A president's life is replete with drama, from hard-fought elections to legislative battles to life and death decisions as commander in chief. Yet only a handful have made an impression in the world of drama, on Broadway or off. This spring, however, presents two worthy challengers: Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson on Broadway in All the Way and Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter in Camp David at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
In days of yore, Abraham Lincoln attracted the lion's share of attention with shows like Abraham Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois. America's Founding Fathers and other presidents found their way to the stage far less frequently, often in sprawling productions like The White House, from 1964, which had nearly every president through Woodrow Wilson, and the notorious bicentennial flop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in which Ken Howard played a century's worth of presidents. (The Patriots in 1943 and 1776 featured presidents in their Revolutionary mode.)
Most productions, like Sunrise at Campobello, about a pre-White House Franklin Roosevelt struggling to cope with his polio, portrayed these men sympathetically. But starting in the 1960s America —and its playwrights — became more distrustful, even cynical. While Johnson was still in office he was portrayed as the depraved murderer of John Kennedy in MacBird. Gore Vidal wrote An Evening With Richard Nixon while Nixon was still in office, featuring Washington, Kennedy and Eisenhower as ghostly characters. The play bombed, but Nixon, whose flaws and downfall were downright Shakespearean, holds particular appeal for playwrights. He has returned in American Iliad, Top Secret, Secret Honor, Nixon's Nixon, Checkers and Frost/Nixon, which has been the biggest presidential hit along with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
George W. Bush also was brought to life on stage while he was still in office, in Stuff Happens, while the inept and corrupt Warren G. Harding popped up several times during the Bush years — The Teapot Scandals, Poker Night at the White House and President Harding is a Rock Star — which may have been a way of drawing comparisons. Whether it's in a serious one-man show — Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson have all had their star turns — or a supporting part in a family musical (FDR is the second-act hero of Annie), playing the president is a unique challenge.
When Richard Thomas was just seven, he made his Broadway debut as FDR's son John in Sunrise at Campobello. For that role he simply made sure he knew his lines. Playing a living president is a more daunting task, especially in Washington where the audience may frequently contain people with first-hand knowledge Jimmy Carter's presidency, "including, very possibly, the man himself," said Thomas, who added that he's trying not to get distracted by the idea of Carter watching him play Carter. "That's not a helpful thing," he said.
Camp David is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, so Thomas doesn't need to do too much extra reading about those events. Yet he is still immersing himself in research, including Carter's White House diaries "which is enormously helpful in getting inside his head," and listening to an audiobook of Carter's memoir about his childhood. "So much of who he is comes from where and how he was raised," said Thomas, adding that "I feel an affinity for Carter." The audiobook is doubly helpful because it's read by Carter himself.
Thomas, along with director Molly Smith and Wright, must figure out "how far we want to go with gestures toward a likeness in physical and vocal characteristics." He said he wants to avoid "impersonation," but he knows there are specific cadences and vocal traits he needs to capture. Thomas feels like Carter's informal and intimate speaking style makes him easier to portray on a human scale than orators like Kennedy and Roosevelt, adding, "Hopefully after ten minutes people won't be worrying about how I'm playing Carter and will just be caught up in the drama of the show."
Fifty years ago Fritz Weaver played six presidents in The White House, including Lincoln, Jackson, Wilson, Franklin Pierce and Thomas Jefferson, but he particularly enjoyed portraying Millard Fillmore. "It's not likely anyone will ever play Fillmore on stage again," he said, "but dramatically he was the most interesting, a drunk and a doomed man. He was very human."
Weaver had to shift characterizations on the fly, pushing his hair up and lengthening his arms for Jackon, for instance. "I did a lot of reading —everything you know about someone works into what you are doing, even if not directly," he said. "The literature isn't as voluminous on Pierce as on Jackson but reading is all you've got."
Weaver said the play, coming on the heels of the Kennedy assassination, was the end of an era of "real veneration" toward both the man and the role of president. "Since then, for instance, Wilson's reputation has diminished and Jackson — well, genocide tends to hurt your reputation."
The one true hero was Lincoln, and Weaver, who had admired the 16th president since childhood, felt intimidated. He tried, then abandoned a vocal approach similar to what Daniel Day-Lewis would later use in the movie "Lincoln," adding, "That didn't work for me." (A decade later, Weaver played Lincoln in a one-man show but felt the script "didn't get at the heart of the man.")
The most helpful advice came from Helen Hayes, who was playing ten First Ladies in the show. "I gave one of Lincoln's speech and when I came off Helen was standing in the wings, glowering. She said, 'You mustn't milk it so much; he was a simple man.'" Douglas Sills turned down one iconic president but took on another. After he was asked to play Ronald Reagan in a one-man show he visited the Reagan library, did a "great deal of research" and even worked with a famous make-up artist to get the right look. But after a long internal debate, he said no. "I've never said no to a role for personal reasons but there was too much evil in his administration, and I couldn't get past the whitewashing in the script. It was enshrining him."
However, Sills loved the challenge of playing the private and morally compromised John Kennedy in Ride the Tiger at the Long Wharf, even though it meant getting naked, dying his hair and tackling that iconic delivery. "I took the role because of the cold, ferocious fear of that challenge," he said. "There was undeniably a ghost in the room when it's a president the public remembers."
Sills said a president's distinctive look "should neither be ignored, nor should it derail you" and he focused more on capturing Kennedy's spirit, his "magnetism and command when he walked into a room."
He also researched Kennedy's life, including the pain he was in, the medication he was on and his relationship with his wife, because ultimately he wanted audiences to see Kennedy as a person, not the famous politician they remember.
