Assuming that the selections of Bernstein's failed 1976 musical "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" on this disc are representative of the musical as a whole, it is in some respects easy to see why it was not successful. It was too long, theatrically complicated, and thematically ambiguous. My initial reaction on hearing this recording for the first time was one of puzzlement: just what is this show supposed to be about?
The ambiguity of the show's plot results from one main factor; namely, it consists of a historically based "macro-narrative" of our nation's history, lasting over a century and spanning every presidential administration from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt. It does not happen at one specific point in history, as does, say, "1776." It has four main characters: the President and First Lady, and two slaves named Lud and Seena.
Here is where it gets confusing - all of the different presidents and first ladies are played by the same actor and actress (in this case, Thomas Hampson and June Anderson) and both of the Lud, Seena, and all of THEIR descendants are played by the same actors (as well as a boy who plays Lud in his youth). If you are finding this explanation confusing, then imagine going and seeing this show in a theater in 1976 and trying to figure out what was happening. As I said earlier, the reasons for the show's failure are very easy to diagnose.
Now, to answer the old question, "What is this show about?". This show is, in its truest sense, about the diffuculties of maintaining a democratic society. When Abagail Adams charges Lud (the young boy who is then a slave in the White House) to "Take Care of This House," a song which is really the key to the whole work, she is presenting him with nothing less than the challenge of attempting a democratic society; and it is his job, everyone's job to "take care of this house", since, as Mrs. Adams says, "this house is the hope of us all." In the show, the White House comes to represent the nation itself, and as such it might be said that the it is White House more than any particular person that is the real hero of the whole work.
The music in the show is absolutely superb. Bernstein wrote some of his finest music for this, from the tragic "Prelude" (which you may know from the composer's "Songfest"), to the frustration of James Monroe over the presence of slavery in an ostensibly free society in "The Monroviad," to the regal nobility of "To Make Us Proud," where Theodore Roosevelt sings,
"Let rage be fearless
And faith be loud,
This land needs love
To make us proud."