On May 5, 1976, John White, a media relations specialist at The Coca-Cola Company, sat inside Sardis Restaurant in New York’s Times Square, awaiting the media’s verdict on an unusual Coca-Cola project.

Finally, in the pre-dawn hours, he stepped out to buy a handful of early-edition newspapers for the first headlines.

And they weren’t good.

The subject of the reviews was not a new drink, package or advertising campaign, but rather a Broadway musical titled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Based on a book by Alan Jay Lerner and featuring a musical score by Leonard Bernstein, it was considered the season’s “can’t-miss” hit. The Coca-Cola Company was the show’s sole underwriter. 

What made the company stray out of its comfort zone of selling soft drinks to join the rank of Broadway backers? The answers are in our Archives holdings, tucked away in a stack of folders detailing our involvement with the ill-fated musical. The correspondence and internal memos stitch together a fascinating story of excitement, grand plans and, ultimately, resignation.

An Ivy League Connection

J. Paul Austin

The Coca-Cola Company’s involvement with the musical began some 35 years earlier at Harvard University. Coca-Cola Chairman J. Paul Austin and Lerner attended the school around the same time and became acquainted. Their paths crossed occasionally in the years that followed, as Austin rose through the ranks of The Coca-Cola Export Company to eventually become CEO of The Coca-Cola Company.

After graduation, Lerner, on the other hand, famously paired with Frederick Lowe as the lyricist for Brigadoon, then followed that success with the smash hits My Fair Lady, Camelot and Gigi. With that track record, he was considered one of the giants of Broadway. 

While watching the Watergate hearings in 1972, Lerner developed the concept of the White House as the “people’s house” and became determined to write a musical using the sanctity of the House as his basis. He would explore the concepts that shaped American history by showing them from the viewpoint of a succession of U.S. Presidents, as well as the staff that served at the White House. With his concept in place, Lerner approached another Harvard alum and Broadway legend, Leonard Bernstein, to compose the music. 

Bernstein was a master composer and conductor. He had a long and enormously respected tenure as musical director for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and also composed the music for several classic musicals including On the Town, Candide and West Side Story. Lerner and Bernstein even teamed up in 1957 to write The Lonely Men of Harvard, a lighthearted tribute to their alma mater.

Lerner and Bernstein met around 1974 to begin to give shape to the project. The musical would cover almost 100 years (1800-1900) of American history from the viewpoint of the Presidents and First Ladies. The second viewpoint would be provided by two African-American servants, Ned and Lud. Astoundingly, the same actors would play all roles! As a subplot, the four characters would also be actors who were rehearsing for a modern play to bring the dialogue up to date.

If it sounds ambitious, it was. But then again, two master craftsman were developing the work and, by 1975, they felt they had a winner.

Bicentennial on Broadway

This is about the time Coca-Cola became involved. In the era before email and faxes, letters and telegrams were the primary means of communication – and our files are filled with both. In a letter dated Feb. 1975, Lerner wrote Austin a letter to sell the idea of Coca-Cola backing the musical. The play would be a wonderful way for Coca-Cola to celebrate the arts, Lerner argued, via the United States Bicentennial.

At this point, Coca-Cola was a very cautious company. Austin’s reply was designed to buy some time to examine the proposal. While noting he was on his way to a meeting in China (Coca-Cola would be one of the first American companies to re-enter the market in 1979), he noted that: “If the matter is still open when I return, I would like to get together with you in New York to find out a little bit about what might be possible.” 

Once Coca-Cola received a copy of the script (which we still have in our Archives,) what followed were a series of letters between the company, our longstanding advertising agency, McCann Erickson, and several law firms who were well versed in the intricacies of bringing a Broadway production to life. Austin liked the script and truly believed it was a way for The Coca-Cola Company to contribute to the Bicentennial.

But he still wanted to make sure it was a wise investment. A humorous memo dated July 30, 1975 examined the “resumes” of Bernstein and Lerner, dryly noting that all of their 14 works were considered hits, with a combined 6,300-plus performances.

