I was ten years old. Jane Fonda, who was a ballet student of my father’s at the June Taylor School, walked into class one day and said, “Your son’s an actor. We’re planning the first Actor’s Studio production on Broadway – STRANGE INTERLUDE – and there’s a part for a child. Would Richard like to go down to the Studio and meet Jose Quintero?”
I went down to the Studio and walked into Jose’s office. He sat me down and asked, in his gruff and emotional way, “So. What do you want to be more than anything in the world?”
“An actor,” I said.
He slammed the flat of his hand onto his desk and said, “That’s it! You got the Part!”
He then looked toward a closet in the room and said, “Gerry!” The closet door opened and Geraldine Page emerged. She walked to my chair, knelt down, took my hands in hers, looked me into my eyes and said, “My son. You’re my son.”
Richard Thomas began is career on Broadway in 1958 in “Sunrise at Campobello” and has never looked back. Among his prominent Broadway credits are “The Little Foxes” (Tony nomination), “Strange Interlude”, “The Fifth of July”, “Democracy”, “The Front Page”, “You Can’t Take It With You”, “The Great Society” and “Race”. Richard is an Emmy Award winning actor beloved for the his iconic John-Boy Walton in “The Waltons” and will soon be seen throughout the country as another iconic figure, Atticus Finch, in the National Tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” This Thursday, October 29th through next Monday, November 2nd, Richard has recreated his role of Charles Strickland in “Race” (co-starring Ed O’Neill, David Alan Grier and Alicia Stith) in a Special Benefit Performance for the Actors Fund which can accessed on this site.
In one way or another, being the American president means having a relationship with the American theatre. That might mean being a regular attendee (like Bill Clinton) or a one-time Broadway producer (like Donald Trump). It might mean meeting the future First Lady while starring with her in a community theatre production (like Richard Nixon), or it might mean, of course, losing your life at Ford’s Theatre.
But more than anything, being the president means having the symbolic power of your office — and very often the specifics of your own administration — embodied on stage. As we approach another election, it’s a good time to survey how dramatists have imagined the Commander-in-Chief, because no matter who wins in November, he’ll likely find himself in a play soon enough.
Broadway has been delivering shows about presidents for almost as long as it has existed. Take Benjamin Chapin’s drama Lincoln, which premiered in 1906 and was revived in 1909. it launched a decades-long trend of serious-minded plays that depict real-life presidents as heroes. This includes Maxwell Anderson’s 1934 drama Valley Forge, which lionizes George Washington; Charles Nirdlinger’s 1911 play First Lady in the Land, which celebrates both James and Dolly Madison; and In Time To Come, a tribute to Wilson’s creation of the League of Nations that was written in late 1941 by Howard Koch and the legendary filmmaker John Huston as a direct response to World War II.
Chapin, meanwhile, was just the first of many playwrights to respectfully depict Honest Abe. John Drinkwater had a smash hit in 1919 when his play Abraham Lincoln ran on Broadway for almost six months, and The Rivalry, Norman Corwin’s 1959 dramatization of the Lincoln-Douglas debates had a starry L.A. revival as recently as 2008, with David Strathairn as Lincoln and Paul Giamatti as Douglas. And Robert Sherwood nearly outshone them all with Abe Lincoln In Illinois, which focuses on the future president’s rise to political prominence. It opened to raves in 1938, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and ran for over 470 performances.
However, it’s hard to imagine a show like Abe Lincoln in Illinois being embraced today. As historian Bruce Altschuler says in his book Acting Presidents, “Which presidents are portrayed and in what ways [tells] us quite a bit about how Americans have perceived their leaders,” and since the late 1960s, the theatre has reflected the nation’s political strife, disillusionment, and ambivalence. While the occasional play like Give ’em Hell Harry (about Truman) or musical like 1776 still depicts the nation’s leaders as the undeniable good guys, the president is now more likely to represent conflict, confusion, or downright villainy.
Just look at what happened to Lincoln: He appears in the musical Hair, which is synonymous with the counterculture rebellion, after a character’s acid trip leads to historical hallucinations. In both 1993’s The America Play and 2001’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks probes the country’s fraught racial history by depicting a Black character who performs as a Lincoln impersonator.
These more subversive productions are part of a lineage that arguably starts with MacBird!, a 1967 satire that reimagines MacBeth as the story of Lyndon Johnson’s rise to power, complete with the murder of a king who resembles JFK. At the time, this was considered so scandalous that Walter Kerr called the play “tasteless and irresponsible”, and according to Altschuler’s research, there were cries of treason at a backer’s audition. While there had certainly been shows that mocked the foolishness of American politics (including the Gershwin’s musicals Of Thee I Sing! and Let ‘Em Eat Cake), MacBird! marked the first time a major production took specific, vitriolic aim at a sitting president.
Audiences didn’t mind. The show ran for 386 performances Off Broadway and earned Stacey Keach an Obie for his lead performance. Soon enough, both sitting presidents and living ex-presidents were considered fair game.
Gore Vidal is another key figure in this evolution. His 1960 play The Best Man is arguably one of the best American dramas ever written about politics, and though it draws inspiration from real-life figures like Truman and Kennedy, it uses fictional characters to probe the American political system.
Meanwhile, in 1972 Vidal wrote An Evening With Richard Nixon and…, using the then-current president’s own words in a play that sees him judged by the ghosts of presidents past. Similarly, George W. Bush was still in office when David Hare dissected his administration in the play Stuff Happens, and shortly after he left the White House in 2009, he was lampooned by Will Ferrell in the Tony Award-nominated solo show You’re Welcome America. More recently, Lucas Hnath’s play Hillary and Clinton, which came to Broadway in 2019, imagined the fateful night in 2008 when Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama.
