Theatre can be a challenging, exacting business sometimes. It takes a lot of hard work to succeed, and even the best can take a tumble. So while it’s important to celebrate success stories like Fiddler on the Roof, we should also spare a thought for the shows that never quite got going. Enter 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: a musical with a Presidential focus, a star-studded creative team, and major financial backing. Despite having so many ingredients for success, the show was a perpetual mess and is remembered now as a great disappointment.
Big Team, Big Challenge
When 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue started coming together in 1972, everything seemed to be in its favor. At its core were two men with Broadway significant Broadway pedigree: Alan Jay Lerner, author and lyricist for such notable hits as My Fair Lady and Camelot, and Leonard Bernstein, one of the most celebrated American musical minds, whose score lit up the great West Side Story. Though neither had enjoyed recent success on Broadway – Lerner had suffered a series of disappointments, while Bernstein had not returned since West Side Story – it was assumed their first full collaboration was a surefire recipe for success.
The original idea for the show was conceived by Lerner, who was inspired to write a musical about American politics in 1972 after the Watergate scandal brought down the Nixon administration. What he produced was an examination of more than a century of life in the White House. The show followed several Presidents and First Ladies through major events in U.S. history, each of whom would be played by the same pair of actors. Their exploits were juxtaposed with those of four generations of Black servants working in the White House, themselves played by the same pair of actors. The concept was further complicated by a metatheatrical, “show-within-a-show” frame, which saw the actors playing actors rehearsing a play about the U.S. Presidents, feeding into the notion that the country itself is always rehearsing its own democracy. The aim was to inspire not only a portrayal of American Presidential politics, but a critique. Periodically, the actors would step out of character to comment on the actions of the Presidents, particularly on matters of race and the nation’s persistent oppression of its Black citizens. Aided by Bernstein’s robust, almost operatic score, the show was intended to be both rousing and complex, a celebration of America and an analysis of its shortcomings.
On the surface, the idea was good enough to attract major investments. In a groundbreaking move, producers Roger L. Stevens and Robert Whitehead secured $900,000 from the Coca Cola Company, an unusual investment from a major corporation. A cast and creative team was assembled for rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts were set for Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Eventually, the show set a course for an auspicious debut year: 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. What could be more appropriate than a show examining the country’s most hallowed home?
Unfortunately, the production’s first stop in Philadelphia was a disaster. Though it made good business, the show was butchered by critiques, who lambasted Lerner’s convoluted book, Bernstein’s overwrought score, and the show’s “preachy” message. The show even had to delay its opening because some of the necessary scenery elements had not made the trip from New York in time. In short, it was a mess, neither the sunny celebration nor the slick musical extravaganza everyone had banked on. Apparently, Bernstein himself was so ashamed he wanted the project to die in Philadelphia, but the producers were already in too deep and, as many commentators have noted, a musical that size is essentially a juggernaut: once it gets started, there is no stopping it. So, with Broadway its destiny, the show moved on to a five-week engagement at The National, where it underwent major surgery at the hands of a new team.
Emergency at The National
Located just a stone’s throw from the White House itself, The National Theatre seemed to present the ideal place for the show to find its feet. Desperate to recoup their investment and stabilize the ship, the producers brought on Gilbert Moses as director and George Faison as choreographer, two Black artists and activists who had worked together on the original production of the Tony Award-winning musical The Wiz. With plenty of work to do, Moses set about making cuts to the musical, even going so far as to bar Lerner, Bernstein, and the producers from attending rehearsals. As he told Time magazine, Moses had “no sympathy for what didn’t work. Whatever I thought was too long, too laborious, too repetitive, not theatrical enough, I cut.” Furthermore, Moses took steps to address the musical’s problematic racial dynamics, which were undermining its well-meaning message. For starters, he modified the portrayal of the Black characters in order to steer them clear of stereotype, ensuring they no longer came across as naïve as they had in earlier versions. Ironically, he also found himself integrating the rehearsals, which had been effectively split along racial lines so that the White actors could rehearse their presidential scenes and the Black actors could rehearse the parts involving the servants. Moses even wanted to take the entire show to Los Angeles for three weeks of intensive workshopping and rehearsals, but with expenses ticking up constantly, the producers decided to press forward.