At the same time, there were cautionary notes. The team from McCann Erickson advised that a similar investment in movie product placements would be less expensive and easily generate a healthier return. Another note warned that Coca-Cola would be “dealing with people that are very expertise in negotiating Broadway contracts and that ‘Coke better zip up their pocketbook, otherwise be prepared to be taken.’”

Don Keough

After weighing all pros and cons, Coca-Cola USA President Donald R. Keough sent a note to Austin on Aug. 19, 1975. “We are prepared to go ahead with the project providing an appropriate document can be put together that satisfies all parties,” the correspondence read.

The Coca-Cola Company had now become the sole backer of a Broadway musical featuring words by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Leonard Bernstein. Lerner penned a quick note to Austin leading with “Who’d of thought after all these years?!”

Setting the Stage

The next three months must have been a heady time. Coke maintained a backstage role as Lerner and Bernstein finalized the production, but as scheduling and publicity heated up in early-September, Lerner gave an interview to The New York Times identifying Coca-Cola as the musical sponsor.

And the media storm exploded. Lerner noted his childhood friendship with Austin, their Harvard connection and more importantly, the company’s $900,000 investment in the play.

Austin was bombarded with letters from well-wishers and requests to capitalize on the play. A week later, he granted an interview to John Huey of the Atlanta Constitution to reiterate the fact that this was being done as a way to give a gift to the nation. “The composing team is unique in the history of the theater,” he noted. “It doesn’t guarantee anything, of course.”

Rehearsals began in January 1976. Lerner, who hadn’t invited Austin to any rehearsals, assured in in a November 1975 letter that, “The play is coming very well indeed, but we still haven’t found a President.”

That did not temper the enthusiasm for the musical within The Coca-Cola Company. In an internal memo dated Dec. 3, 1975, one executive asked Keough how they should anticipate handling requests for tickets from members of Congress. The lack of casting was short-lived; the four principal actors were promptly announced. Ken Howard played the Presidents and Patricia Routledge portrayed First Ladies. Gilbert Price and Emily Yancy were cast as the two White House servants.

Plans began for a series of openings for the musical. The out-of-town debut was set for Philadelphia in February 1976 with a second run set to begin in Washington, D.C.  Austin pegged March 24 for a Gala Performance and bought out the theatre for the night. Plans were underway to select the guest list, and an invitation was produced. Internal memos speculated if President Ford should be invited. Gordon Parrish, a longtime Coca-Cola executive in the fountain business, was assigned to work on the project.

Early Red Flags

The cracks in the armor were exposed during the “out-of-town” run of the show in Philadelphia on Feb. 26. In a three-page memo from Parrish to the leadership of The Coca-Cola Company, the first red flag was raised. Parrish noted that Bernstein stood up to give an impromptu speech saying, “I feel I must warn you that you are in for a long, hard evening.” He reminded the audience that “this is precisely the reason for a try-out performance…”

Bernstein was confident, however, that the “gracious” audience would understand. Parrish noted that Roger Stevens, one of the producers, warned that bad reviews were to be expected.

Image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University Libraries 

The reviews were not just bad – they were terrible. Headlines like “Lerner and Bernstein’s Stars & Gripes,” and “Giants of the Stage Produce a Puny 1600” decorated newspapers. The show was too long at three-and-a-half hours plus an intermission, and was considered ponderous and too preachy.

By giving the viewpoint of the African-American duo, Lerner had hoped to increase awareness of the Civil Rights Act and what had transpired in the 100 years after the Civil War. While the spirit of the piece was earnest, it was not a en vogue subject considering the Civil Rights Voting Act had been enacted a mere 12 years prior. It’s interesting that while several reviews called out the beautiful music, clever lyrics and superior performances by the four lead actors, the show as a whole did not gel. 

Given the uncertainty, Coca-Cola began to look at how the show could be saved. The company immediately looked for what John White describes as “show doctors” to cut the length and improve the flow. Gilbert Moses and George Faison – two African-Americans – were brought in as the new director and choreographer to “fix” the show before it moved to Washington. Moses and Faison were cited in a New York Times story as “injecting a strong element of hope into the show.” Parrish reported in a March 10, 1976 memo that the producers were aware of the flaws but that most of them would be corrected before the Gala. The research wing of The Coca-Cola Company even did a very quick but accurate survey to gauge the tenor of the out-of-town reviews of other Lerner shows. If you are curious, My Fair Lady was considered a hit from the beginning, but Camelot was panned up to the moment it appeared on Broadway. Many of the criticisms were the same as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave:  too long, too ponderous and too preachy.