With its poetic look at the Clintons’ inner lives, Hnath’s play belongs to a 21st-century tradition of presidential plays and musicals that seek to challenge our conventional understanding of a political narrative. In Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which premiered on Broadway in 2010, the controversial president is reimagined as an emo rock star whose volatile emotions help him gain the public’s ardor. Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon shows us Richard Nixon after his resignation, when he’s lost his influence and is desperately trying to rehabilitate his reputation. And Hamilton, of course,is famous for casting the Founding Fathers with actors of color, which among other things underscores that every American deserves to take ownership of the ideals pursued by presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
And not unlike MacBird!, Robert Schenkkan’s plays All the Way and The Great Society give LBJ’s presidency a Shakespearean tinge. Instead of satire, however, Schenkkan opts for the sweep of a history play and the emotional punch of a tragedy. All The Way, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014, charts one of Johnson’s greatest victories — the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — but this climax becomes painfully bittersweet when it’s considered alongside The Great Society, whichdepicts the Johnson administration’s disastrous descent into the Vietnam War.
Often, the most enduring shows about presidents — either real or fictional — stay with us because they seem to understand our current moment. For instance, David Mamet’s play November, about a fictional (and morally dubious) chief executive named Charles “Chucky” Smith, premiered on Broadway in 2008. One of Smith’s final lines (“I always felt I’d do something memorable — I just assumed it’d be getting impeached”) was funny at the time, but it feels shockingly prescient in the Trump era. Likewise, unless politicians suddenly change, the mudslinging campaign tactics in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man are guaranteed to be freshly relevant every four years.
And with this year’s presidential election feeling especially fraught, there’s no doubt it will inspire another crop of plays to keep the president on stage for years to come.
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
You needn’t ever ask anyone who has served as an artistic director of a regional company if there is anything left they wished they’d directed. If the service happens to extend to about 25 years, as mine did at the Old Globe in San Diego from 1982 to 2007, I probably ticked off most my secret favorites, including as much Shakespeare as anyone of my generation. But along the way, I also managed a modern, “regional” adaptation of KISS ME, KATE, as well as THE TORCHBEARERS, with the full intent to prove that George Kelly predated the Brits’ NOISES OFF by a couple of generations, as well as a production of the rarely done THE WAY OF THE WORLD in Balenciaga gowns and including an original rhymed prologue and epilogue of “ghosts” of the period, explaining the connotation and getting a few welcome laughs.
Don’t kid yourself — the fare of a seasonal roster of plays by any regional theatre is not actually dictated, as one might suppose, by the whims of its artistic staff. It is completely at the discretion of a publishing deadline for the dreaded and deeply feared subscription brochure, something as fixed as the Sword of Damocles, and just about as welcome. If one depends upon a subscription, as almost all the major regional companies have done over decades, that slender folder of printed promise needs to go out in time for the cash to come back in before you’re able to spend a single penny; and management really doesn’t much care if you are on a first name basis with your Muse or not: they need the next six plays, let’s say. Cough it up!
I’ve always equated choosing a season with sport fishing, or maybe even better, cooking. People are coming over to eat. They assume you cook well, and if you expect to see them again, you don’t want to disappoint them; so off you go to the Farmer’s market with your basket, and you choose the best possible ingredients, trying to excite yourself as well as tempt the tastes of your friends. So initially perhaps, “one from column A, and another from column B” is a good place to begin. In the case of the Globe, the faithful expected no fewer than three Shakespeares during every summer. And, oh yes! A musical will certainly bring them in… find us a good musical! See what I mean? By the time you’ve chosen your classic, and hit upon an appropriate musical project, and thought of something for “him,” your best actor, or “them,” that attractive new married couple with the hit t.v. show on both a hiatus and with a lust for legitimacy, you are more than half way there.
So possibly something just for you might spur your enthusiasm and renew your excitement. We were usually fairly fortunate during the years I was in residence in San Diego, but I must confess, the moment Sondheim and Lapine’s INTO THE WOODS became a possibility for us to premiere, the entire regional field burst into bloom, and the future was written all over our walls. No longer the “boonies…” we swiftly became America’s theatrical proving ground, and the gloves were pretty much off. There were those sassy premieres you could grab, and others that were in serious contention, but always, inevitably, that private stash of your own, tucked away for special occasions. KISS ME, KATE and THE WAY OF THE WORLD certainly qualified for me, but honestly, too, always did Meredith Willson’s THE MUSIC MAN.
It so happened that my father, who died in the ’50’s when I was 18, was very involved in SPEBSQSA, The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, to the extent that he wrote a column for their national publication, and since THE MUSIC MAN gave glorious precedence to it’s own barbershop quartet singing immaculate material — LIDA ROSE?… oh God!!… I have longed all my life to have a whack at it. As a matter of fact, when I was finally able to witness the original production following my dad’s demise, I presented myself at the stage door, not to get an autograph or gaze at either Robert Preston or Barbara Cook, but rather to climb interminable stairs up to the very last dressing room in the Majestic Theatre to pay my compliments to the Buffalo Bills, the celebrated featured quartet, who had been pals of my dad’s and who consequently presented me with my first taste of Scotch whiskey. Their harmony, I recall, was also equally neat and marvelously peaty.
The fallacy, of course, is that those “at the top” pretty much have the field to themselves, and get to do whatever they wish. Nonsense! Timing, availabilities, even politics carry the day, and here I am, hat in hand, finally reconciled to the fact that my good friend, the inestimable Jerry Zaks has beaten me to the punch, and will be guiding brilliant Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster to their announced and assuredly glorious revival. As a crusty veteran of these celestial lotteries, I am thoroughly contented to order my ticket early and wish them nothing but health, happiness, and extravagant raves in this coming, (please, dear God!) recovering season of ours. I guess it’s time for me to reset my sights on something a bit more attainable: anyone up for GAMMER GURTON’S NEEDLE?
