There was nothing collegiate about Collegiate Chorale’s New York premiere of Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner’s “A White House Cantata.” The chorale’s regular patrons were supplemented by a theater crowd, filling Frederick P. Rose Hall at Columbus Circle with an eager and expectant throng. With music director Robert Bass at the podium, the highly satisfying playing and singing in this one-night-only event provided a welcome opportunity to revisit the problematic piece.
Depressed and disheartened in the darkest days of the Watergate scandal, legendary songwriters (and loyal members of the extended Kennedy circle) Bernstein and Lerner determined to express their frustration in the best way they knew: write a musical that would both celebrate the successes and expose the failures of the state of the Union.
High on creative energy but low on collaborative discipline, the pair toiled for four years on a show they called “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” which finally opened during the bicentennial year of 1976. The bloated and unworkable piece was all but laughed off the stage, limping in from a disastrous tryout (which saw all the creators fired, except the authors) and closing on Broadway after a mere seven performances.
The pair was so discouraged they all but tore up the manuscript, severely restricting future prospects. Bernstein’s fabled “Candide” lived on despite initial failure, due to the power of the score as presented on the beloved original cast album; in the case of “1600,” Bernstein and Lerner were so set on suppressing their flop that they vetoed a recording.
Twenty years later, their estates authorized a stripped down concert version, “A White House Cantata,” which premiered in London in 1997 and was recorded. The piece then disappeared again, returning only now for its first New York hearing since the brief airing at the Hellinger in 1976.
But “1600” features some of the finest music Bernstein ever wrote. Working in an impressive variety of styles, the composer outdid himself, creating an assortment of beauties far too good to be left on the shelf.
These include the anthem-like “Take Care of This House,” “The Mark of a Man” and “To Make Us Proud”; the stunning ballad “Seena”; the jubilant “Lud’s Wedding” and “Bright and Black”; the bravura Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque “Sonatina,” celebrating the burning of Washington during the War of 1812; and the astounding “Duet for One,” in which one first lady seethes as her successor moves in. This tour de force, as performed by Emily Pulley, was by far the evening’s high point. Pulley also did very well with “Take Care of This House,” the evening’s theme song, but most of her character’s “1600” material has been cut from “Cantata.”
Baritone Dwayne Croft did fairly well with his singing but didn’t demonstrate the variety required by his multiple roles (five of the original 11 presidents remain in this version). Robert Mack, as Lud, gave the finest performance, matched by Anita Johnson, with considerably less to do, as Seena.
Ten-year-old Kalif Omari Jones carried “If I Was a Dove” and his half of “Take Care of This House” with aplomb, and Roger Rees — who also directed the concert — did a capital job singing Admiral Cockburn in the 1812 “Sonatina.” (As Lerner’s lyrics helpfully point out, it’s “Co’burn not Cockburn, though for that you are excused; ’tis spelled c-o-c-k but only half the cock is used.”)
Maestro Bass conducted Bernstein as if he had spent decades doing it. Sid Ramin and Hershy Kay’s orchestrations are among Broadway’s finest, and they sounded especially powerful with the orchestra in a large, open pit at the front of the stage.
The only discordant moment came with that paean to emancipation, “Bright and Black,” sung by the strong-voiced Collegiate Chorale — comprising 50 singers but what appeared to be only three African-Americans. What’s more, the 30-piece orchestra for this purposely racially charged musical appeared to be all-white — which would have presumably sent the composer cursing up the aisle, demanding the head of his orchestra manager.