A Successful Disaster

While early reviews of the show were miserable, Coca-Cola had already sent save-the-date notices to bottlers, customers,and partners for the Washington event.

Would Austin continue with the Gala? The answer should have been obvious as early as March 9, when the company removed its name from the advertising in Playbill and other publications. Two days later, the Gala in Washington was cancelled, but the decision was made to continue to support the play.

Opening Night

Leonard Bernstein (left, seated), Alan Jay Lerner, Gordon Parrish and John White at the opening night party in New York.

At this point, correspondence between Lerner and Bernstein published in their biographies began to reveal flaws in their vison of the show. The New York Times reported that Bernstein had urged the project be cancelled after Philadelphia, but Lerner wanted to press on. Lerner continued to modify the script up to the opening moment in Washington. His efforts appeared to pay off; the D.C. version of the show received much better reviews. While the company had cancelled its Gala, many of our bottlers and other partners had attended the musical during its two-week run in the nation’s capitol. Reports at this point trended toward the positive with headlines like: “The Potholes for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Have Been Filled In.”

With sold-out shows every night in Washington, one pundit cited 1600 Pennsylvania Ave as the most successful disaster they had ever seen.

1600 Penn Ave Ticket Stubs

While it cannot be said that hopes were high as the show headed to New York, internal notes indicate that the Coca-Cola team was cautiously optimistic. On May 2, the eve of the New York premiere at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, The New York Times published a long-form piece on the travails of the play, asking, “Will Lerner’s New Musical Sing?”

The answer was a resounding maybe.

As White gathered the newspapers in the early morning hours of May 5, the verdict was in. The reviews were uniformly negative with the same critiques as the early days in Philadelphia. New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote: “If this is meant as a Bicentennial offering… maybe we should wait for the Tricentennial.” Internal memos were sent to Austin by the two producers, Stevens and Whitehead, warning that the show would never be able to overcome the critical backlash. Advance ticket sales had slowed to a trickle, and the decision was made to close the show on May 8, 1976 after only seven performances.

The Musical Version of Ishtar

On May 12th, 1976, Lerner once again wrote Austin, but with a now chagrined tone. “For me, the worst part of failure is failing the people who had faith in me,” he wrote. “And, of course, on the top of that list is you. I cannot tell you how badly I feel that I was not able to make this the experience I wanted for you.”

Austin’s elegant and heartfelt reply was sent to both Bernstein and Lerner. “Corporations recover from bad investments in a relatively short period of time,” he wrote. “I doubt if the emotions of composers and playwrights are quite as resilient. I hope neither one of you feels too badly; I don’t.”

The aftermath of the musical was almost as interesting as the musical. In part because of the fame of the the two creators, no one expected the disaster it became. For years, it was considered one of the biggest Broadway failures, the musical version of Ishtar. Because the failure stuck so heavily, neither Lerner nor Bernstein would allow a cast recording to be struck, so unless one had seen the live performances, the play remained unheard but a matter of legend. Requests to the pair to restage the musical were rebuffed. After both men passed away, Bernstein’s family did allow the incorporation of some of the musical elements into A White House Cantata. The work incorporated 90 minutes of the show and was led by Sid Ramin who, along with Hersey Kay, composed the orchestration of the original musical. This version premiered in 1997. Interestingly, even in this revised form –though the music is considered brilliant and the lyrics clever – The White House Cantata has failed to catch on and requests to stage it are few and far between. The one song that has had continued reuse is “Take Care of this House” a sweet ballad about the White House that was sung at Presidnet Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and has been recorded a number of times.

From a Coca-Cola perspective, a project that began as a way to celebrate the Bicentennial backfired, generating both bad media and negative experiences. From the euphoric high of pre-show planning to the aftermath of writing letters to disgruntled shareowners, it was a learning experience.

The company pledged to remain out of show business, a pledge it retained for six years… until purchasing Columbia Pictures.


Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company