by the time the show limped in from its tryout, the authors seemed to have vanished in embarrassment. While several of the songs have been recorded over the years, and Bernstein reused some of the musical material elsewhere, it has taken almost a quarter of a century to get something approximating a cast album. A considerably abridged concert adaptation, under the title A White House Cantata, has now been released by Deutsche Grammophon. It contains roughly two-thirds of the "full" score, running eighty minutes. As it happens, I made four trips to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (in Philadelphia, Washington, and New York). Despite the obvious impossibilities of the work, portions of the score were so exceptional that I took every opportunity to see it. So I am more than thrilled to be able to hear this material once more — without having to sit through the show again. Bernstein enthusiasts are no doubt familiar with some of these songs by now - especially the anthem-like theme song "Take Care of This House" — but there are some enchanting surprises. "Seena," for example, a ballad for the escaped-slave-turned-manservant Lud. Imagine a combination of the title song from Lerner's Gigi set to themes from Bernstein's soundtrack for On the Waterfront. Breathtakingly beautiful. "Lud's Wedding Day" is also vibrant, with a driving folk-like rhythm and a Coplandesque sweep. "Bright and Black" - a post-emancipation celebration promising a "heavenly ebony rainbow" — is simply jubilant in its original banjo-pickin' arrangement.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the "Monroviad" sequence. In this ten-minute musical scene, President James Monroe considers a proposal to send the slaves back to Africa (circa 1820). His wife Eliza opposes it, arguing that the slaves should have been freed by Monroe and his colleagues in the first place, when they drafted the Bill of Rights. ("A Bill of Rights for whites, and for blacks a bill of sale," she venomously intones.) James should just do the right thing, says she, and free the slaves himself. This segment ends with another impressively moving song, as Monroe soliloquizes on "The Mark of a Man."

Sitting in the theatre, mind you, this scene was positively excruciating. I first saw the show the day after the Philadelphia opening, before the initial cuts and rewrites, when it ran well over three-and-a-half hours. It was a sold-out theatre party matinee, with quite a large number of children in attendance. (A Bicentennial Celebration of America from Bernstein and Lerner and Coca-Cola promised to be suitable for children, although it proved suitable for no one.)

During the "Monroviad" I saw something I've never seen in the theatre before or since. A well-mannered fifty-ish D.A.R. type stopped on her way back from the restroom. Spotting some friends sitting off the aisle, she stood there in the middle of the house and chatted with them for the rest of the number. Without being hushed or shushed by anyone, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, while James and Eliza were singing their hearts out about slavery. I was standing at the back, with Bernstein to my right - flitting in and out of the house, presumably for cigarette breaks – and the newly-imported replacement director and choreographer to my left, audibly commenting on the "bad" stuff and loudly discussing what they should do. A memorably strange afternoon, let me tell you. I happened to have a meeting in Philly several days later, so I stopped in again after four performances. They had already cut thirty-five minutes. Part of the problem with the "Monroviad" was its position, near the end of the endless first act. Consider what the audience had already seen: George Washington supervising the selection of "Ten Square Miles by the Potomac River," egotistically naming the Capitol City after himself; this to an especially catchy, martial strain. Mrs. John Adams arriving to take possession of the new Executive Mansion, with the servants singing about the unfinished nature of things. ("De roof's a little leaky, but only when it rains.") The third president presiding over "The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon March," a grandly jaunty number in which that gentleman considers his main achievements to be the introduction of ice cream and spaghetti and brown betty to America. Then came the nine-minute "Sonatina," a comic mini-operetta in which members of the British Army attempt to burn down the White House during the War of 1812. (The brick walls were partially singed, which is why the house was thereafter painted white.) The Presidential scenes were accompanied by a second plot about the servant/slaves, along with a highly inadvisable framework in which the actors appeared in rehearsal clothes, arguing about the race relations of the characters in the play. "Rehearse, we've got to rehearse" they kept singing - in a song not included on this disc - which made us wonder whether this was the show within the show, or merely the cast complaining about the rewrites.

The point of all this is that virtually the entirety of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was pointless. Yes the events took place in the White House, but these episodes - Thomas Jefferson serving brunch? - were mighty trivial. So when the Monroes started singing about slavery after what seemed like hours and hours, the audience was long gone. "Go to sleep, James, go to sleep," Eliza kept singing, the audience concurred, and hardly anybody was able to recognize an important idea when it finally came along.

This was followed by another lengthy musical scene between the other two main characters, Lud and Seena ("This Time"). How can Lud remain loyal to the White House, when the President supports a system where his people are enslaved - and he himself could be kidnapped on his way home from work and sold into slavery? Again, this was so buried in the context of the evening that it was impossible to recognize its worth.

The exhilarating Overture has not been included on this album, presumably to allow the inclusion of other material. The music is also used for the "Sonatina," but it is far more effective without the lyric. Bernstein was presumably too discouraged by the show's reception to attempt to program the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Overture in the symphonic world, as a companion piece to his Candide Overture. It's a shame, as I believe the later Overture - which includes material cut from Candide, as it happens — could prove popular.

"Classical" recordings of Broadway musicals typically suffer from the casting of trained singers in the leading roles. Thomas Hampson makes a happy exception, effortlessly handling his task (singing five presidents on this abridged disc). The role, originally, was uncastable. John Cullum kept turning them down - he had suffered through the miserable tryouts of Lerner's Camelot and On a Clear Day and knew what to expect - and they finally settled on actor Ken Howard. Howard had played young Tom Jefferson in 1776 but was clearly incapable of singing the demanding role. Cantata's June Anderson, though, is not up to her predecessor Patricia Routledge as the various First Ladies. Her most important number, "Duet for One" — a bravura comic showpiece in which she plays two battling First Ladies at once - falls flat. She is unable to differentiate between the Lucys Grant and Hayes, which robs the song of its point. (Routledge, a fine comic actress who can wrap a musical comedy audience around her little finger, was magical in this number and served as a much-needed sparkplug for the rest of the show. I wonder if Kander and Ebb have visited her for The Visit?) Kenneth Tarver and Barbara Hendricks do well in Gilbert Price and Emily Yancy's roles as the consciences of the nation, although much of their material is not included in A White House Cantata.