Jack O’Brien, one of the American theatre’s most honored directors, is a ten-time Tony Award nominee and has been awarded the Tony three times, for his direction of “Hairspray,” “Henry IV” and “The Coast of Utopia”. He is also the recipient of four Drama Desk Awards, for his staging of the aforementioned plays and “The Invention of Love”. Among his major New York theatre directorial credits are: “Porgy and Bess” (1977 revival), “The Most Happy Happy Fella (1979 revival), The Cocktail Hour, Two Shakespearean Actors”, “The Full Monty”, and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”. He served as the Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California from 1981 to 2007.
Once upon a time my life changed forever when a horrible onstage accident led to a happily ever after. This was before my Broadway break, way back in Minneapolis, MN, where I grew up performing at the Tony Award-winning Children’s Theater Company, where we set our scene.
I took a year off after my freshman year of college to intern as a Performing Apprentice at CTC in 2006, performing and understudying in all the shows that season, including the splashy holiday musical, Disney’s Aladdin. It was led by one of the most influential directors of my life, Matthew Howe… who also proved to be a bit of a match-maker. I was 19 years old, cast in the ensemble, and charged with understudying the role of Princess Jasmine (forgive us, this was 15 years ago in a very scandinavian Minnesota). Also in the ensemble, a charismatic and very handsome young Nathan Johnson, understudied Aladdin. We often found ourselves gravitating towards each other, wanting to hang out on rehearsal breaks or between shows, and everyone (even my own mother) was placing bets on when we’d start dating. I had just gotten out of a long relationship and was hesitant to recognize any new romantic spark.
However, this budding “showmance” blossomed when one afternoon, the real Aladdin and Jasmine actually collided on stage in the middle of the opening song, “One Jump Ahead.” He spun around at just the right moment, with just the right velocity, to knock his teeth right into her forehead, chipping his front tooth in half. Like gladiators, they charged on, using Aladdin’s stolen loaf of bread to soak up the blood dripping from the bite into her eyebrow. The audience applauded as we buttoned the number, no one really realizing the severity of what had happened, until the voice of God came over the speakers to hold the show.
It was determined the real Aladdin and Jasmine would both need to be rushed to the hospital, Nathan would be the new Streetrat, and I would be stepping into the Princess’ beautiful, albeit blood-stained, golden gown (remember, this is regional theater where understudies get one rehearsal, rarely go on, and definitely don’t get their own understudy costumes or wigs).
Everything from here on out was basically a blur. Except that somehow, I knew I was going to be safe out there with Nathan — even though we were both understudies, taking on these iconic roles as blue-eyed babies, we had at least gotten one understudy rehearsal together and our off stage friendship made the onstage chemistry effortless. In Act II, as he reached his hand out to me earnestly, “Do you trust me?”, I knew there was truly no one I could trust more in that moment to have my back and look out for me as we navigated our way through telling the story from this new, fantastic point of view. I still can’t believe we actually rode that magic carpet together. As I said, my memory of it, from way up here, is far from crystal clear.
Unlike in the famous animated movie, Aladdin and Jasmine actually get married at the end of the musical. And this is the one moment I do recall. It was staged so that Nathan and I walked down opposite side aisles of the house, arriving and meeting center stage… Nathan in his pillowy, white turban, and me in Jasmine’s pristine, belly-button-bearing wedding dress. My eyes met his and we couldn’t help but smirk in disbelief and beam over the fact that we had made it. And that this was really happening!? With paper rose petals raining from the rafters and the entire teary-eyed cast staring at us and harmonizing a glorious reprise of “A Whole New World”, Nathan took my face in his hands and kissed the bride!
I know you want me to say that time stopped and fireworks exploded everywhere, but I’m a professional, and a stage kiss is exactly that… a stage kiss. Even when it’s with the boy I have a covert crush on. A few days later, I hosted a christmas carol party with the cast at my house, and as we said goodnight that evening, Nathan and I shared our first off-stage kiss… now THAT was indeed shining, shimmering, splendid! What was so inevitably meant-to-be, finally became clear in my heart. We started officially dating in that moment, he proposed exactly one year later, and we celebrated our 13-year wedding anniversary this past May. I guess you could say that onstage, fairytale wedding foreshadowed all that was to come, and it’s been a whole new world ever since!
LAURA OSNES was last seen on Broadway in Bandstand and the title role in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Drama Desk Award; Tony, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, Astair noms.). Other Broadway: Bonnie Parker inBonnie & Clyde (Tony nom.); Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes (DD, OCC, Astaire noms.); Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Sandy in Grease. Encores! Productions of The Band Wagon, Faust and Pipe Dream; The Sound of Music in concert (Carnegie Hall); MCP’s Crazy for You (Lincoln Center); Carousel (Chicago Lyric Opera).
You might not think you can draw a line from Andrew Jackson to the sensual allure of the musical Moulin Rouge!, or that Herbert Hoover has anything to do with the anarchic fun of Broadway’s Beetlejuice. Alex Timbers, however, has proven the connection. Long before he directed those productions, he injected a similar, raucous spirit into three different musicals about American presidents.
In Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, the 2010 Broadway show he created with Michael Friedman, he turned the Commander-in-Chief into a swaggering emo rock star. In 2015’s Here’s Hoover!, he let Hoover take the stage and argue, via rock songs, that he deserved a better reputation. And back in 2003, he directed Kyle Jarrow’s insouciant show President Harding is a Rock Star, which put a wild new slant on Teapot Dome and other scandals.
These projects not only helped Timbers develop the aesthetic style he’s carried over to his current Broadway hits, but also let him explore his particular fascination with the American presidency. The office has enticed countless theatre artists, since it offers so many angles for investigating America’s identity, history, and possible future.
Timbers is especially interested in subverting our common notion of the role. “There is something fun about taking presidents, whom one thinks of as very staid and buttoned-up, and ripping open that shirt collar,” he says. “Without being wildly rigorous with the depiction of these people, you can still capture their spirits and the way they catalyzed moments in history.”
