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Political Acts: The fascinating history of Broadway shows about American presidents

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.

TopDog/Underdog

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.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

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, which depicts 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.

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Two People and Limitless Possibilities: Why the two-hander is so resilient on Broadway and beyond

“When she’s around him, her mind dilates.” That’s how Adam Rapp describes Bella, the college literary professor in his play The Sound Inside who develops a life-changing connection with a student named Christopher. In the show, which opened on Broadway last fall, the pair’s banter about novels and academia evolves into a spiritual bond so intense that during the shocking final moments, they reveal the deepest parts of themselves.

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in The Sound Inside on Broadway

“It’s kind of metaphysical,” Rapp says. “He walks into her world and wants to throw himself into the fire of great art, and she’s inspired by him, because she’s lost that passion. There’s an element of her seeing who she was and him seeing who he wants to be.”

Crucially, Bella and Christopher don’t see anyone else, at least not on stage. The Sound Inside was one of the season’s most notable two-handers (or play for two actors), a form that has proven to be one of the most resilient in modern theatre.

On Broadway alone, two-handers like The Fourposter and Red have won the Tony Award for Best Play, while Talley’s Folley and Topdog/Underdog earned the Pulitzer Prize in the midst of their runs. Two-handers also led to Tony Award-winning, breakout roles for Anne Bancroft (Two for the Seesaw) and Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur) and earned Tony nominations for Ruth Wilson (Constellations) and Diana Sands (in a production of The Owl and the Pussycat that famously broke the color barrier in 1964).

And that doesn’t even account for two-hander musicals. I Do! I Do!, adapted from The Fourposter, is arguably the most notable example on Broadway, running for over 500 performances in the 1960s. And titles like The Last Five Years, John and Jen, Goblin Market, and Murder for Two have made two-person tuners part of the Off-Broadway landscape for decades.

But why? What is it about this type of show that’s so appealing?

Sometimes it’s a practical choice. “When I was coming up, a lot of playwrights would talk about things like unit sets and small casts, because you’d be more likely to be produced,” says Rapp.  “It was more cost efficient.” He wrote Blackbird, his first two-hander, after downtown theatre troupe Mabou Mines gave him a grant to experiment with directing his own work. Company founder Lee Breuer encouraged him to cut his teeth on something straightforward, so he wrote a play about a troubled couple trying to survive in a dank apartment.

What started as professional prudence, however, led Rapp to some deeper reasons a two-hander can work.

“It forces you to ask really in-depth questions about the characters,” he says. “You have to keep finding reasons for them to stay together. And those questions — ‘Who’s in love with who?’, ‘Who wants to hurt whom?’ — feel more feral because two people are stuck in a room together.”

Lauren Gunderson, whose two-handers like I and You and The Half-Life of Marie Curie have helped her become America’s most produced living playwright, says the form crackles with energy. “When you only have two people, then you know that something is going to happen between them,” she explains. “You can’t think, ‘Well, I don’t know. Who’s the story about?’ It can only be about these people, so for us in the audience, part of the excitement comes from wondering where we’re going with them.”

As an actor, Mary-Louise Parker has experienced that excitement firsthand. Her two-hander credits include the Broadway productions of The Sound Inside (with co-star Will Hochman)  and Simon Stephens’ play Heisenberg (with co-star Denis Arndt). She says both created an unparalleled sense of urgency. “It’s risky because you’re so dependent on that other person,” she explains. “It’s like life. If you’re stuck somewhere with one other person, it’s risky, but it’s wonderful because it forces you to create a real closeness. And when it’s working, the audience feels that, too.”

Many two-handers are potent because of how they wield the dynamic between the people on stage.  In Edward Albee’s A Zoo Story and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, for instance, seemingly banal interactions in public places escalate to horrific violence. In ‘night Mother (another Pulitzer Prize winner), Marsha Norman exploits our assumption that a woman can’t be serious when she enters the play and tells her mother she’s going to kill herself.

Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak in the original Broadway production of ‘night Mother

Sometimes, a two-hander pulls us out of reality altogether. Take Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, in which two actors play eight characters in a camp satire about monsters run amok on a posh estate. “That play lets the audience enjoy the impossibility of what they’re seeing,” says Catherine Sheehy, Resident Dramaturg of Yale Repertory Theatre. It would be much less satisfying with eight actors, she notes, because that wouldn’t let us savor how the performers (and the playwright) create so many people with so few bodies.

“There’s tension and conflict just in the act of performing it. And it turns theatrical tradition on its head, because it refuses to let us associate one body with one character.”

That underscores how challenging a two-hander can be for the actors. “I have never had another job that called on me to do as much as that one did,” says Jeff Blumenkrantz, who played a collection of suspects in Murder for Two during its extended Off-Broadway run in 2013 and 2014. “The challenge really hit me in rehearsal. I was on stage the whole time, so for the entire eight-hour rehearsal day, I was required to fire on all cylinders. It was exhausting, but it was also really rewarding. Whatever was happening on stage, I knew for a fact that I was contributing to it.”

Brett Ryback and Jeff Blumenkrantz in Murder For Two

For Parker, the primary effort comes in staying connected with her co-star. “You have to keep the energy between two people really taut,” she says. “It’s like somebody at the top of a mountain dangling a rope: You can’t let go. I think of it being that intense.”

While performing in The Sound Inside, she was especially fascinated by the interplay between Bella’s monologues to the audience and her intense scenes with Christopher, who never addresses anyone but her. “There were some moments when I actually felt like I was in two places at once,” she recalls. “I was with him and with [the audience], talking to them. I was still working on that quite actively when the play ended, and I would just die to get the chance to do it again.”

And there it is again: The reminder that two-handers, these seemingly small theatrical jewels, can feel enormous. Just like a relationship with another person, the best ones can create an intimacy that dilates our minds.


Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.