Noted in passing: The liner notes contain three photos of Bernstein, two of conductor Kent Nagano (who gives a strong reading of the material), bios of both, photos and bios of seven performers, and a mere ten words - in passing - about the lyricist/librettist. In fact, everybody is billed on the cover and the disc itself except for Lerner, who conceived the show, enlisted Bernstein, and found the producers. Another billing curiousity: In 1976, the orchestrations were credited to Sid Ramin (of West Side Story) and Hershy Kay (of Candide). The CD gives Bernstein first credit for the orchestrations. The composer orchestrated his Broadway shows whenever possible, so I have no reason to believe that he wasn't responsible for some of the work here. But he specifically received official co-orchestrator billing on On the Town, Candide, and West Side Story. He was not so credited on his other two Broadway musicals, Wonderful Town and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which implies that he did not contribute to the orchestrations of these two scores. In any event, the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue orchestrations are wonderful and were surely fashioned to Bernstein's specifications.

None of this is meant to dissuade you from buying this fascinating disc. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - presumably the finest score for a one week failure since Anyone Can Whistle — was unusual and impossible, but it was the only thing Bernstein chose to give Broadway between 1957 and his death in 1990. What a pleasant surprise to finally be able to hear this score! Or at least a major portion of it.

THE MEDIUM and THE TELEPHONE (Pearl GEMS 0122)

Imagine a musical melodrama chock full of ghosts, chills, seances, supernatural doings, and even a grisly onstage murder. Sounds commercial, no? Only in this case I'm afraid I'm talking about an opera.

And not a "Broadway opera," punctuated with knockout show tunes like "It Ain't Necessarily So" or "Standing on the Corner Watching All the Girls Go By." A real opera, like they sing in opera houses, only in English so you can understand what all the fuss is about. Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Medium was commissioned by Columbia University and first produced at their Brander Matthews Theatre for five performances in May 1946.

A revised version of the piece — paired with Menotti's one-act comic operetta The Telephone as curtain-raiser - was mounted the following February for four performances at the Heckscher Theatre (at Fifth Avenue and 104th Street, now the home of El Museo del Barrio). It was produced by Ballet Society — George Balanchine's company, which soon changed its name to the New York City Ballet - and met such praise that it transferred to the Ethel Barrymore on May 1, 1947 for an impressive 211 performances. (Was this the first transfer ever of a musical from off-Broadway?)

The Medium only has a few "songs," if you will, but it is overloaded with haunting melody. Some of it is absolutely rhapsodic, like the section in which the child Monica translates the pantomimed "speech" of the mute gypsy boy — and determines that he is professing his love for her ("Monica, Monica, can't you see"). Or the heartbreaking Doodly section of the seance ("Doodly, Doodly, are you happy?"). Or the passage in which the civilians - informed by the medium that the seance was phony - nevertheless insist that the apparitions were real ("Not to know my own daughter's voice"). The material for Madame Flora, the medium of the title, is appropriately blood-curdling; her final solo, "Afraid," is mighty grisly with its "little grotesque children drained white by the voraciousness of filth." This lady makes Sondheim's cannibalistic Mrs. Lovett look like someone's sweet old aunt who knits sweaters for birthday gifts that never fit. Marie Powers is riveting in the role, someone you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley or even in a brightly-sunlit plaza in front of police headquarters.

The Medium is more opera than musical theatre, perhaps. It is highly theatrical, though, and highly effective, and packed with memorable music. It ran six months at the Barrymore, so I've always accepted it as Broadway. Menotti wrote it, orchestrated it, and directed it. The Medium was the first of his four operas to play Broadway, through 1958; two of them, The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street, both won Pulitzers (for music) and N.Y. Drama Critics Circle Awards (for best musical). The Medium won a Tony Award for Horace Armistead's set - the first Tony given in that category, by the way. The Medium is one of those long out-of-print cast albums that one never expected to find on CD. Columbia Records recorded it; as far as I can tell, it was only the second cast album produced by Goddard Leiberson (according to whom it was the first American opera to be recorded in its entirety.) The CD has been released by Pearl, a British label that specializes in "vintage" recordings. There is no licensing credit given to Columbia, which makes me wonder if this is an authorized release. The sound quality is so good, though, that I wonder if Pearl didn't somehow get ahold of the original masters. (The liner notes list explicit session and take numbers, which implies that maybe they did.) I don't suppose Sony was likely to get to The Medium, though - how commercial can it possibly be? - and I'm thrilled that someone has bothered to do it after all these years of having to get up out of my chair at a critical moment of the seance to turn from side two to side three. Columbia/Sony also has in its archives the three-LP set of Marc Blitzstein's Regina (from Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes). This is a fine recording of an important and influential piece of American music theatre. Now that we have The Medium in our hands, let us hope that the Columbia Regina will someday come along, too.

Also included on Pearl's two-CD set is The Telephone, which is amusing (for only a couple of listenings, though); selections from a sonically-poor radio transcription of Menotti's early opera Amelia Al Ballo; and the ballet Sebastian. But the treasure here is The Medium. If emotionally-raging Grand Guignol musical theatre is to your taste, you might well find it riveting.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com