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by Michael Portantiere

White House Keeping

  • Robert Bass; photo by Chris Lee


    If you missed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during its Broadway run, you are forgiven. The show only lasted for 13 previews and seven regular performances at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (now a church!) in 1976, although it boasted music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, and a cast that included Ken Howard, Patricia Routledge, Emily Yancy, Beth Fowler, and Reid Shelton. Even Michael Lichtefeld was in it!

    At the behest of the Bernstein estate, about 90 minutes of music from the score was later adapted as a concert piece titled A White House Cantata. Kent Nagano conducted the 1997 premiere in London, and the work was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. But, believe it or not, the cantata has never been heard in New York -- until now. Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center is the place to be on Monday, March 31 at 8pm, when Robert Bass will conduct The Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke's in the New York premiere performance. (The timing is fortuitous in that 2008 is the 90th birthday year of both Bernstein and Lerner.)

    "I think the cantata includes the best music from the show," says Bass (pictured above). "The choices that were made in putting it together were really wise. What remains is a pastiche of a lot of American musical styles: love songs, minstrel music, jazz, marches, hymns, and anthems, all connected by the history of the White House itself. It's a very exuberant work -- and, in concert form, the strength of the music and lyrics is first and foremost."

    The idea of a musical set in the White House may sound like a joke to present-day audiences, given the awful things that have been going on there for the past eight years. But 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the cantata drawn from it are by no means celebratory. Indeed, the show was subtitled "a musical about the problems of housekeeping." A press release for the upcoming performance of the cantata describes it as depicting "the absurdity of period social hierarchies within the first 100 years of the United States' executive mansion, using 11 presidents, selected first ladies, and three generations of black servants." Some of the sequences explore James Monroe's refusal to halt slavery in Washington, Andrew Johnson's impeachment, and Thomas Jefferson's affair with a black maid -- still only alleged in 1976, but later proven to have occurred.

    Roger Rees will direct the semi-staged concert performance, with soloists including Anita Johnson as Seena, Emily Pulley as the First Lady, Robert Mack as Lud, and baritone Dwayne Croft -- a stalwart of the Metropolitan Opera -- as the President. "There is some spoken dialogue in the cantata," says Bass. "There's a movement with the British characters, where they burn down the White House and destroy the furniture at a state dinner. It's called a sonatina, but it's mostly spoken. Roger Rees is not only directing, he's also got the lead speaking role of Admiral Cockburn."

    The most famous song from the score is probably the moving anthem "Take Care of This House." Bass says that his favorite sections include "The President Jefferson March" and "the beautiful love ballad 'Seena,' which sounds a little bit like 'Somewhere' from West Side Story. I also hear a lot of Wonderful Town in the score, but some of it is very grand and operatic. For example, there's a huge, climactic hymn at the end. It's called 'To Make Us Proud,' and it reminds me of the finale of Candide. The cantata is a wonderful piece, and I'm delighted that we're presenting its New York premiere in Rose Hall, which is the perfect venue for it."


    Euan Morton; photo by Michael Portantiere


    Any number of powerhouse performers are currently or very soon to be found doing their stuff in Manhattan's cabaret venues, from Tovah Feldshuh, Rita Moreno, and Spring Awakening's Lea Michele at Feinstein's at the Regency to Amanda McBroom, Annie Ross, Karen Mason, and Marilyn Maye at the Metropolitan Room. But I'd like to call particular attention to Euan Morton's engagement in the historic Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, which continues through March 29.

    Euan garnered rave reviews and a Tony nomination, not to mention a Theatre World Award, for his amazing performance as Boy George in the failed but largely fabulous Broadway musical Taboo. (If you missed it, buy or rent the DVD of the documentary Show Business: The Road to Broadway, in which he's prominently featured.) Winner of a 2006 Obie Award for his work in Measure for Pleasure at The Public Theater, he has played the title roles in Tony Kushner's adaptation of Brundibár at the New Victory and the Berkeley Rep, The Who's Tommy at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, and the NYMF presentation of Caligula. Euan appeared Off-Broadway opposite Alfred Molina in the Roundabout's Howard Katz, and he had a colorful featured role in the recent Broadway production of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Kevin Kline.

    One of the most expressive and versatile singing actors in the business, Euan offers a wonderfully eclectic program in his show at the Oak Room, which is titled Here and Now. Selections range from "Pure Imagination" (Bricusse/Newley, from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) to such standards as "It's Only a Paper Moon," "You Go to My Head," and "Someone to Watch Over Me," with a little Stephen Sondheim ("No One Is Alone," from Into the Woods) and Leonard Cohen ("Hallelujah" ) thrown in for good measure. His patter is thoroughly witty and charming, as it has been in his appearances at the aforementioned Metropolitan Room, Joe's Pub, Birdland, the Zipper, and other clubs and theaters.

    One cavil: Euan does a fantastic job of playing to everyone in the long and narrow Oak Room, sometimes going so far as to walk among the patrons while singing (in the manner of the room's most frequent star, Andrea Marcovicci). But this effort is handily undercut by the fact that the house lights remain off while he's roaming, and he's therefore left in near-complete darkness. I can only hope that this strange, easily fixable problem has been addressed since I attended. No technical weirdness should detract from the talent of this great Scot, who has happily decided to pursue his career on our shores.

    Published on Friday, March 21, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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