One of the biggest hits in the English-speaking world of the mid-18th century was George Lillo’s The London Merchant, a moralistic 1731 drama about a young apprentice led astray by a charismatic prostitute. In a series of rapidly escalating scenarios, she uses her wiles to make him late for work, then to steal from his employer, and finally, to murder his rich uncle for money. It was performed in London every Christmas for years, and employers would send their own apprentices to see it so they could be forewarned about the dangers waiting around the corner to entrap their immortal souls. The London Merchant toured and was even produced in the American colonies.
Among the young men who absorbed its lessons was 19-year-old George Washington. He cited a performance he saw in 1751 as one of his formative experiences that kept him on the straight and narrow path all his life, a path that led him to the first presidency of the United States.
Along the way, that path also led him to the terrible winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge when he was commanding the American Army in the darkest days of the American Revolution. To keep their spirits up, Washington arranged a series of theatrical performances — a kind of primitive USO — which included a staging of Joseph Addison’s tragedy Cato, coincidentally a portrait of another enemy of Julius Caesar’s imperial tyranny, Marcus Porcius Cato.
The most famous — OK, infamous — example was poor old Honest Abe, who met his end in the presidential box, house right, at Ford’s Theatre, just a few blocks from the White House. As is widely known, he was assassinated by an actor, John Wilkes Booth, who pulled the trigger, then jumped down to the stage where he had appeared many times, dramatically proclaiming “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”) before escaping.
But why was Lincoln at Ford’s watching Our American Cousin on Friday, April 14, 1865, in the first place? And how did Booth get so close to the President without being stopped? Turns out, Lincoln and his family loved the theatre and opera and attended regularly. One of his favorite actors was, you guessed it, John Wilkes Booth, along with his more-famous brother Edwin, namesake of Broadway’s Booth Theatre. Both Booth brothers had appeared together in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with John Wilkes taking the role of Brutus, who assassinates Caesar because he believes he has become a tyrant. Lincoln had attended many productions starring the Booth brothers, most recently a Shakespearean production starring Edwin just five weeks earlier. Lincoln was aware of John Wilkes’ strong, even fanatical, support of the Confederate cause, but chose to admire his artistry over his politics. Besides, the South had surrendered at Appomattox the previous Monday, April 9, and what better way to celebrate than seeing a show?
For Booth’s part, he was such a frequent performer at Ford’s that, even though he wasn’t in the cast of Our American Cousin, none of the employees thought it was odd that he was hanging around the theatre that night. When Booth pulled the trigger, he didn’t just kill the President, he killed one of his most devoted fans.
The president who led the nation through the first World War was one of the most hard-core theatregoers on this list, according to Thomas A. Bogar, author of the book "American Presidents Attend the Theatre." "While in office, he saw over 225 shows, a record no president before or since has matched, surpassing even that of Lincoln." He attended shows in Washington and in New York, preferring lighthearted musicals to serious drama. "He wanted to laugh," Bogar wrote, quoting a Secret Service agent of the time. "He was happiest when 'rocking with laughter at a particularly good quip, or humming and tapping his feet while a vaudeville singer gave out with a new song.' Wilson went to the theatre 'to admire the pretty legs of the chorus girls.'"
John F. Kennedy
One of the most culturally-aware presidents (partly owing to the influence of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy), Kennedy’s presidency became linked to a Broadway musical when, after his death, his widow was quoted in Life magazine as saying that Kennedy often played side two of the Camelot Broadway musical cast album for inspiration. She cited the lines in the title song "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot" as the president’s favorite. Admirers took to idolizing his brief presidency as "Camelot."
However, Kennedy’s association with Broadway and show music long predated that. He attended the opening night of Irving Berlin’s last musical, Mr. President at its out-of-town tryout in Washington D.C., but reportedly left at intermission.
Kennedy told biographers that he was listening to the cast album of Finian's Rainbow in 1948 when he got word that his sister had been killed in a plan crash in France. The song "How are Things in Glocca Morra?" played as he broke down in tears.
In 2013 the Huffington Post listed what it said were Kennedy’s five favorite songs, and all were showtunes: Besides Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot,” they named Irving Berlin’s "Blue Skies,” Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris," Frank Loesser’s "I Believe in You" as sung by Robert Morse, and Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song.”
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. is named is his honor.
Lyndon B. Johnson
While the Texan Johnson family were not big theatregoers, Johnson inspired one devoted fan from Times Square: Carol Channing's star rose to its highest during the Johnson administration, which coincided with her megahit, Hello, Dolly! With composer Jerry Herman's permission, Johnson used the title song as his 1964 campaign theme, with the lyrics changed to "Hello, Lyndon!" According to Bogar, Johnson later invited the entire Broadway cast to perform at the White House and he danced afterward with Channing in her Dolly costume.
