1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (musical)

From Academic Kids

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a musical with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Leonard Bernstein, was a legendary Broadway flop in 1976, running only seven performances at the Mark Hellinger Theatre.

The musical examined the establishment of the White House and its occupants from 1800-1900. Primarily focusing on race relations, the story depicted (among other incidents) Thomas Jefferson's alleged affair with a black maid, James Monroe's refusal to halt slavery in Washington, and the aftermath of the Civil War and Andrew Johnson's impeachment.

Throughout the show, one actor performed each of the central roles, irrespective of time period: Ken Howard played all the presidents, Patricia Routledge all the First Ladies, and Gilbert Price and Emily Yancy were always Lud and Seena. (Future Broadway stars Reid Shelton, Walter Charles, Beth Fowler, and Richard Muenz also appeared in ensemble roles.)

The show was originally intended to be performed as a play-within-a-play, with the "show"'s actors stepping out of character to comment on the plot and debate race relations from a modern standpoint. This aspect of the show was almost entirely done away with during the show's out-of-town tryouts in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; by the time the show opened on Broadway on May 4, 1976, little of this concept remained aside from certain scenic and costume elements, and a few minor musical references.

Discouraged by the critical and public response to the work -- and angry that much of his music was condensed and edited without his consent during tryouts -- Bernstein refused to allow a cast recording of the musical. After Bernstein's death in 1990, his children and associates sifted through the many variations and revisions of the score and authorized a choral version entitled A White House Cantata. BBC Radio broadcast the London debut of this work in 1997, and three years later Deutsche Grammophon released a CD recording.

Though many do not consider 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to rank with the best work of its esteemed composer and lyricist/librettist, the score is considered by many musical theatre historians and aficionados to be the contemporary equivalent of a forgotten treasure (if not a guilty pleasure). Some of the songs that have enjoyed some fame divorced from the show include "Take Care of This House" and "The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March"; "Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)" is also an admired tour-de-force for a single actress who portrays both Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes on the day of Rutherford B. Hayes's inauguration, and details the exhausting vote counts that had many questioning his legitimacy.

The show's only significant revival to date was a 1992 Indiana University production, which used a pre-Philadelphia draft of the script, and included portions of Bernstein's music that had been excised on the road to Broadway. This production of the show also played briefly at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

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