Take the antihero of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson: “We depict him as a frustrated teenager in the suburbs who feels overlooked by his parents, and even if that’s not literally true, it does get at something real about who Jackson was,” Timbers says. “He felt disenfranchised, and he felt that the frontiersman wasn’t being represented by the government.”
Timbers is also intrigued by the brevity of the president’s power, which only lasts a maximum of two terms. “I’ve always been interested in legacy,” Timbers says. “With kings, you die without knowing your legacy, but with presidents, you can live half your life after you’re out of office. You can see your legacy taking shape in front of you.”
It makes sense that he would compare a president and a king. According to cultural critic Isaac Butler, “If you’re doing a drama about the president, it allows you to engage in the same things that are so pleasurable about Greek tragedies or about Shakespeare’s history plays. You can tell the story of big social transformations and the nature of politics itself through the actions of one complicated individual.”
That epic sense of narrative certainly informed Robert Schenkkan, who wrote a two-play history cycle about Lyndon B. Johnson: In All the Way, which won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play, we see Johnson on the ascendant, pushing to pass the Civil Rights Act and learning how to wield his office on behalf of his ideals. In The Great Society, which premiered on Broadway last fall, we see his plan for the titular social reform get swallowed by the quagmire of the Vietnam War.
“I was very much thinking about Shakespeare when I wrote, and the sense of the wheel of fortune rising and falling,” Schenkkan says. “There’s a rise and fall of kings, and LBJ was the king. All plays are, to varying degrees, about the acquisition, distribution, and use of power, and nothing is more clear in that regard than the narrative of how one becomes president and then how one governs as president.”
Americans deeply understand that story. No matter how long one has lived in the country, the president’s power — and that power’s ability to impact our lives — is impossible to overlook.
In fact, long before he wrote about him, Robert Schenkkan had a first-hand encounter with LBJ’s influence. The future writer was only three or four years old at the time, visiting the then-senator’s Texas ranch after his father (a major player in public broadcasting) got an invitation. And while Schenkkan doesn’t remember much about the trip, he has asked his older brother for details.
“My brother told me, ‘I don’t remember LBJ specifically, but what I remember is how incredibly respectful our father became around this strange man,'” Schenkkan says. “And what’s interesting about that to me is the child’s perception of his father’s response to the presence of power. That’s what stuck with him. I think that’s a really illuminating anecdote.”
That’s the kind of story, in fact, that could become the basis of a play.
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
To have my Broadway debut be the 2000 revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man was a stroke of good fortune that almost passed me by. I had been filming Sex and the City at the time and convinced myself that I shouldn’t try to juggle the two (which actually was not a problem since my character came and went throughout the series and wasn’t in every episode). The truth is I was a bit intimated by the character of Joe Cantwell – he seemed like an archetype to me – with the distinct possibility of descending into a caricature and I wasn’t sure that could pull it off – so I turned it down.
On set of SATC that week I casually mentioned this to Sarah Jessica. “Have you lost your mind?!!” she exclaimed (with some exasperation), “It’s GORE VIDAL on BROADWAY!! Wake up!!!” I’m so glad I did. With a cast of 17 and a voiceover by Walter Cronkite – this examination of a presidential election during a presidential election proved to be the most exciting and unforgettable experience I’ve ever had on stage. The actual election was a nail biter and when the results of Florida came out – many of us were on stage.
I remember being in a scene with Christine Ebersole (who played my wife) – and hearing Elizabeth Ashley’s distinctly loud voice off stage, “Al Gore just won Florida!…Hooray!!!!” But by intermission they took it away from him. With ballots being recounted over the next weeks – suddenly the audience who came to see us were listening much, much more intensely to what Gore Vidal had to say about politics. Dialogue which never got much response before – like “Bill this convention is really hung up and the way things are going we may never nominate anybody” suddenly got a roar of laughter – people were invested in what they were hearing on stage – every moment seemed to have meaning and Gore’s play seemed to be giving them insight to what was happening to the country in real time.
And oh what a band of players I got to be with-all of them! I can never forget Spalding Gray who managed to convey an electric wire of nerves with an unflappable serenity at the same time. Michael Learned who played the enduring wife to Spalding’s – Bill Russell – brought such a delicate ballast to Spalding’s intellectual storms – she always amazed me with her pitch perfect timing. The charming, sly, with a dash of the devil – Charlie Durning who many nights before curtain regaled me with the stories of World War Two and his hand to hand combat during the Battle of the Bulge. Who could have guessed that Charlie Durning was phenomenal ballroom dancer? So deft on his feet he seemed to float; which to our shock and awe he displayed at different parties during the run. And my partner in crime Christine Ebersole who’s merry, lilting laugh and participation in some high jinx pranks with me made every night a joy…
My dressing room next door neighbor Elizabeth Ashley, whose booming voice and laugh filled the theater on and off stage, was and is a treasure. and this is where my friendship with Mark Blum, recently lost to COVID-19, began 20 long years ago – Mark the consummate actor – never one to blow his own horn – Mensch doesn’t begin to describe what he brought to the mix. Once you worked with Mark – you wanted him in every project you ever got hired for. We both went right from the play to a soapy mini series in Toronto – thank God he was with me – we were to be in a production of Uncle Vanya this summer at The Berkshire Theater Group. It’s hard to even consider him gone. And of course the master – Gore Vidal whose stories of history, literature and gossip (a lot of historical gossip) – wicked impressions of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote – made for glamorous nights of drinking.
How can so many of this group have passed? I miss them all… the living and the dead; and the experience of together bringing life to Gore’s grand play for the ages.
Christopher David Noth is an American actor. He is perhaps best known for his television roles as NYPD Detective Mike Logan on Law & Order, Big on Sex and the City, and Peter Florrick on The Good Wife.
