Television is crowded these days with fictional presidents, on shows like House of Cards, Scandal, Madam Secretary, and State of Affairs, but nearly every one of the 43 actual U.S. presidents has been portrayed by name on Broadway.
Most recently, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) played President Lyndon Baines Johnson last season in All the Way, but even such obscure historical figures as presidents John Tyler and Rutherford B. Hayes have gotten their moment on a Broadway stage — both portrayed by Gene Wilder in a 1964 play entitled The White House that crammed in 24 of the presidents between John Adams and Woodrow Wilson.
With Broadway this season focusing on royalty (The King and I, The Audience, Wolf Hall), the presidential action on stage is happening Off-Broadway.
Clinton the Musical begins performances at New World Stages on March 25, featuring three Clintons — Hillary, “WJ” (“the wholesome, intelligent” Bill Clinton), and “Billy” (“the randy, charming” Bill Clinton). But the biggest buzz in New York theater right now surrounds Hamilton, the musical opening February 17 at the Public Theatre about Alexander Hamilton, written and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony-winning creator of In the Heights. Even before its opening, praise for it emanated from such musical theater royalty as Stephen Sondheim (“I was knocked out”) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (“It raises and changes the bar for musicals”).
Alexander Hamilton was never the president, but the show includes three other founding fathers who were: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. You can say that a fourth president played a part in the show, although he is not a character in it: The seeds for Hamilton were sown six years ago as a single rap song that Miranda sang in the White House at a performance attended by President Obama and the first lady.
Hamilton’s depiction of revered figures in American history may not be precisely what we are used to — the performers are people of color, and the characters sing R&B and engage in rap battles — but in many ways it fits right into a theatrical tradition of stage presidents that began more than a century ago.
Making Heroes Human
“I think presidents are a natural topic for the stage,” says Bruce Altschuler, professor emeritus of political science at SUNY Oswego and the author of Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays About the Presidency. “There is usually built-in name recognition and often passions for and against them. In our celebrity culture, we want to know more about what is really happening, either behind the scenes politically or in their private lives.” And, as he explains in his book, “often, by depicting past presidents, the authors hope to teach a lesson to contemporary audiences.”
At the same time, though, Altschuler concedes, “it’s not easy to write a good play about a president.” Almost any nonsatirical show about these heads of state poses the same challenge: How do you breathe life into characters whose faces are carved in mountains and whose birthdays are celebrated (collectively) as a national holiday?
Many of the most critically and commercially successful shows about presidents, at least in the first half of the 20th century, attempted to humanize these men by presenting them before they became president. Dore Schary’s Sunrise at Campobello, which ran on Broadway for 16 months and won four Tony Awards in 1958, including for best play, chronicles Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s battle with polio and his return to politics. The play ends a decade before he becomes president. Similarly, Robert Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which won the 1939 Pulitzer for Drama, ran for 14 months and was revived on Broadway in 1993, begins with Abraham Lincoln’s childhood. It ends with Lincoln saying goodbye to his friends in Springfield and leaving on a train to assume the presidency. Most of the plays about George Washington focus on his time as a military commander rather than on his presidency, although none of these dramas achieved the same success as the best about FDR and Lincoln.
Indeed, Washington is a distant runner-up to Abraham Lincoln as the most popular presidential subject on Broadway. Lincoln has been the star of more than a dozen Broadway plays, starting with Benjamin Chapin’s Lincoln in 1906; the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009 produced several Off-Broadway. If Washington’s mythic stature may be inhibiting, Lincoln’s appeal as a dramatic subject is experiencing something of a resurgence — perhaps in part because of his more accessible story (his amiable storytelling gift, his struggles with depression, his tragic end). Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he was planning to make a musical about Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling biography Team of Rivals, but gave up on the idea after the book was used as the source of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln (whose screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, best known as the prize-winning playwright of Angels in America).
Presidents as Villains, Buffoons, or . . . Complicated
Beginning in the 1960s, the trend in stage presidents was no longer primarily to attempt humanizing portraits of heroes from America’s past, but to ridicule and/or disdain flawed current or recent chief executives. Richard Nixon was a target of caustic satire while still in office in Gore Vidal’s An Evening With Richard Nixon, which ran on Broadway for just two weeks in 1972, and features the ghost of George Washington excoriating not just Nixon but what America has become. You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, written and performed by Will Ferrell, was a more gentle and juvenile satire that began performances on Broadway the day in 2009 when Bush left office.
Much of the most pointed political satires never made it to Broadway, but the presidents on the Great White Way were seldom heroic anymore. Nixon, who has become a frequent subject on stage, is a shaded (and somewhat shady) character in Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan’s 2007 dramatization of journalist David Frost’s television interviews with the president that took place three years after he resigned from his office in disgrace.
Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, a 2010 musical by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, brought a campy downtown sensibility in its depiction of the seventh president of the United States as a combination of sexy rock star, immature populist, and killer. They build in an ambivalence toward Jackson’s legacy with the metatheatrical device of including a character who is a historian commenting on that legacy — until Jackson kills her halfway through the musical.
Most often during the past few decades, the presidents on Broadway have been making cameos in shows that focus on something else. This is especially true of musicals, from FDR’s second act appearance in Annie and Theodore Roosevelt’s in Newsies to the roles of presidents Gerald Ford and James Garfield as targets in Assassins, the musical that Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman wrote in 1990 about the presidential assassins and would-be assassins; it took 14 years for a production of this controversial musical to be mounted on Broadway.
Both the success of All the Way and the prediction of an eventual Broadway transfer for Hamilton could presage something of a return to the admiring presidential portraits of the past. The drama by Robert Schenkkan, which won the Tony Award for Best Play, was a measured attempt to dramatize LBJ’s efforts on behalf of civil rights. It is in sharp contrast to the 1967 savage satire of LBJ, MacBird, which never made it to Broadway but helped set the tone for decades of political stage comedies. As for Hamilton, the hip-hop musical with the nontraditional casting shares much with traditional Broadway fare about the founding fathers. Intended to be neither campy nor anachronistic, Hamilton features three of the same presidents, and some of the same historical incidents, as Sidney Kingsley’s 1943 Broadway historical drama, The Patriots. A 1917 play, cowritten by its star George Arliss and featuring both the third and fifth Presidents of the United States, was also titled Hamilton.