The House that Alan and Leonard built

On Tuesday, the London Symphony Orchestra will present the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein's `White House Cantata'. Here, Humphrey Burton, the composer's biographer, traces the troubled history of the Bicentennial musical upon which it is based

Humphrey Burton
Friday 04 July 1997 23:02 BST

It looked like a dream ticket for a Broadway hit: Leonard Bernstein, the composer of On the Town and West Side Story, was to team up with Alan Jay Lerner, author of book and lyrics for Brigadoon, My Fair Lady and Camelot. Yet their show, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (the street address of Washington's White House), underwent agonising out-of-town re-writes and ran for only seven Broadway performances. The actress Patricia Routledge, who sang the female lead, described the show as a "diamond-studded dinosaur". Choreographer Jerome Robbins remarked that "only two titans could have a failure like this". Yet Bernstein went into the production proclaiming that he had "never been so confident, so thrilled, about a show". After its demise, which he acknowledged to be "an immense failure", his life seemed to come apart at the seams. Only two months later, he left his wife Felicia (after 25 years of marriage) to live with a man half his age. There was a reconciliation, but she died soon afterwards of lung cancer, the same disease that was to claim Alan Jay Lerner in 1986.

Bernstein's first Broadway flop, the 1956 Candide, was never without its passionate supporters. But nobody came forward to champion 1600. Instead, Bernstein used it in the way that medieval stonemasons might raid an abandoned abbey - for raw material. His overture Slava!, dedicated to the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, was a re-working of a chorus number. The most touching song in his 1977 Songfest annexes a melody hummed by the 1600 chorus. A witty march ended up in the 1980 Divertimento and he was still quarrying away in 1983 for music for his final opera, A Quiet Place.

Two years after Bernstein's death in 1990, much loving care went into an attempt to bring 1600 back to the stage. A workshop production based on the original "gypsy" run-through (ie before the tampering began) was mounted at the Indiana University Opera Theater and later transferred to the Kennedy Center in Washington, where it received a clutch of favourable reviews. But it was not enough to convince the professionals, among them the veteran producer Roger Stevens, to risk a full-scale production. As a stage musical, 1600 is officially dead.

But now Bernstein's music has been re-assembled and re-scored for symphony orchestra with four principal soloists and a virtuoso chorus. Boasting more than 90 minutes of glorious music, most of it never previously heard in this country, A White House Cantata (a title dreamt up by Bernstein's friend and personal manager, Harry Kraut) receives its premiere at the Barbican on Tuesday. It promises to be both one of the highlights of the LSO's current season and a personal challenge for the conductor Kent Nagano, who hasn't previously been associated with Bernstein's music.

Depressed by the state of the American nation, Alan Jay Lerner first approached Bernstein in 1972. Despite the Watergate scandal, Nixon's electoral strength was proving unassailable: America seemed headed for an imperial presidency; democracy was being subverted by Nixon and his co-conspirators. Lerner wanted to deliver a sort of wake-up call to the nation in the form of an entertainment with attitude that would remind people of earlier moments when democracy had been under fire. As a vehicle, he proposed the turbulent history of the White House itself. Thirty years earlier, Lerner had worked with a major composer, Kurt Weill, on another epic panorama of US history, Love Life. He must have felt that his new subject demanded an equally big musical figure; hence the call to symphonist and showbiz legend Leonard Bernstein, whose liberal background had been common knowledge since Tom Wolfe's loaded but brilliant expose of "radical chic" in New York magazine.

Wolfe's acid reportage described a trendy fund-raising party that Bernstein's wife had hosted a couple of years previously in aid of the Black Panthers. Already ear-marked by the FBI in the late Forties as a left-wing sympathiser, Bernstein's subsequent run-in with the US State Department in 1953 had prompted him to collaborate with Lillian Hellman on the satirical operetta Candide, which equated the House Un-American Activities Committee with the Spanish Inquisition. He acquired an aura of respectability by regular TV appearances and the musical directorship of the New York Philharmonic, first entering the White House for a party celebrating the Washington opening of West Side Story. "Such credenzas, such breakfronts!" he exclaimed about the furniture in a letter to his wife, justifiably proud that a Jewish boy from a Boston suburb had made it to the top. He became sufficiently friendly with President Eisenhower to use a quote of his as the title of his song-cycle Arias and Barcarolles. "I like music with a theme," Ike had confided after hearing Bernstein play Rhapsody in Blue at a White House concert, "not all them arias and barcarolles."

In the Kennedy era, Bernstein had been a regular visitor to the White House, on one occasion ignoring his wife's whispered warnings in Spanish and occupying the President's favourite rocking-chair. "Who's minding the candy store?" he was reported to have asked. Post-Kennedy, he became deeply disillusioned with the Johnson / Kissinger administration. He campaigned for black rights and fought in vain for Eugene McCarthy as the pacifist Democrat candidate against Nixon; his 1971 Mass, composed at the height of the Vietnam war, contained an eloquent plea for peace; and, on the night of Nixon's second inauguration, he conducted Haydn's Mass in Time of War in Washington Cathedral, just a few miles from where the presidential party was being entertained with the 1812 Overture, complete with cannon.

So Bernstein's credentials seemed impeccable. That he had abandoned two musical projects in the 1960s wasn't held against him by Lerner, who had himself fallen on creatively barren times. Like Bernstein, Lerner smoked incessantly, not always nicotine, and bit his nails so fiercely that he always wore white cotton gloves; bloodstained discards would later be found in the men's room. Yet he was reportedly an intensely agreeable personality, immensely persuasive and, like Bernstein, a true son of Harvard. They were of the same age but their only previous collaboration had been 20 years earlier when they concocted a spoof song in honour of their alma mater. It should have been a warning to producers and investing angels:

We're the lonely men of Harvard

Alone, alas, alack are we!

