MUSICAL / The White House follies: David Patrick Stearns on Bernstein's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

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The Independent Culture
AMONG Leonard Bernstein's numerous unpublished works, his 1976 Broadway musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the largest curiosity, a major, finished work, roughly 1,000 pages long and probably his most ambitious endeavour for the Broadway stage. Unfortunately, it was his least successful stage work, and neither he nor librettist/lyricist Alan Hay Lerner allowed the original cast recording to be made. Though Bernstein believed he had pinpointed the show's problems and could successfully revise it, he never did. Now, the musical is being performed in a semi-staged production by the Indiana University Opera Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

The version delivered here is the show as it existed shortly before its first preview performance - the 'gypsy runthrough' in Broadway talk - presumably because it's the purest representation of the author's intention. Hearing it now, it's hard to tell why the show was so reviled. Some who saw it originally say the production was so dreadful it was difficult to really hear the worth of the music. Perhaps many didn't want to hear. Appearing in the bicentennial year, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue flew in the face of all the jingoistic self-congratulating going on. After all, the show's premise is that slavery is America's 'original sin', and that until this is rectified, the country can never achieve more than a rehearsal for greatness.

Unfortunately, the show itself also seems like a rehearsal for greatness. However well intended the decision to perform an early version, it appears to be 75 per cent finished. Though there are numerous moments that don't work, some of the score ranks with Bernstein's best Broadway music, such as the songs 'Take Care of This House' and 'Lud's Wedding', as well as several bits that turned up in later works.

Few American composers have been as politically aware as Bernstein, and this was the only major work that expresses that side of his personality, mostly in an exuberant, accessible way that more clearly points the way towards pop opera than West Side Opera or Candide. Entire scenes are through-composed without ever sounding heavy or pretentious in the manner of Andrew Lloyd Webber's pop operas.

Though highly uneven, the libretto is fascinating. As in Love Life, Lerner's 1948 collaboration with Kurt Weill, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue traces American history with the same actors playing numerous characters from one generation to the next. While Love Life made ironic use of vaudeville, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue uses a minstrel show performed at a White House dinner party to much the same end. And just as Love Life inspired Weill's most diverse, richly textured score, Lerner promoted a work of comparable eclecticism from Bernstein.

But before 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can become entirely stageworthy, it needs a thorough revision and probably some new music from creators of the calibre of Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince. There's a lot of nascent music waiting to emerge in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. All it needs is the right midwives.