PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: All The Way — "Happy Birthday, Mister President"

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07 Mar 2014

Bryan Cranston
Bryan Cranston
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of All The Way.


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.'"

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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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