For decades, Original Broadway Cast Albums were beloved companions to the theatergoing experience. You could enjoy the music and lyrics to a Broadway show before you ever saw it, or you could relive the memories of the show long after the curtain went down. It was both merchandise and a marketing tool—a memory and an experience in and of itself. A cast recording could help fuel the run of a Broadway show and ensure its popularity in touring, licensing, and beyond for years to come. But new technologies and the ability to share and engage with Broadway scores easier than ever through streaming and social networks are making it possible for cast recordings to be something they’ve rarely been before: the engine that drives a show to the Broadway stage.
As early as the 1930s, there were attempts to record the scores to Broadway shows. But technology made distributing those recordings in any reasonable way something of a challenge. And although there were cast recordings in the early ‘40s, like many things in musical theatre, it was Oklahoma! that really pushed cast albums in a new direction and introduced the format we are used to today—much, if not all, of the score recorded by the original cast as it was performed on stage.
The next decade made that format the industry standard. Theatre historian and Broadway producer Jennifer Tepper said, “In this decade, a small handful of shows were recorded in the manner we understand today. This lent a permanence to the musical theatre as an art form, and changed the way the public viewed shows.” And that continues today. As theatre historian Laurence Maslon writes in the introduction to his wonderful book on Broadway cast albums “Broadway to Main Street”, “Hamilton can be seen by only 1,319 people a night on Broadway—which is about 10,000 people a week; the week the cast album was released digitally, it was downloaded by 50,000 people. More than a million people (and counting) have now listened to Hamilton in a private space. For enthusiasts of show music, the living room, to paraphrase one of Miranda’s lyrics, that’s the room where it happens.”
But what if a cast album isn’t the beginning of a theatergoer’s experience or a reminder of a show they’ve already seen? What if the cast album is the very engine of what gets a show to Broadway in the first place? This is precisely what happened with the Broadway run of the Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz musical Be More Chill.
Be More Chill is a musical based on the Ned Vizzini book of the same name. It made its world premiere at Two River Theatre in New Jersey in June of 2015. Iconis remembers the days following that production well. “When the show closed at Two River, it was dead. We got a dismissive Times review and I couldn’t get any producer or theater (non-profit, regional, whatever) interested in the show.” But the head of the board of Two River Theatre, Bob Rechnitz, refused to let that be the end of the show. He teamed with the theatre and Ghostlight Records to make a cast album of the show. Ghostlight Founder, Kurt Deutsch, recalls the journey of album.
Iconis noticed something was happening as well, “It literally just happened. I think it was a perfect storm of things—Spotify algorithms and timing (musical theater really came to the forefront of the culture in 2017 in a way it just wasn’t years earlier) but more than anything, it was just people (young people, specifically) connecting to the score. The algorithms wouldn’t have worked in our favor had people not listened to and got into the show.”
And suddenly, the show was back alive. “The viral popularity is what got Jerry Goehring to pull the trigger and take a chance on doing the show in a commercial summer run. And that summer run was such a wild box office success that we got to go to Broadway,” said Iconis.
And Be More Chill continues to find success in productions across the globe. “We have conversations about the show in international markets that feel like conversations you’d have for a show that ran on Broadway for years and won a million Tonys,” said Iconis. “Because Be More Chill‘s popularity really exploded online, it still feels very present, very contemporary, very active.”
And it’s not the only show to see its cast album fundamentally alter the course of its Broadway journey. The musical Beetlejuice opened in April of 2019. But it struggled to find the toehold necessary to becoming a bonafide Broadway success story.
But as the run progressed, something started to happen. Deutsch recalls seeing fans reacting to the show in a real way on social media channels. “You saw tons of tiktok engagement with Beetlejuice. You saw people recording themselves singing ‘Dead Mom’ and ‘Say My Name’. And all of these fans from all over the world who weren’t able to see the Broadway show were living vicariously through the cast album and then found each other.”
Yes, they were finding each other on new social media platforms, but crucially they were engaging with each other in a tradition that’s as old as Broadway itself—singing the songs from the show together. And as this community of people found each other they did something even more crucial—bought tickets. And Beetlejuice found its footing as a Broadway staple.
The musical Six was a runaway hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2017—a power pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII. It was such a success that professional producers came on board to launch a UK tour and eventually a West End run. In between the tour and the West End debut, the writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss had an idea of what to do in the subsequent months. “Essentially, if Six is the live Beyoncé concert,” said Marlow, “we wanted to make the Beyoncé album that she’s touring. So we think of it less as a cast recording of the musical, but more as a part of the whole conceptual package.”
And the success of that album fueled the West End run, and got the show heard around the globe. By the time Six debuted in Chicago, people were flocking to the production—already deeply familiar with its score, despite its lack of a Broadway production. Marlow remembers the fan fervor, “People were flying in from across the country in homemade costumes and singing along to all the words and stuff, which was completely wild! From that point the producers were like, ‘Yep, this show could work in New York’”. And on February 13, Six debuted on Broadway with throngs of existing fans from around the world already in thrall—all before ever playing a single performance on Broadway.
So what’s next for the Broadway cast album and its potential to fuel Broadway runs? Will a pre-Broadway cast recording become standard practice?
Despite some successes in developing this new model, Tepper has doubts. “I don’t think it will become the norm for shows that didn’t have major New York runs to create albums that go viral, leading to a major New York run within five years. But it’s certainly more of a possibility in the world we live in now than it was in the world where music wasn’t distributed online immediately.”
And whether or not the cast album comes long before a Broadway run or is released after the show debuts, the power of the cast album is undeniable. “At the end of the day, it’s your calling card,” says Deutsch. “It’s your marketing tool. It’s what makes a musical a musical. It’s what makes it sing. And it’s what’s gonna live on forever once your show is done.”
