A “Duet” for Our Times

As our country finds itself in the midst of another disputed presidential election, we can perhaps look back at the disputed election to end all disputed elections, the Hayes and Tilden debacle of 1876…and how it was set to music by Leonard Bernstein.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, was Bernstein’s last score for Broadway. It was also a colossal flop that ran for all of seven performances. The show attempts to depict a century of American history by showing the history of the White House and its residents. One actor plays all the presidents starting with Adams, and one actress plays all the first ladies. There is also a pair of black servants who allow the show to depict the ups and downs of race relations in America from 1792 to 1900. Not exactly the stuff of great musical comedy.

The show was intended as a tribute to America’s bicentennial at a point in the country’s history when the presidency itself had been brought into question. It appeared in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the Nixon resignation, and the ascent to the nation’s highest office by a man for whom no one (except a few people in Michigan) had voted. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was its liberal creators’ idea of a salute to a country emerging from the worst constitutional crisis in its history.

There is an opinion amongst musical theater aficionados that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is Bernstein’s lost masterpiece, and, to that end, there was an attempt to jettison the hopeless book and turn the music into a concert walk entitled A White House Cantata. Although the resultant piece received a major label recording, it failed to convince the world (and this writer) of the overall brilliance of the score, which seems once again to have sunk into legendary obscurity.

Nonetheless, Abigail Adams’ admonition to the child playing the male black servant in his youngest incarnation, “Take Care of this House,” has attained some currency. It was even performed at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration by Frederica von Stade the year after the show flopped. It is an attractive number that doesn’t always get the kind of magisterial performance it requires and received from the role’s (roles’?) remarkable creatrix, the British singing actress Dame Patricia Routledge.

The real highlight of the first lady role comes in the second act, however. The date is March 5, 1877, the day of Rutherford B. Hayes’ inauguration a scant four days after congress finally decided that he would be the next president. The actress playing the first ladies is called upon to portray both the outgoing (Julia Grant) and incoming (Lucy Hayes) first ladies at the same time, in a “Duet for One,” using trick voices and a costume that allowed Dame Patricia to flip back and forth between the two characters. The number runs for ten minutes and apparently won Routledge a mid-act standing ovation on the Broadway opening night. (It probably also woke the audience up.) We are fortunate indeed to have Routledge’s performance recorded live and in tolerable sound available on YouTube.

For those who may have trouble deciphering Lerner’s lyrics from the occasionally hazy sound of the bootleg recording, and for comparison value in general, the late John McGlinn, a major advocate of the score, conducted a performance of the “duet” with Judy Kaye on his Broadway Showstoppers CD from the early 1990s Vocally, Kaye is superior to Routledge, although the creatrix of the part, captured with a live audience before her, manages to do even more with the piece than Kaye does in the recording studio.

There are some differences between the two versions. I trust McGlinn, a major figure in the movement of what can be called original instruments musical comedy, to have come up with the most accurate text possible. Thus, most noticeably, the “nasty…troops” who will “vanish from sight” from the South in exchange for Hayes’ election, are “black” in the Kaye version and “white” in Routledge’s. Also missing from the Broadway performance is a verse in which Mrs. Grant inveighs against ending Reconstruction: “thank Hayes/the Caucasians are back in command.”  It was probably unauthorized changes like these that led Bernstein to repudiate the version of the show that reached Broadway and not to permit an original cast recording of the score.

The number is also an American history lesson. The Hayes and Tilden election of 1876 was the second time that the anomaly of having someone win the popular vote and someone else win the electoral vote occurred. It was also probably the strangest in United States history, and was ultimately decided by an act of Congress following a closed-doors compromise through which Southern Democrats granted Republican Hayes the electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from those states and, thus, the end of Reconstruction. (Do recall that Lincoln’s party was the Republicans and that, in those days, white Southern voters were nearly all Democrats.)

Turning that election into a musical comedy tour de force was managed by having history served up from the viewpoints of the two first ladies. Although at points in the number the racial rhetoric is spread pretty thick, the number’s humor derives from the idea that it’s being sung by two women who hate each other. On another level, Julia Grant functions as the authors’ mouthpiece and rails against the Hayes election and the way in which it brought about the disfranchisement of Southern black Republican voters. For her part, Lucy Hayes looks forward twitteringly to her ascent to being the “first lady of the land”, unconcerned with the consequences of the compromise that got her there in the first place.

One cannot help but point out that the characterizations of the two first ladies aren’t exactly historically accurate. The attitudes of the two women towards slavery seem to have been reversed. Mrs. Grant, here the champion of Southern black voters, was actually born in Missouri to a slave-owning family and kept with her throughout the war a slave who attained freedom only with emancipation. Mrs. Hayes came from Ohio and had a much better track record with African-Americans.

Some of the lyrics are good (“they counted the ballots again one by one/they counted and counted ‘til Rutherford won”), some of them are painful (“luciest Lucy of the land”): 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue wasn’t Lerner’s finest effort. What makes the number work is Bernstein’s music and its juxtaposition of two totally different musical styles and voices, Mrs. Grant’s almost baritonal earthy alto and Mrs. Hayes’ mock coloratura soprano, genteel airs and concluding high D.

The other thing that makes “Duet for One” so successful is the performances it has received. Dame Patricia is indeed extraordinary, and one can only hear what she achieved. The trick costume and her stage business (which get applause at one point that’s not explained entirely by the music) clearly added to the number’s impact and won her that standing ovation. Miss Kaye, performing only for the microphone, doesn’t go nearly as far as Routledge does with the Julia Grant voice, but she’s more comfortable in Lucy Hayes’ simpering soprano register. It’s nearly as great a performance, and both recordings convince one that the number can be terrific.  They also do cause one to wonder whether the rest of the score might actually be as good as its champions say it is.

Although the show’s creative team was very obviously determined to create something topical – and failed – the irony is that “Duet for One” has turned out to be topical (perhaps even more so in 2000 than in 2020), not because of its unsubtle civil rights agenda, but as a commentary on the vagaries of our electoral system.

This isn’t the place to debate the merits of the electoral college (although I might point out that I personally see why we have it), but 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue does show that, in the hands of a great singing actress and for the space of ten minutes, it can make for brilliant political satire.

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