I was the last to interview Bryan Cranston March 6 and the first to congratulate him on becoming a Broadway star before he became 58. "Just under the wire," he shot back with a laugh. And sure enough, a short while after that, at the stroke of midnight, somebody wheeled out a cake, and the room erupted in "Happy Birthday."
Earlier in the evening, via the new play at the Neil Simon Theatre, he had become the 36th President of the United States — one Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was 55 when he took the Oval Office that awful November day in Dallas. Robert Schenkkan calls his political cavalcade All The Way — after the campaign slogan ("All The Way with LBJ") rather than the Oscar-winning song ("All the Way" with Frank Sinatra).
Obviously, Cranston was not running on his record: His past six years have been spent as chemistry prof-turned-meth peddler Walter White in "Breaking Bad," a role that won him three consecutive Emmys in a row (a distinction that tied Bill Cosby's record-setting "I Spy" sprint back in the mid-'60s); a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award have since been pitched on the pyre. Before that, for six seasons and three Emmy nominations, he was a ditzy sitcom dad on "Malcolm in the Middle."
Hardly the stuff of which Leaders of the Free World are made, but the fact that he can straddle those two worlds so completely and so successfully is an indication that he can handily field as complicated and conflicted a personality as Johnson was. "It was a much longer play when we started — the long speeches and how quickly he flips from one mood to the other — it was like holding onto a tiger's tale," Cranston confessed, "but trusting the process — that's the way to go. I just said, 'Okay. I trust the process. It's going to come. I'm just going to let go and have this happen.'"
When Johnson launches into an elaborate bawdy joke, Cranston goes at it with gusto and, on opening night, drew applause for the effort. "People appreciate the crudity of it, I think, and they're a bit surprised that a President of the United States would be that crude, but Johnson was like that. He was all those things the play presents."
The sensitive, even touching side of the character surfaces when he ponders his father's fall from grace. "He loved his father, and he felt so hurt when his father fell out of favor for making some investment mistakes. He was treated badly, shunned and ostracized. LBJ couldn't understand why people would treat other people that way — when he was down on his luck and needed them the most, they pushed him away. It affected Lyndon so deeply. That experience and the experience he had as a schoolteacher in Cotulla, TX, seeing those little Hispanic kids being mistreated because they just made the poor decision of being born poor — that was the core.
"That was the engine that drove him to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, against all odds and against all political acumen. He was willing to risk his entire political career — all his aspirations — on this. This was where he drew a line in the sand — and, not only that, he had to go completely opposite and against the powerful Democratic front in the South, the Dixiecrats — and his mentor, Dick Russell."
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Cranston's flashy, flamboyant portrayal of a masterful wheeler-dealer in his political playpen is earning him the fastest standing ovation of the season, and chances are excellent that it will earn him more than that by the end of this theatrical year. Not that Cranston has stormed a new medium just to bag new trophies. "My greatest joy, professionally, is working — not doing something where I'm anticipating another reward down the road," he insisted. "The work is the reward. 'Breaking Bad' was an extraordinary experience, but all I knew was it was the best hour script I'd ever read, and I desperately wanted to be a part of it. Did I know it was going to be a hit? No. I don't know if anything is going to be a hit. It's not for me to determine that, anyway. I just focus on telling the best story I can. If it resonates with the audience — whether it's on stage or in films — then it does. If it doesn't, I've missed the mark."
There is some hard evidence that Cranston was doing quality work before "Breaking Bad" unlocked the dark depths of his talent. Vince Gilligan, who created the series, had worked with him ten years earlier on an episode for The "X-Files" called "Drive" (not to be confused with the Ryan Gosling feature film that Cranston was also in). In that installment, Cranston managed somehow to win sympathy playing an anti-Semite, and Gilligan thought that quality would ease the actor through the blacker deeds of Walter White as he evolved from Mr. Chips to Scarface. It also works wonders here for illuminating the numerous character contradictions of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
All The Way is comparatively a quickie, as Schenkken plays go, spending almost three hours covering the first 11 months of the Johnson Presidency. (His Pulitzer opus, The Kentucky Cycle, came in two parts, and each went on for almost three hours.) And, yes, there is a three-hour postscript to the LBJ saga: His only four-year term (1965-1968). Schenkken is getting all that into a new play called The Great Society, revising it with one hand while giving All The Way his main attention with his other.