Ryan Cunningham is a Jonathan Larson Award winner and a Drama Desk and Mac Award-nominated lyricist, bookwriter and playwright. His Off-Broadway musical written with Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because, has played both nationally and internationally in five different languages. Also with Salzman, he has written the musicals Next Thing You Know, The Legend of New York, and Michael Collins. He is a Creative Director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.
You may not know the name, but you have seen Paul Huntley’s work. With a career that stretches back to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, the wig designer has worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic, in film, television, and theatre. Faye Dunaway’s hair in Network? A Paul Huntley wig. Princess Margaret’s ‘60s beehives? Huntley. Patti LuPone’s Evita hair? Huntley. From Mae West to Joan Crawford to Glenn Close to the hair that transformed Santino Fontana into Dorothy Michaels eight times a week in Tootsie, Huntley has been in close counsel with the biggest stars of the last 70 years.
The erstwhile Brit is still going strong, contributing hair to Broadway’s Diana and in the process recreating the look of a woman who conjures up a thousand different images in our collective memory as soon as her name is uttered. From the royal wedding to her media blitz tour post divorce, The People’s Princess was a master at recreating herself—and in that regard, she’s well-matched by the talents of Huntley.
Of course, recreating royal looks for a Broadway musical requires sleight of hand with which something more documentary-like (say, Netflix’s The Crown) doesn’t have to contend. There are microphones to consider, quick changes, and condensing a lifetime into a two-and-a-half evening show.
Huntley, Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley (Come From Away), and bookwriter Joe DiPietro settled on establishing Diana with just four iconic looks: the style with which she was first introduced to the public as the future Princess of Wales (“We call that the pudding basin look. Because it really wasn’t that becoming to her”); the darker hair from the royal wedding, the must-watch event of 1981; the tousled and “quite big” hair that most people picture from the early ’90s; and the shorter, spikier style from the end of her tragically short life.
Huntley is also responsible for the rest of the royal family, as well—though one imagines Queen Elizabeth II’s hair was a fairly simple feat, changing has it has not a whit for decades at a time—in addition to Diana’s aunt, romance novelist Barbara Cartland, who sported a very specific look during the period.
Each wig takes an average of five days’ work from Huntley and his team of five to create from human hair (Huntley sources it from “wig merchants” and most of the hair comes from Russia). For a project like Diana, what is particularly interesting is that there are very few natural blondes in the world; most blonde wigs audiences see have been dyed that shade. And throughout the process, Huntley remains in communication with both the creative team and the performers.
Though certainly not one to back down from an argument about his work—he tried in vain to convince Faye Dunaway not to restyle the Maria Callas wig he gave her for Master Class—Huntley has a c’est la vie outlook that has kept him sane while working intimately with some of the biggest divas of all time. “We’re not curing cancer here, he says. “It is, after all, a musical. And people are wearing these things on their face, so you have to sort of say, ‘Oh well, what the fuck.’ You really can’t make too much of it, I don’t think.”
Over the course of his long career, Huntley has seen fads come and go, and stars wax and wane. But throughout, the nature of his relationship with the performers has remained steadfast, ever since the day he crawled into Mae West’s bed to set her wig. “Honestly I’ve never gotten over that,” he says. “And all I could think was… ‘My god, how does anyone have teeth that white?’ It was like Walt Disney stars, they were so fucking white!”
“I always felt from my earliest years that they were the stars, and they were the most important people and therefore I was just someone who helped,” he says. Now, of course, his reputation precedes him, but Huntley remains the “strange Englishman who’ll probably do some wonderful stuff,” as he puts it.
Beginning his career in England with Stanley Hall at Hall’s Wig Creations—a major wig creation company for film at the time—Huntley was creating wigs and false eyebrows for director Mike NIchols—who suffered from alopecia—and made the leap to America after Nichols hired him to do the hair on Carnal Knowledge and asked if he’d ever considered moving.
“He said, ‘Well, you know, why don’t you come and live here?’” Huntley recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly go to America! Good heavens, it’s so loud!’”
“That’s where the ‘grand voice’ comes in,” he adds dryly.
But Nichols pressed on and ultimately sponsored Huntley’s visa. Two years after Carnal Knowledge was released, Huntley made his Broadway debut with the Nichols-directed production of Uncle Vanya, starring—in a very eclectic cast—George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, and 70-year-old Lillian Gish.
“The sweet thing about Lillian was she said, ‘Oh, Paul darling, I’m going to look so young on the stage! You’re going to have to give me a gray wig,” Huntley recalls, laughing. “And she did look young!”
Huntley’s list of devotees reads as a Who’s Who of theatrical and Hollywood history. He worked again with Gish a decade later, when she starred with Bette Davis in The Whales of August; he did Crawford’s wigs on her final film, Trog (a project that produces the equivalent of a good-natured verbal shudder from him); he restyled Marlene Dietrich’s wigs when she toured the world with her concert act, receiving them in plain brown parcels with a note and a next destination to which he’d send the refreshed wig; he works extensively with Glenn Close, on everything from Sunset Boulevard to 101 Dalmations; and Patti LuPone famously has him written into her contract for every project since Evita. In fact, Huntley isthe man behind her memorable, flame-colored wigs on Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix series Hollywood.
But even a man who counts the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls and Cats (the project he’d most want to relive) to the most recent revivals of Anything Goes and Noises Off! has a few projects he wishes had been his.
“I would have liked to have worked on [the 2019] Kiss Me, Kate,” he says. “I did the 1999 revival. I would have loved to have done that again. But there are good people. David Brian Brown, Charles LaPointe…I can respect people who do good work. I have no qualms about praising people if it’s good work.”
But with more memorable creations on his résumé than even seems possible, it’s safe to say that Huntley’s missed opportunities are few and far between. And with Diana, he proves once again who the royal hair creator is.
Beverly Jenkins is not afraid of a cut show. That’s a performance where there are more actors calling out than there are understudies or swings to replace them, and it requires a last-minute reconfiguration of everything from blocking to costuming to the placement of props.
