Hail to the Chief: Richard Thomas, Stacy Keach and More Discuss Their Presidential Portrayals On the Stage

By Stuart Miller
17 Feb 2014

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.