For the time being, Cranston prefers to plead myopia. "There's a part of me that wants to keep that other play at bay," he admitted. " All The Way takes place from the day of the Kennedy assassination to the night of the Presidential election in 1964. The Great Society is the next four years, and, because it is the next four years, I haven't wanted to read it. I haven't wanted to put my mind into other parts."
Director Bill Rauch, who premiered All The Way at his Oregon Shakespeare Festival and brought it to Broadway, is now finally ready to address The Great Society. "We go into rehearsal May 27 and open July 27 with many of the original company members from the first production of All The Way," he said. "Robert has done an incredible job. It's a sadder play, of course, as the toll of Vietnam begins to kick in more and more, but it's also deep and has great moments of humor and passion." Schenkkan was, for luck, wearing a tie tack that had been given to him two weeks ago by LBJ's younger daughter, Lucy Baines. "I've met Lucy several times," he said, "and she is coming to see the play in April, with a big crowd of LBJ supporters."
They won't be disappointed to find their man portrayed as the ultimate political animal, adept at finding the telltale flaws in his foes and applying just enough pressure to get what he wants or permanently silence them. "That's classic Johnson. The man was a master. Politics was all he knew. That's all he cared about, 24/7."
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The flaw that escaped his detection — but not J. Edgar Hoover's — couldn't have been closer to him. His top aide, Walter Jenkins, a father of six, was arrested in a men's-room scandal just before the election, forcing Johnson to disassociate completely from his longtime friend and trusted advisor, which he did with cruel speed. "Jenkins," said Schenkken, "went back to Texas and got a job outside of politics. After LBJ left the White House, there was a rapprochement of sorts. Walter was invited out to the ranch. I don't think Walter's wife ever forgave LBJ, but, when LBJ was asked toward the end of his final term in the White House what were the things he was looking forward to, he said, 'Having a cigarette and seeing Walter Jenkins.'"
Michael McKean, in his fifth consecutive Broadway play for producer Jeffrey Richards, has a deliciously droll moment as Hoover, squirming uneasily when the President starts interrogating him how one can actually spot a homosexual.
McKean said that he did some reading on Hoover but skipped the Leonardo DiCaprio bio-flick. "That's not a knock — it's just somebody else's fiction," he explained. "It's hard to find any specimens of Hoover speaking off the cuff. You can see LBJ getting interviewed and thinking on his feet, but Hoover never did anything that wasn't really, really prepared. He was a stammerer as a kid, so it all became about image and control, and, consequently, he became a very controlling person."
Betsy Aidem, fielding several roles (like most of the cast), plays the key women in LJB's life — wife Ladybird Johnson and Washington Post owner Katharine Graham.
Bob Moses, one of two people in the play attending the opening night performance, was played by Eric Lenox Abrams, who does some spirited and prolonged rabble-rousing in the audience that winds up getting applause like it was a musical number. J. Bernard Calloway is double-cast as Rev. Ralph Abernathy and a butler in the White House (albeit, not the one Forest Whitaker played in "Lee Daniels' The Butler").
"Ralph Abernathy means a lot to me," admitted the actor. "I went to Alabama State University in Montgomery where I got my Bachelor of Arts in Theatre, and he also got his degree from Alabama State University. Ironically, Brandon Dirden, who plays Martin Luther King Jr., went to Morehouse College — and we're both Southerners, from Florida. That's what we really have in common, especially the spiritual background. I was Pentacostal and he was Baptist, but we grew up in the church."
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Roslyn Ruff, who played Dirden's sister in the recent Off-Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson, plays Coretta Scott King here, among several other characters. "I have a special affinity for Fannie Lou Hamer," she said of one, a woman who was beaten and raped for trying to register to vote in Dixie. "It's a real testimony too. She gave an eight-minute testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention." Dirden's wife, Crystal A. Dickinson, who played his wife in Clybourne Park, was beaming about her husband's performance of Dr. King. "He did a lot of reading for this and brought a lot of dignity and dimension to the role, I thought," she said. "I got to tell him in his dressing room right after the show." The two are expecting a baby, due April 1.