In the end, entire songs and chunks of dialogue were cut or replaced with new material, forcing the actors to adjust on the fly and work themselves to the point of distress and exhaustion. Unlike Fiddler on the Roof, which had come to The National on a wave of good reviews and was focused on taking its excellence to the next level, the team behind 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was simply trying to develop something presentable. Unfortunately, despite gutting and reworking much of Lerner and Bernstein’s cumbersome material, the musical still opened to poor reviews and seemed to be a general mess. As David Richards, review for the Washington Star, put it, “If you were to take the sundry parts of ‘1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,’ put them in a salad bowl and toss, it would only clarify matters.”
Eventually, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue made it to Broadway, but its stay was short-lived. After several weeks of previews, it opened in May of 1976 to terrible reviews and ran for an embarrassingly low seven performances. Lerner and Bernstein effectively disowned the production and refused to allow for the customary cast recording of the score. Since then, there is scant record left of their original work. The only fully staged version of note was a 1992 production at Indiana University under the direction of Erik Haagensen, which was eventually brought to the Kennedy Center. The musical itself was later reworked into a 90-minute concert piece called A White House Cantata and enjoyed a brief run at Lincoln Center in 2008, partly as a commentary on the pending election of Barack Obama. Ultimately, the whole endeavor remains a disappointing entry on some otherwise impressive CVs.
Why Didn’t it work?
“Take care of this house,Abigail Adams, singing “Take Care of This House” in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Be always on call,
For this house it’s the home of us all.”
If you read a bit about Fiddler on the Roof, you may have learned that the men brought together to create that show were already established names with strong track records. The same applied for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and yet the results were very different. Why? Well, for starters, talent isn’t everything in theatre. Anyone who has succeeded on Broadway knows that it requires a lot of hard work, too. But by and large, this team seemed to put plenty of that in, even if the results may not have been as good as they could have been. In the end, what this process may have lacked are two components that can make all the difference: timing and perspective.
As the bicentennial, the year 1976 was meant to be a celebration of all things American. What major officials and funders, such as the Coca Cola Company, likely wanted out of a Broadway musical such as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a positive, straightforward account of the nation’s history. What it got instead was a metatheatrical critique of race relations in the United States as they played out in the White House. Unsurprisingly, this is not the kind of perspective many people associate with a two-hundredth birthday celebration. In fact, one of the major laments from viewers was that the show was too preachy and “too racial,” which is to say it dwelt on matters that many (predominately White) audience members did not want to confront. People may have said the same thing regardless of when the musical debuted, but it seemed particularly jarring at a time when most people probably wanted to soak up the happy American memories and forget the rest.
Of course, forgetting the rest is a major contributor to long-term troubles. What Bernstein and Lerner were attempting was actually quite appropriate: the nation needed to confront these fundamental problems. However, just because the creators of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had the best of intentions does not mean they achieved their goals. For a musical that was ostensibly about exploring race relations, the focus was certainly skewed toward the Presidents and away from the Black servants who waited on them. Furthermore, the portrayal of Black characters was roundly criticized, including by the artists brought in to save the show. As Bernstein’s own daughter has acknowledged, the show had a built-in problem in that it was written entirely from the perspective of two White Jewish men. Perhaps if Black artists and leaders such as Moses and Faison had been brought in earlier, the results would have been different. While some have said that Lerner’s idea was always faulty from the beginning, a more balanced perspective may have leant the show greater stability.
From the ARchives
Unlike successful classics like Fiddler on the Roof, in-depth coverage and scholarship about works like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can sometimes be hard to come by. Thankfully, The National Theatre archive has extensive newspaper holdings documenting the musical’s troubled journey to Broadway. Below are just a few selections from those files, which illustrate how big a deal this collaboration was to begin with – and how disappointing its failure proved to be.
Barnes, Clive. “‘1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’ Arrives.” The New York Times (New York, NY), May 5, 1976.
Gill, Brendan. “Juggernaut.” The New Yorker, May 17, 1976.
Gussow, Mel. “‘1600’ Takes Rough Road to Broadway.” The New York Times (New York, NY), March 23, 1976.
Hoge, Warren. “Bernstein’s Singing Presidents: A Recount.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, March 31, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/31/theater/31bern.html
Holland, Bernard. “Review/Music: ‘1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’ Tries for a Comeback in Washington.” The New York Times (New York, NY), August 13, 1992.
“Show Business: 1600: Anatomy of a Turkey.” Time Magazine, May 1976.
Taylor, Kate. “A Bernstein Musical Revived – In Part.” NYSun.com. The New York Sun, March 11, 2008. https://www.nysun.com/arts/bernstein-musical-revived-in-part/72698/
Some plays court controversy and come out better for it. Check out The Breakthrough: M. Butterfly to learn more.