Though American theatre has often been criticized for eschewing politics in favor of family dramas and romantic comedies, the stage has had its share of civic-minded shows, from biographical solos to epic musicals. What better time than on Election Day than to have a quick look at some celebrated shows that, whether idealistically or pessimistically or somewhere in between, examined the American political process, its people and its legacies?
Currently revived on Broadway with an all-star cast, The Best Man shows that one decade’s cynicism is another decade’s good old days. In its tale of a humane but neurotic and flawed career politician running against a flashy, muckraking upstart, Gore Vidal’s satirical drama takes sharp jabs at the tactics unscrupulous politicos use to secure power. However, because the show’s protagonist acts nobly in the end, and because there’s not even a whisper about “soft money” or the costs of waging a campaign, some critics now see The Best Man as harking back to an era whose dirty politics were almost quaint by today’s standards.
For the comedy troupe Capitol Steps, which tends to visit Off-Broadway biannually, the fangs sink a little deeper but also more indiscriminately. In the comic songs lampooning those in power and political wannabes, everybody’s an idiot. In the group’s recent outings, President Clinton was a sax-playing sexaholic, Bob Dole a rigid dork, George W. Bush a nepotized clone, Al Gore a wooden wonk, and Pat Buchanan worthy of the song, “We Can’t Stand Pat.”
That our response to politicians is often more skin-deep than issue-oriented was examined by Wendy Wasserstein in her last play, An American Daughter. In it, a strong, capable and experienced woman, Lyssa Dent Hughes, has a great shot at being the surgeon general. But a craven news reporter spins a phrase of her’s out of context, and suddenly she’s fighting to save her career and nomination. (In a clear art-imitating-life gambit, one sequence had Hughes doing a TV interview and desperate to come off as an ideal wife and mother, though her marriage is crumbling owing to her husband’s infidelity.)
In John Dooley’s short-lived, Off-Broadway comedy High Infidelity, a media-savvy couple worry that their political careers are wrecking their marriage - because a broken marriage would, in turn, wreck their political careers. If Wasserstein and Dooley used fiction to comment satirically on facts, Russell Lee’s Nixon’s Nixon went right ahead and used real life political giants Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, imagining their last conversation before the President’s decision to resign. Besieged, beleaguered and sometimes clueless, Lees’ Nixon is nonetheless far from demonized. Perhaps the safety of two-plus decades from Nixon’s reign has allowed playwrights to view this most despised figure with more objective eyes.
(Then again, During Nixon’s tenure, Bob James and Jack O’Brien concocted The Selling of the President, a satirical musical based on Joe McGinniss’ 1969 book covering the President’s campaign for office. Critics chastised that musical not only for incompetence but for being toothless in its scrutiny of how media sells a candidate. Stephen Sondheim's Off-Broadway musical Assassins, though praised for its score, was roundly viewed as too dark in tone to reach Broadway, since the show featured the justifications of loonies who explain why they want to "kill a president.")
Of course, decades earlier, plays about real-life politicians were invariably respectful to the point of lionization. Sunrise at Campobello and Give `em Hell, Harry became tours de force for actors to put across the unique personalities (and wits, and wisdoms) of FDR and Truman. (Roosevelt also turns up, briefly, as an avuncular sage in the musical Annie.) For her part, Roosevelt's first lady has had two recent, regional theatre vehicles: Eleanor: An American Love Story, a musical that played in the nation's capitol; and Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, a touring vehicle for Jean Stapleton.
On a grander scale, Abe Lincoln in Illinois traced the rise of honest Abe from idealistic lawyer to solemn president-to-be. Teddy and Alice adapted Sousa marches in its look at Roosevelt’s boisterous family and his continuing grief following the untimely death of his wife.
Two New York mayors have even had musicals devoted to their outsized characters: Edward I. Koch, who saw his career gently lampooned in Mayor!, and Fiorello LaGuardia, fondly remembered in Fiorello! (even though LaGuardia’s Giuliani-like dismantling of vaudeville and burlesque houses would seem to run counter to the freedom-of-speech interests of playwrights and producers).
The musical Of Thee I Sing, which combined the talents of the Gershwins, Kaufman and Ryskind, won the Pulitzer and became a `30s-era smash. Not that writing musicals about the commander-in-chief is easy. The sequel-of-sorts, Let `em Eat Cake,, was not a success, and two theatrical legends came a cropper with their entries: Irving Berlin with Mr. President faltering in 1962 and Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue stumbling in 1976. Reviewers gave thumbs down to the former show for its bland president and colorless tunes, and they sighed that the overly-ambitious latter show threw in everything but the kitchen sink but had no clear approach to its view of a century of life behind the scenes in the White House.
The exceptional exception to these musical misfires was, of course, 1969’s 1776. Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ treatment of how the Declaration of Independence was signed proved a thrillingly dramatic showcase for both political issues and character conflicts.
So while other countries have their Fos, Havels, Hares and Churchills, American theatregoers have to do some searching to find directly political writing for the stage. Then again, if we view every aspect of American life as socio-political in some way (i.e., issues concerned with sexuality, race, abortion, working-class income, aging, illness), then the field becomes much broader, from Kushner’s Angels to Durang’s Longing to Odets’ Waiting.
Rather than being apathetic, American playwrights often make the political personal, having their say indirectly rather than in agit-prop debates. The moral, perhaps, is that even if you loathe all the candidates, what they stand for, and how they went about getting where they are, the goal is to reshape the process rather than turn your back on it. Politics, like theatre, cannot thrive without diligence, vigilance and participation.
— By David Lefkowitz