For many people, this would be terrifying, but for Jenkins, who’s been a Broadway stage manager since the early 90s, it’s an opportunity.
Case in point: At one performance of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale The Musical, she only had one Black actress available, even though there was a scene that required two. “I had to decide,” she recalls. “‘Do I have one Black female on stage, or do I have a Black female and a Black male in that other track?’ I’d planned for that, because you have to plan for that, even if it never happens. So I made the decision to have a Black male on stage, because otherwise it would have thrown some things off [to just have one person]. I spoke to some people; we made a few changes, and it worked. No problem.”
That solution indicates what a distinct style of stage management Jenkins has developed over her career, which includes landmark productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk; the original Miss Saigon; and her current gig as the production stage manager for Hadestown.
Crucially, she sees a cut show as a chance to connect. “It’s a community event,” she says. “You check with wardrobe, and they’ll make adjustments. The music department and the dance captains are involved. I always reach out to the director or the AD to make sure my choices are okay. And I take the personal trip to tell people what’s happening. I get a couple of extra steps in on my FitBit, and I’m good. I want to make sure I’m personally letting people know what’s going on before they step on stage.”
Those steps — up and down stairs, into the green room, into the wings — set Jenkins apart “Beverly runs a building, and she doesn’t have to open her computer to do it,” says Michael Rico Cohen, a fellow stage manager who has worked alongside her on A Bronx Tale The Musical, Amazing Grace, and Fully Committed.
Or to borrow a phrase Jenkins uses to describe herself, she’s a mom of many. “I’m fine with the tech,” she says. “It’s all good. I’m very calm, and I can call a cue just as well as the next person, but I believe my speciality is about being hands-on with the people. I put a lot of thought and care into everyone — not just the actors, but everyone — coming into that theatre.”
On every show, then, a big part of her job is figuring out exactly what this particular group of people needs. For instance, on Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, the 1996 dance musical that uses tap to trace Black history in the United States, Jenkins worked with performers who were more familiar with the dance world than with Broadway. “Sorry Equity, but I had to bend the rules for this group of young men,” she says. “I had to assess the rules and see what they needed. Like, ‘I know this is half hour, and if you’re not here at half hour, then I need you to call me and tell me how far away you are. And as Iong as I know you’re coming, you get a five-minute grace period.’ And that’s something I still do, the five-minute grace period.”
On Noise/Funk, she also turned her office into an occasional daycare center, so that parents in the company could bring their children with them when there were no other options. She recalls, “I had Barney tapes. I had a playpen. I was like, ‘You’re not going to be forced to miss work because you’re doing the right thing with your child.’ I have to get my show up, no matter what. I have to figure out how to get the best show on stage today. And on that show, watching kids was part of it.”
For Amazing Grace, the 2015 Broadway musical that explores how the British slave trade inspired the titular hymn, Jenkins knew her job required extra compassion. She says, “Amazing Grace was important to me because of what was happening on stage. How hard is it that the first time you see Black people on stage, they are stuffed in a crate, and then they get pulled out, thrown on the ground, and shot in the back? So when the actors come off stage, how can they not carry that off stage? How do we make sure that these people are not carrying the feelings of trauma off stage with them?
“We had company morale-building events. We had t-shirt day. We made sure the dressing rooms were mixed, and that we weren’t keeping the Puritans over here and the Africans over here. It was good to see everyone put thought into how to make this a harmonious backstage area and still tell that particular story.”
It no doubt helped that Jenkins herself was spearheading the backstage culture. “She is wildly good at creating fellowship and community,” says Rachel Chavkin, the director of Hadestown.
Jenkins asserts that small touches help a company avoid bigger problems, particularly when they’re together for a lengthy run. That’s one reasons she runs a “turkey hand” contest for Thanksgiving, getting everyone in the building to trace their hand on construction paper and then turn it into a decorated turkey drawing. “And believe me, there are prizes, honey,” she says.
Cohen confirms, “There’s nobody that loves a turkey hand competition more than Beverly Jenkins. But it’s more than just turkey hands or door decorating contests or the Father’s Day barbecue. She’s a master of the casual-but-meaningful interaction. It creates a camaraderie and an immediate trust. It’s these little things that really make the building a happy place over a period of years. All of those things are just as important — and sometimes more — than announcing what we’re doing in understudy rehearsal on Friday.”
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
“The fabulous invalid” has been in traction for most of 2020–laid low but, miraculously, not out by the coronavirus. Somehow in these pandemic times, theater has a way of seeping through and finding an audience, no matter where it’s sheltering. Broadway’s Best Shows has been providing one substantial way with the “Spotlight on Plays” series of livestream readings it offers to benefit The Actors Fund.
The series’ first season concluded with a Zoom presentation of Barbecue, a rambunctious social satire which premiered five years ago at The Public Theater. Robert O’Hara, currently Tony-contending for his direction of Jeremy O. Harris’Slave Play, wears two hats for this opus—director and playwright, lording over a cast of ten, the third largest cast in the series.
“We got some great actors and just let them go,” O’Hara declares with some delight. “Jeffrey Richards, the producer, cast most of it, and then I made a few calls to some of the people I knew. Everyone we asked said, ‘Absolutely!’” You couldn’t get some of these people if it were normal times because they’d be working. These are all professionals, and they have genuine comedic skills. You don’t have to worry about them landing the joke. Having these amazing actors read the play was great for me.”
Emmy winners S. Epatha Merkerson and Laurie Metcalf head the cast, along with Carrie Coon, Colman Domingo (who directed the L.A. version of Barbecue), Kristine Nielsen, David Morse, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Annie McNamara, and, from the original Off-Broadway cast, Tamberla Perry and Heather Simms.
