Presidents’ Day is a tribute to and remembrance of the men who have helmed the Executive Branch of our government. Often, these leaders have earned legendary status, while others went down as quiet footnotes in American history. Many of them, including a few fictional presidents, have even shown up as characters in Broadway musicals. In their honor, we stroll through the productions that celebrate their roles in shaping our nation.
With its current position on Broadway as an award-winning box-office success, it makes sense that we begin this list with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cultural phenomenon Hamilton. Though the musical focuses on founding father Alexander Hamilton, who was never POTUS, that character finds himself in good company, including three future presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. As the nation of the United States of America takes shape, Hamilton is a major contributor to its structure, standing alongside these great men.
Before Hamilton, there was 1776. Though the story takes place before the United States of America is officially formed, three of our future presidents figure prominently. Among the members of the Second Continental Congress are John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, both members of the committee that ultimately drafts the Declaration of Independence. Throughout their efforts to declare a separation from King George, Congress receives dispatches from General George Washington, who is leading the battle against Great Britain at the front lines. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, in that order, would become our first, second, and third presidents. 1776 was written by Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book).
Teddy & Alice
A musical that celebrated the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and his relationship with his spirited daughter Alice, Teddy & Alice was a short-lived 1987 show. Alice wanted to be a contemporary woman, outspoken and incorrigible (sometimes smoking in the White House), much to the concern of Teddy. Adding to the Americana of the piece, Hal Hackaday fashioned lyrics around the melodies of John Philip Sousa, known particularly for his patriotic marches. The book, by Jerome Alden, featured two future presidents as well: William H. Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Call Me Madam
Though we never saw him in the stage production, President Harry Truman ignited the story behind the 1950 musical comedy Call Me Madam. Appointing Washington, D.C., socialite Sally Adams (Ethel Merman) as ambassador to the fictional European nation of Lichtenburg, the musical was poking fun at real-life news. The musical was a breezy satire of Truman’s appointment of D.C. hostess and Democratic Party fundraiser Perle Mesta to the post of Ambassador to Luxembourg. In the film version of Call Me Madam, the Truman references become a running gag as Ambassador Adams enjoys many one-sided phone calls with the president.
Of Thee I Sing
The first musical to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was Of Thee I Sing, the 1931 satire of a United States presidential election. With a book by celebrated comedy writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and a score by George and Ira Gershwin, the musical took pointed jabs at the process and platforms presidential candidates must navigate in order to win over voters. John P. Wintergreen wanted to be president and his running mate was the bumbling, forgettable Alexander Throttlebottom. Running on a platform of “Love,” the duo ultimately won. Starring Broadway comedic favorites William Gaxton and Victor Moore, Of Thee I Sing received a sequel in 1931, the short-lived Let ‘Em Eat Cake, that continued the Wintergreen/Throttlebottom political story.
Another Broadway musical that featured a fictional president at the center of its story was the 1962 Irving Berlin tuner Mister President. Following the presidency of Stephen Decatur Henderson, the piece offered audiences a glimpse into the world of an American leader, from his public persona to his private life, shouldering the burdens and loneliness that go with the position. The musical, which featured a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, was Irving Berlin’s final Broadway musical.
It may not be the most uplifting musical about United States presidents, but Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins is nevertheless chock-full of references to the likes of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Franklin D. Roosevelt, William McKinley, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and John F. Kennedy. They were all commanders-in-chief who were either assassinated during their presidencies or experienced attempts on their lives. Assassins first premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 1990 and was ultimately revived as a Broadway production in 2004. An Off-Broadway revival of the piece is expected at Classic Stage Company later in 2020.
The 1977 Broadway musical Annie, based on the Harold Gray comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” finds the title character in the presence of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The plucky moppet inspires FDR with a snatch of the Charles Strouse/Martin Charnin song “Tomorrow,” setting the mood (and stage) for Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped America climb out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt also shows up in Annie Warbucks, the Off-Broadway sequel to Annie that enjoyed an NYC run in 1993.
I’d Rather Be Right
FDR shows up in several musicals on our list, but nowhere does he figure more prominently than in the 1937 musical comedy I’d Rather Be Right. The piece, with a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and a book by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, was a pithy satire on American politics and the duties of our commander-in-chief. With musical-theater star George M. Cohan as FDR, I’d Rather Be Right was the first time a Broadway musical featured a sitting president as one of its main characters.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The 2010 Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson took a unique approach to telling the story of one of our nation’s most controversial leaders — the force behind the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in one of our country’s most horrific acts of systemic genocide. Michael Friedman (score) and Alex Timbers (book and direction) imagined our seventh president, one Andrew Jackson, as an emo rock star who was both worshipped and despised. Other presidents who show up in Jackson’s world throughout the musical include John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
In 1976, The United States of America was celebrating its 200th birthday. For the bicentennial, a musical was fashioned by Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner that celebrated the denizens of the White House from 1800 to 1900. That musical was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Actor Ken Howard played a host of presidents, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Rutherford B. Hayes. Patricia Routledge played the first ladies, demonstrating their influence and the traditions they started.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His latest book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America, is out now. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.
Last updated and effective as of January 14, 2019
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