By Jordan Levinson
Today is Presidents’ Day, one of eleven permanent federal holidays in the United States. The executive office is no stranger to the Broadway stage. In fact, several are prominent characters in both plays and musicals alike. This article — presented in two parts — will salute just a few of them:
Robert Sherwood had one of the earliest works of Broadway theatre to feature a Presidential character, as his three-act bioplay Abe Lincoln in Illinois opened at the Plymouth Theatre (now the Gerald Schoenfeld) in 1938 and ran for over a year. The work chronicles Honest Abe’s personal life and career, from humbling Illinois businessman to 16th President of the United States.
Also in the late 1930s, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right was a Great Depression-era political satire set in New York City. Since this was about the Depression, there was a high chance Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be a part of the show — and indeed he was, lively played by the entertainer George M. Cohan, who sang such songs as “We’re Going to Balance the Budget” and “Off the Record” while solving a couple’s marriage dilemma. I’d Rather Be Right played nearly 300 performances on Broadway.
The 1987 musical Teddy & Alice played the Minskoff Theatre and featured music adapted from John Philip Sousa’s catalogue, with other new songs by Richard Kapp and lyrics by Hal Hackady. The show is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Teddy Roosevelt and his daughter during his tenure in the White House. Though Teddy is the lead here, his Presidential successor, William Howard Taft, also makes an appearance in the musical. The cast featured several Tony winners and nominees, including Len Cariou, Karen Ziemba, Beth Fowler, Ron Raines, and Nancy Opel.
Gore Vidal’s 1960 play The Best Man is also fictional, as it follows two candidates — Senator Joe Cantwell and Secretary of State William Russell — with opposing values who compete for the Presidency and vie for the support of the soon-to-be-former President Arthur Hockstader. The Best Man was nominated for six Tony Awards, including best play, and Vidal adapted his play into a 1964 film. The original production starred Melvyn Douglas who had previously starred in The Gangs All Here, a play loosely based on the presidency of Warren G. Harding. The Best Man has also received two Broadway remounts as of this writing (2001 and 2012). The 2012 production starred James Earl Jones as Hockstader, as well as John Larroquette, Eric McCormack, Jefferson Mays, and Angela Lansbury.
On the more recent front, David Mamet’s November premiered in 2008 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. A comedy about the lengths people go to win, it focuses on a fictional President’s day in the life, beleaguered just days before his second election. Low on money, threatened by imminent nuclear war, and facing atrocious approval ratings, the President decides to pardon some turkeys before they get slaughtered for Thanksgiving dinners, hoping he can win back the public’s affection. The original five-person cast of November was led by Nathan Lane, Dylan Baker, and Laurie Metcalf. You can catch Nathan Lane this season in the new play Pictures From Home, playing at Studio 54.
Winner of the 2014 Tony for best play, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way takes audiences from November 1963 to November 1964 — after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson becomes President of the United States, determined to end American racial injustice by passing a landmark civil rights bill. The play follows Johnson’s journey to a successful reelection campaign, and its title comes from his 1964 campaign slogan: “All the Way with LBJ.” “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston played Johnson, winning a Tony for his performance. All the Way became a TV film in 2016 starring Cranston, and it even spawned a stage sequel, The Great Society, which continues Johnson’s story into his second term of office as the Vietnam War begins to spiral out of control. In its 2019 Broadway run at Lincoln Center Theatre, Brian Cox led the company as Johnson.
Many presidents also receive a passing reference in the groundbreaking peace-love-and-rock-and-roll musical Hair, living proof of the hippie subculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s. The song “Initials” links LBJ with several acronyms, including the IRT, the FBI, the CIA, and LSD. Lincoln, Washington, Calvin Coolidge, and Ulysses S. Grant also make appearances during a wild extended second-act acid trip sequence, in which one of the hippies has a vision that he has skydived from a plane into wartime Vietnam.