“When we all got together on Zoom, I let them ask questions, and we discussed it,” O’Hara recalls. “They’d already read the piece, and they had their thoughts, so we read it a few times to see if there were any questions. These days, actors don’t have to all get together in the same room. And it doesn’t take that much time to do. It’s a charity reading. If it were a production, it would be much more involved.”
Barbecue is a comedy full of surprises and sharp right turns, and critics in 2015 bent over backwards keeping its secrets. “We begged them,” admits the author, “because that’s part of the fun. You keep wondering, ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s always fun with plays when you can hold on to a secret. Very few things are secret anymore.”
The entire original Broadway cast of seven in Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other reunited to do their Zoom reunion. Time Stands Still also reunited its original company of actors.
The cast of characters consists of a lonely, conflicted gay (Gideon Glick), his granny (Barbara Barrie), his girl (space) friends (Lindsay Mendez, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Sas Goldberg), their spouses (Luke Smith)—plus Mr. Right (Smith, doubling) and Mr. Wrong (John Behlmann). The play put in time Off-Broadway at the Laura Pels before bowing on Broadway on Valentine’s Day of 2017 (“Singles Awareness Day,” it insisted).
“I felt especially grateful that we got the original cast back together again because of Barbara Barrie,” beams Trip Cullman, who directed both stage versions and the Zooming. “She was magnificent on stage, but she’s such an accomplished film actress her performance on Zoom is like, honestly, Academy Award-worthy.” He does not exaggerate. Actors Equity Association presented its Richard Seff Award to the 89-year-old actress.
Of late, Cullman has been exploring a different medium than the stage, co-directing with his brother a short film called The Soldier, which they are now in the process of submitting to festivals.
Thinking cinematically was how he approached Zooming Significant Other. “It was sort of a discovery process,” he says. “Because it was recorded and we edited it afterwards, I really felt I could make some adjacent kind of choices in terms of pacing and the way the characters related to each other. The ability to use filmic techniques like cuts was super-helpful in getting across the kind of compulsive forward momentum of the play.
“I’ve done live Zoom things as well as recorded and edited Zoom things, and I’m much more a fan of the latter. One of our actors, for instance, had terrible internet connections. We had to completely re-tape her audio in post-production to fix it because she was unintelligible. If we had been doing it live, that would be how it would go out to people—and no one wants that.”
Phylicia Rashad, who collected her Tony for the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, turned director for the series and addressed David Mamet’s gripping drama, Race.
Basically, the play is a taut court-roomer that takes place far from a courtroom—in the office of three criminal lawyers (Ed O’Neill, David Alan Grier and Alicia Stith). There is a fourth character–their client (Richard Thomas), a wealthy businessman accused of a racially charged sex crime—and the drama, sharp-tongued and smart like most Mamet, lies in the interplay of the three attorneys over a red sequin dress as they prepare their defense.
Direction is new to Rashad’s skill set. She enjoys dabbling in both disciplines, but “Zoom-directing is different from anything I’ve ever done. If I was just doing a reading of a play, I would have had more time. With the Zoom factor, it’s all very quick. Zoom means fast, right? We were not allotted much time with this. Fortunately, we had a very good cast.”
Grier, a current Tony nominee (for A Soldier’s Story), and Thomas have a head-start on the play, hailing from the original Broadway company. O’Neill was already cast when Rashad came aboard, but she personally assigned Stith the role Kerry Washington originated. “Alicia’s a new face, coming out of the NYU graduate program. I’m very pleased with what she brings to the play.
“The significance of these Zoom presentations is that they can be enjoyed specifically for their literary value. You don’t have staging, you don’t have wardrobe. What you have is the text, and you have the actor. That’s all you have. You don’t have a live theater space. The actors are not even in the same room. Ed was over in Hawaii somewhere, David was in Los Angeles, Alicia was in Baltimore, and Richard Thomas was in Canada. Everybody is on their own computer. It’s an interesting way to work, I’ll put it that way.”
Jerry Zaks, who has won four Tonys and been nominated for four more, has a special way of approaching a play if he is directing it for Zoom: “Reluctantly,” he laughs, and there’s a discernible ring of reality in that laugh. “It’s so lacking in what makes rehearsal special, which is the in-person contact. Directing in person—that’s obviously gone for the duration, but there’s no denying that it’s fun to work.
Luckily, he picked the perfect play for these pandemic times: Love Letters, A.R. Gurney’s deceptively simple epistolary two-hander of 1988. It was written to be read to audiences by actors sitting at their respective desks, reviewing the correspondence of a pair of lovers who go through life never connecting. With rotating star-couples, it racked up impressive runs Off-Broadway and on and was last seen on Broadway in 2014 with Mia Farrow and the late Brian Dennehy.
Luckily again, Zaks got an ace pair of award-winners to do the honors—Tony and Emmy-winning Bryan Cranston and twice-Oscared Sally Field. “They worked so hard, and the three of us got along so well. Is it better than not doing something? Yes. It’s better than the alternative, which is nothing at this moment in time. Look, I’m grateful that I had a chance to work with these great actors.”
As with these other Zoom shows, a table read is a quaint thing of the past. “I’m on my iPad. The actors are on their computers, and we’re talking to each other via Zoom. You can only spend so much time working on Zoom. You get tired looking at the screen. The nature of rehearsals is different. You don’t have as many rehearsals. With Love Letters, it was really important that the actors become as familiar with their words as possible. Ordinarily where I might stop and start and stop and start when I’m in rehearsal, I really didn’t want to take a chance on the actors not getting a chance to rehearse the whole piece so I had to be very careful about when I interrupted them.”
Among the plays that will be shown in the spring season of the “Spotlight on Plays” series are Adrienne Kennedy’s The Ohio State Murders, Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, Sarah Rhul’s Dear Elizabeth and Pearl Cleage’s Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous.
All proceeds for these events will benefit The Actors Fund, to aid during this time of unprecedented need.
Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.