All Eyes on the White House: And Some Theatrical Stages, Too

All Eyes on the White House: And Some Theatrical Stages, Too Margaret Colin as First Lady Jackie Kennedy (with Thomas Derrah) in Jackie, Brent Spiner (left) and Paul Michael Valley portrayed presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the Roundabout revival of 1776.
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Photo by <i>Jackie</i> photo by Carol Rosegg, <i>1776</i> photos by Joan Marcus

Margaret Colin as First Lady Jackie Kennedy (with Thomas Derrah) in Jackie, Brent Spiner (left) and Paul Michael Valley portrayed presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the Roundabout revival of 1776.


All eyes are on Washington this week as Congress and the American Public delve into Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's 445-page report on the behavior of President Bill Clinton, specifically his admitted, improper sexual relationship with an intern, and whether he coerced her to lie about it. Scandal isn't something new for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and American theatre -- though less overtly political than theatre in other countries -- has cast its share of wary glances at the government and its leaders.

Currently, the Capitol Steps satirical gang is devoting a goodly portion of its Off-Broadway evening to the Clinton / Lewinsky / Starr proceedings, even going so far as to subtitle their show at the John Houseman Theatre, "Unzippin' My Doo-`Dah." Not to be outdone, the next installment of Off-Broadway's Chicago City Limits will be titled, "Subpoenas Envy." Back in February, Martin Charnin directed a new version of his revue, Loose Lips, which featured actual transcripts of discussions between Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp.

At the NYC cabaret Rose's Turn, Rick Crom will premiere his 12-minute musical, Monica Lewinsky! The Musical, Sept. 5. According to the Daily News, songs in the mini-musical include "The Girl Most Likely To" and "Nice Girls Finish Last."

But long before the latest White House scandal, theatre was probing presidents, scrutinizing staffers and digging the dirt of DC. Here are a few examples: Nixon's Nixon - On the eve of Richard Nixon's resignation from office, he and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reminisce and trade blame, even going so far as to fantasize drumming up a war to take America's mind off Watergate. Russell Lees' Off-Broadway hit premiered at the Manhattan Class Company.

A View Of The Dome - Written by Theresa Rebeck the topical comedy tells the sordid tale of an idealistic campaign volunteer who suddenly becomes the focus of a national sex scandal.

An American Daughter - Wendy Wasserstein's comedy/drama catches the fictitious Lyssa Dent Hughes on the eve of being named the U.S.' first female Surgeon General. When word gets out that she once hired an illegal alien housekeeper, Hughes must not only attempt damage control for her career, but also for her soulless marriage.

1776 - Mr. Adams may have been "obnoxious and disliked," but that didn't stop him from eventually rising to commander in chief. First, though, he had to conquer squabbling delegates to the Continental Congress.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - By balancing scenes in the Oval Office with scenes in the White House kitchen, Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein's musical tried to offer a loving look at the presidency while acknowledging racial inequality in America. The bicentennial show ran 7 performances the Mark Hellinger Theatre.

As Thousands Cheer - With songs by Irving Berlin and lyrics by Moss Hart, this revue satirized such cultural icons as Mahatma Gandhi and John D. Rockefeller. Recently revived by the Drama Dept., Cher had one skit showing Herbert and Mrs. Hoover making crank phone calls to the incoming Roosevelts.

Of Thee I Sing - winner of the 1931 Pulitzer, this Kaufman, Ryskind & Gershwin musical lampooned the hubbub over a Republican president's romantic dalliances. Revived on Broadway in 1952, that production inserted gags about the Democratic party.

Assassins -- Presidents from Lincoln to Reagan were very much on the minds of the subjects of this Stephen Sondheim - John Weidman musical: the men and women who tried to (and sometimes succeeded in) killing them.

Bedfellows - Herman Daniel Farrell -- son of NY assemblyman Denny Farrell -- penned this drama about behind-the-scenes chicanery at a political conference. For awhile, plans were underway to bring the 1997 Off-Off-Broadway hit to Broadway, but the project eventually fell through.

First Lady Suite - Michael John LaChiusa's musical poked fun at the White House through its wives, from Eleanor Roosevelt's alleged lesbian relationship with pilot Lorena Hickok, to Mamie Eisenhower trying to catch husband Ike with his pants down.

Jackie - Gip Hoppe's puppet-filled spoof of the Kennedy years stayed quite respectful of JFK and Jackie O but satirized the rest of the Kennedy and Onassis clans, as well as the changing American times around them.

Kinder looks at the Oval Office came in such shows as Irving Berlin's Mr. President, Annie, with its avuncular FDR, and Sunrise At Campobello, Bully and Give `Em Hell, Harry, with their looks at presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Truman.

Whether current events on Capitol Hill go well or poorly for President Clinton, theatre will no doubt pursue its love/hate relationship with the powers that be. And with such issues as censorship and government funding of the arts so commonly in the news, politics and theatre will continue to be strange bedfellows indeed.

-- By David Lefkowitz