Another cast member new to parenthood is Rob Campbell, who has a month-old boy with actress-wife Ana Reeder. Father is doing fine in this play, playing a thorn in LBJ's side, Gov. George Wallace, and the journalist John Lithgow played in The Columnist, Joseph Alsop. "Do you know what this is like? It's like what the Elizabethans experienced when they were going to see Shakespeare's history plays premiere."
Richard Poe lends his revivalist rhetoric and Jeffersonian jawline (always helpful in historical pieces) to the role of Sen. Everett Dirksen, and John McMartin does some delectable Southern-fried scene-stealing as Georgia Senator Richard Russell.
Old-pro McMartin had kind words for new-pro Cranston: "He's protein. He never stops working. He rehearsed with us all day and went through this three-hour show at night. He went through the bad colds we all went through and never whined. He has the energy of a 20-year-old. I really admire an actor who goes the distance."
As befits a big show, the after-party was splashed across the lower level of 30 Rock in The Restaurants of Rockefeller Center overlooking the skating rink where a handful glided by, making living scenery of themselves. (Were they paid for this?)
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, the biographer of Lincoln, provided some political color to the evening, as did Ted Kennedy Jr. and Anne Kiki Gershman and newsfolk like Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Dan Rather.
Rob Ashford, the Tony-winning choreographer who is developing a serious rep in London as a director of heavy-duty drama, has set up Kenneth Branaugh for his long-overdue New York acting debut. The Scottish Play that they did in the Manchester festival last summer will be coming to the Armory, he said, at the end of May. "Alex Kingston is Lady Macbeth, and we will be opening on June 5."
Christine Baranski floated into the theatre still high from the night before, when she saw the also-long-time-in-coming NYC bow of the first and former Mrs. Kenneth Branaugh, Emma Thompson, playing Mrs. Lovett in the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd. "It made me see how much I miss doing theatre," said "The Good Wife" star.
Atlantic Theater Company kingpin Neil Pepe said they're in tech for Martha Clarke's The Threepenny Opera with Laura Osnes, F. Murray Abraham, Lilli Cooper and Mary Beth Peil. "Then, we're getting ready for Stephen Adly Guirgis' new play in June, Between Riverside and Crazy— and then Our New Girl on our second stage by an Irish writer, Nancy Harris."
Jason Robert Brown, who composed last week's Jeff Richards show, The Bridges of Madison County, arrived with his best girl, Georgia Stitt. Other two-by-twos: Eric Bogasian and director-wife Jo Bonney; the Brighton Beach bros, Santino Fontana and Noah Robbins; Celia Keenan-Bolger, fresh from The Glass Menagerie, and hubby John Ellison Conlee, fresh from The (Curious Case of the) Watson Inteligence, plotting a getaway to L.A.; Jamie de Roy and lyricist-director David Zippel; The Realistic Joneses' Tracy Letts and his wife and "Honey" from Virginia Woolf, Carrie Coon; crooner Gregory Generet and actress-wife Tamara Tunie; song-and-dancers Derrick Baskin and d'Adre Aziza; director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall and producer-hubby Scott Landis.
As well as: director David Schweizer, who's bringing Mike Albo's solo piece, The Junket, to the Lynn Redgrave Theatre March 13; Picnic's Sebastian Stan; Josh Lucas, currently of "The Good Wife;" S. Epatha Merkerson, late of "Law and Order;" Brian J. Smith, late of The Glass Menagerie; Bill Irwin, talking up an Old Hats reprise; Of Mice and Men's Chris O'Dowd; Michael Cumpsty, late of Machinal; Irish Rep's Charlotte Moore; Norman Reedus; Joshua Dallas; Jennifer Morrison, Colin O'Donoghue, Ronan Farrow, Hank Azaria; Dr. Ruth Westheimer; Elizabeth Ashley; Carmen Ruby Floyd; Jacqueline Murphy; and a horde of directors ( Pippin's Diane Paulus, Of Mice and Men's Anna D. Shapiro, A Trip to Bountiful's Michael Wilson and Dinner With Friends' Pam MacKinnon).