Johnson subsequently attended a performance of the same show at the National Theatre when it had changed to an all-black cast. Leading lady Pearl Bailey invited him to the stage where he was regaled with the "Hello, Lyndon!" version of the title song.
Nixon was never a great favorite of the performing arts community, but theatre did give him one great gift — First Lady Pat Nixon. In 1938 Nixon was a practicing attorney in his hometown of Whittier, CA. To hone his public speaking skills the 25-year-old lawyer tried out for the Whittier Community Players’ production of George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woolcott’s murder mystery, The Dark Tower, about a man who exerts a hypnotic control over his actress wife. Nixon won the role opposite a local school teacher, Thelma Catherine “Pat” Ryan, whom he married two years later. Nixon eventually chose to pursue a career on the public stage of politics, but he kept his co-star through the White House years and beyond.
The one president who started as an actor was Ronald Wilson Reagan, and he, too, earned a bit of the Broadway spotlight via his First Lady. An athlete at first, Reagan himself was introduced to the stage while at Eureka College, but he worked for years in radio before beginning a long career as a film actor in California. However, his future wife Nancy Davis began as a stage actress, eventually appearing on Broadway in 1946 in the role of Si-Tchun, a lady-in-waiting, in the musical Lute Song which featured Mary Martin and Yul Brynner. She then headed to Hollywood and her fateful meeting with the future president.
No modern president has been as persistent a theatregoer as Bill Clinton, who found time to see Broadway shows at least a half dozen times during his two terms, and has continued to stroll the Great White Way in the years since. Among his documented theatregoing was a visit to Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey in 1999, evenings at the The Lion King and D.C.’s Ragtime in 1998, and a soujourn at Broadway’s Rent in 1997.
Also in 1997 Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton stopped by A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, then starring Whoopi Goldberg, who ad libbed about his presence.
During the "Comedy Tonight" scene, which Goldberg often interrupted to comically berate latecomers, Goldberg told one tardy arrival, "Any other night we would have waited for you, but we got the Prez."
Afterward, Clinton and Vice President Gore mounted the stage to shake hands with the cast. Clinton focused on the toga-clad actors, hugging Goldberg, but leaving Gore with the task of keeping a straight face while greeting the scantily-clad maidens from the House of Marcus Lycus.
Clinton’s roving eye brought chuckles during a spring 1997 visit to Broadway’s Chicago when the chorus girls moaned "We want Billy" in the intro to "All I Care About Is Love." The New York Times reported that co-star Ernie Sabella was slightly concerned about his line "I have to go to the Senate this morning; I'm blackmailing one of the senators," but the line reportedly got only a titter.
Clinton has continued his theatregoing habit, cheering Spider-Man in 2011, and taking then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, plus daughter Chelsea and her husband Marc Mezvinsky to see Sting’s The Last Ship on Dec. 22, 2014.
Bill and Hillary performed a difficult trick—pulling audience attention away from the musical Hamilton, when they attended the show at the Public Theatre March 1, 2015. At intermission Bill worked the crowd, shaking hands and chatting, while Hillary, now a candidate for president herself, stayed in her seat. They subsequently appeared at Broadway's Palace Theatre to check out An American in Paris.
On May 30, 2009, just four months after his inauguration, President Obama fulfilled one of his most personally-important campaign promises — to escort his hard-campaigning wife Michelle to see a Broadway show. They took in a revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the vintage Belasco Theatre, which at the time still had a separate entrance for the balcony section — an entrance once used in part to segregate theatregoers. The theatre has since been renovated.
On June 4, 2012, during his campaign for a second term, Obama was treated to a fundraising event dubbed “Barack on Broadway” at the New Amsterdam Theatre, featuring performances from Patti LuPone, Megan Hilty, Norbert Leo Butz, Angela Lansbury, Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin, among others.
The Obamas periodically attended Broadway shows, sometimes with their daughters Sasha and Malia. On April 11, 2014, the President and First Lady attended the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun and went backstage to meet the cast.
After first hearing songs from Hamilton at the White House in 2009, the Obamas attended a Broadway performance of the phenomenon on July 18, 2015. Then on Nov. 2, 2015 the Democratic Party bought out an entire performance of Hamilton on Broadway as a party fundraiser. In a speech from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, President Obama noted that Republican former Vice President Dick Cheney had also expressed admiration for Hamilton. Obama said, "Michelle and I love this show. It also happens to be the only thing Dick Cheney and I agree on...that is a cultural landmark."