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.
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