As for that dialect, "which we all remembah and that slight s-stammah," he said, slipping naturally into that voice, Sills listened to audio for "hours and hours" of speeches — "it's a bit of a trick but it helps you inhabit him" — but he still had to figure out how Kennedy would speak when he's naked in bed instead of addressing the nation. "I did find one private recording, and that helped," he said.
Merwin Foard faced a similar situation playing Franklin Roosevelt in Annie. There was pressure on the set to use the cadences of the famously declamatory FDR, but Foard found that became "tedious" and pushed in the more intimate scenes to use a simpler baritone that he'd heard in the recording of one of Roosevelt's telephone conversations. "There's no reason he'd sound like he's giving a speech when he's talking to Annie," he said.
Foard also acknowledged that sometimes research can get in the way — historical accuracy must occasionally yield to pragmatism. Roosevelt's leg braces went to his hips but the ones in Annie only went to Foard's knees, which he did not protest.
Foard also had two lines as James Garfield in Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, but that role required more time sorting out the blocking (he appeared as a silhouette) then worrying about insight into his character. One character he would like to portray is Thomas Jefferson, having played him years ago in a musical project for an NYU student. He said he'd love to see that production realized, due to the dramatic tension "between what's in the history books and what we now know about his relationship with Sally Hemmings." And, slipping into a southern accent, he added, "if there ever was a Bill Clinton musical I would not say no. There's plenty of drama there."
When Brent Spiner was offered the part of John Adams in the revival of 1776, he said the producers should look for a better fit. "I'm a Jew from Texas and not that short; he was a Protestant from Massachusetts," Spiner said. Six months later the producers asked him to reconsider.
Spiner said he found his way into the role by thinking about Bobby Kennedy, another Massachusetts man known to have a touch of self-righteous indignation. "That willingness to get in someone's face was the key for me," Spiner said, adding that playing a Founding Father is easier than a modern president because there's no video or audio footage for audiences to compare with the performance.
Equally important was focusing on the genuine love between John and Abigail Adams, which softens the irascible character. Onstage Spiner had to write Abigail a letter every night. "I started out with realistic letters, asking after our children and telling her what was happening in Philadelphia," he said. "It helped keep me in character. But after about 85 shows I started clowning around and making up things about people in the audience. Every letter was posted backstage and afterward they were collected and sold to raise money for a cancer charity."
Laurence Luckinbill turned down David Susskind's offer for Lyndon Johnson, a one-man show because, like Spiner, he felt he wasn't right for the part ("I'm not 6'4" or from Texas") and because, like Sills, he didn't like the man. "I demonstrated to get him out of office because of Vietnam," he said.
But Susskind persisted and Luckinbill at least agreed to read the script in his office. "My dad ran a hardware store in Arkansas and dealt with farmers and hill country people and knew how to connect with them, and as soon as I started reading as Lyndon I heard my dad coming out of my mouth," he said.
Luckinbill began researching Johnson's inspiring legacy of domestic achievements and was graciously welcomed by Lady Bird Johnson to the family ranch. Gradually his opinion changed. His next battle was over the idea of makeup, which he originally fought "tooth and nail" but later appreciated for its transformational impact (though he said when he does the show informally these days, without any makeup, the script and his performance are enough to do the job).
After Johnson, Luckinbill also tackled Teddy Roosevelt, who presented a unique challenge — on the one hand audience members don't remember what the man sounded like, and on the other, the few recordings depict "a terrible speaker — he was choppy and rasping and shouting and he'd just reach for stuff that was crazed." Luckinbill knew he couldn't do the entire play that way "or people would leave in droves" so he had to figure out how to "show that he's a haranguer, then get to the story." Luckinbill also continually tinkered with his scripts, adding more humor to the Johnson show. When Tweed Roosevelt came backstage to say the show didn't have enough about his great-grandfather's environmentalism, Luckinbill fixed it the very next night.
Luckinbill has long wanted to do a show about America's first president, exploring the man behind the mythological hero, the George Washington who owned slaves but freed them, who had a terrible temper, and who seemed to spend every battle in retreat. When he tried pitching it to theatres around the country he found surprisingly little interest. "I got only four bookings," he said. "It wasn't enough to mount the show."
Stacy Keach didn't actually play Lyndon Johnson — he played the title character in MacBird, a controversial amalgam of Johnson and Shakespeare's Macbeth, done while Johnson was still president. (To reach the presidency, the character murders the John Kennedy stand-in, a conspiracy theory that soon gained traction.) But Keach played MacBird as if he was Johnson, listening to hours of the president to "nail his accent and cadences" and then "putting on glasses, a false nose and plenty of padding."
The performance was almost too uncanny. As Keach recounts in his new memoir, "All in All: An Actor's Life On and Off the Stage," in addition to being hired to performed as LBJ on a comedy record, "several times I was invited by anti-war protesters to impersonate the president at their rallies, which might have been interesting but their rationale for having me there was 'then we can shoot you.' I guess they weren't really peaceniks underneath it all. As an actor, you're always looking for a chance to show your stuff and keep your face before an adoring public but in a country plagued by too much violence it was easy to turn those offers down."
Three decades later, Keach took on Richard Nixon in the national tour of Frost/Nixon. "I don't resemble Nixon in the least," Keach said, "but if the script is good enough — and this one was — then you just need to capture the vocal inflections and the man's essence."
Keach drew on his personal memories of the Nixon era as well as connections — he had known Nixon's agent, Swifty Lazar, who is a character in the play. Additionally, Keach had first-hand experience with David Frost's knack for getting people to reveal things: When Keach appeared on Frost's show in 1969, the host asked Barbara Eden if she'd like to do a play with Keach. When she said yes, Keach blurted out, "Only if I can show my belly button," in reference to the "I Dream of Jeannie" star's famous midriff.
"Reaaally," Frost replied with a sly grin. "Show us your belly button, Stacy."
And he did.