And that's the curse we share,

It's the cross we've got to bear

For our irrefutable superiority.

Lerner's concept, an idea which Bernstein later said had "lit up his soul", was to use the history of the White House as a metaphor for America, "from its brave, rough beginnings onward through an amazing array of presidencies, warts and all". The same white actor and actress were to play eight different presidents / first ladies (from Washington to Teddy Roosevelt) while the same two black actors, heads of a family dynasty of servants, would watch them come and go. (LWT's Upstairs Downstairs was the talk of every TV- watching liberal household in the US at the time.) This Cavalcade approach was to be given Pirandello-esque weight by having members of the company debate the meaning of the history they were enacting, and some of these "rehearsal" scenes were also set to music. They've been dropped for the LSO version, which will give us the history unadorned. You don't need to be familiar with 19th-century America to enjoy such glittering moments as the stirring and hard-fought decision by representatives of the original 13 states to build the White House on "10 square miles of the Potomac River", the exotic luncheon party thrown there by President Jefferson when he returns from Europe, the brilliant, wicked parody of the British after they've set fire to the White House (in 1812), the debate on slavery carried on by President Monroe and his wife as they prepare to go to bed, or the great ball given on the eve of the Civil War. And that's only the first act.

What promises to work well in the concert hall was much too much of a good thing in the theatre. The device of a musical within a play-with- music was a cumbersome formula. The first producer, Arnold Saint Subber, pulled out in 1975: "I loathed it," he said afterwards. "I tried desperately to get everyone to abandon it."

A chance to sort things out in advance was lost when Arthur Laurents, a tough and shrewd man of the musical theatre, declined to direct. Undeterred, Bernstein spoke of his "passionate love of country" and said the musical was "an attempt to wrest patriotism away from the bigot" (ie Nixon and, a generation earlier, Senator Joe McCarthy). Lerner was equally unrepentant: "We're just telling what we feel," he declared. "I hope we achieved it without being dogmatic." No such luck! Reviewing the February 1976 try- out performance in Philadelphia, which ran for four hours, Variety called Lerner's book "stultifyingly ponderous and repetitious". Bernstein's score was longer than Das Rheingold but at least it had the unmistakable virtues of tunefulness and virtuoso high spirits. It was the production that bore the brunt of the crisis response. Out went the white stage director, opera- orientated Frank Corsaro. In came Gilbert Moses, who had recently worked on The Wiz, an entertaining black version of The Wizard of Oz. Most of the moralising rehearsal scenes were cut, Tony Walton's sets and costumes were dumped and the whole thing was re-vamped with an upbeat finale as a somewhat unconvincing celebration of the forthcoming Bicentennial. According to one of the actors, it was like changing chairs on the Titanic.

Bernstein wanted to postpone, but the unconventional financing which Lerner had personally negotiated - $1m from the Coca-Cola company, whose chairman had been a schoolmate - meant that the show was contractually obliged to play on Broadway that spring, no matter what state it was in. I remember visiting Bernstein at his Watergate hotel suite in April and being appalled by both the mood of hysteria and the total breakdown of relations between composer and lyricist. Lerner was locked in his room writing new material, while Bernstein was attempting to restore savage cuts in his carefully constructed material. Both men were barred from rehearsals. Bernstein's young lover, Tom Cothran, predicted in his diary: "A sure flop due to college production incompetence and speedfreak twitching AJ Lerner - a musical in itself." When the purgatory was over and the show limped on to Broadway, it was duly savaged: "tedious and simplistic", "Bicentennial bore", "a crummy idea". At least the New York Post's critic Marvin Gottfried saw merit in the music. "Irresistibly catchy, orchestrated to the hilt [by Sid Ramin, and Hershy Kay, who respectively did West Side Story and Candide] ... generally superb and frequently tremendous."

Despite the heartache and the humiliation, the celebrated actress and comedienne Patricia Routledge says she wouldn't have missed the opportunity to work with Bernstein for worlds. "Lenny gave you his respect if you knew your job. Wonderful to work with. Inspiring. But he was saddled with genius and genius can be monstrous. It was a heart-breaking tragedy, really. When we opened in Philly it was an impasse of the worst kind; nobody would cut a line of dialogue or a note of music. Basically you cannot write a musical about a house. A friend said it was like watching a great prehistoric animal lumbering across the stage but there were moments of dazzling light... When it really came to life was when the human element was allowed to emerge. `Take Care of This House', for example, that's a beautiful lyrical piece [sung by Mrs Abigail Adams, the first incumbent first lady]. And in the second act, there's an absolutely genius number called `Duet for One' - two first ladies, the incumbent Julia Grant and the incoming Lucy Hayes, waiting for the presidential election result, a wonderful cliff- hanger presented in Busby Berkeley fashion, surrounded by lots of ladies with parasols."

There'll be no parasols at the Barbican on Tuesday, but a prophecy Bernstein made in 1986 may nevertheless come true. At the memorial service for Alan Jay Lerner, he evoked the happier days of their collaboration: "I am very proud of the vast amount of fine fresh material we produced together; and someday, I swear, that material is going to achieve its proper form, and become a show that will make us all proud."

`A White House Cantata' is premiered by the LSO, as part of the City of London Festival, at 7.30pm this Tuesday at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (0171-638 8891); Humphrey Burton's biography of Leonard Bernstein is published by Faber and Faber

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