Gerard Alessandrini's topically comic rewrite of Irving Berlin's last musical, Mr. President, opens Aug. 2 at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, playing in repertory with director writer Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey.
The feverishly creative mind behind the perennial satiric revue, Forbidden Broadway, is doing to Berlin's patriotic, sincere 1962 musical, Mr. President, what FB does to the Great White Way — poke it in the eye. Alessandrini says it's all done in loving fun, in the name of musical comedy. What the late Berlin would say about actor Stuart Zagnit in a dress, pearls and a wig as former First Lady Barbara Bush is anyone's guess.
Alessandrini has permission from the Berlin and Russel-Crouse estates and The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization — which controls the rights to the little-known Broadway musical about the First Family — to tweak and rewrite the book and lyrics for the new Off-Broadway version. The show, still called Mr. President, began previews June 28.
"It's a new book, completely new," Alessandrini told Playbill On-Line. "The original book [by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse] wasn't very political, and I think that may have been one of the reasons it didn't do well. It looked like it was supposed to be political satire or something that had to do with either the Eisenhowers or the Kennedys, and it really wasn't. It was more like a 'Father Knows Best,' and he just happened to be president — there's a lot of homespun problems, like who the daughter is dating and who the son is dating."
Alessandrini wrote a new libretto and changed about 60 percent of the lyrics, updating and making topical references. Five other Berlin songs from other sources are also used. "I took it and made it completely contemporary and about the last election and what's going on now — I updated it," the writer-director said. "But I used most all the songs from Mr. President."
Are the Clintons and the Bushes characters?
"I did the old high school thing. I just changed [names]: It's 'George Shrub' and 'Chillary Fenton,' that sort of thing," Alessandrini explained. "The story is sort of like we do with Forbidden Broadway: It's based on truth and then taken to wild extremes. It's not really at all the real story. It's sort of like an alternate universe of politics."
The interpolations are "God Bless America," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "This Is the Army" (now called "This is My Army"), "Only for Americans" (refigured as "Only for Republicans") and "Shakin' the Blues Away" (now heard as "Shakin' the Chads Away"). Alessandrini said he was careful not to use Call Me Madam or Annie Get Your Gun songs, which have lives in the contexts of those better known shows.
The cast of seven includes Whitney Allen, Jono Mainelli, Amanda Naughton, Michael West, Eric Jordan Young, Stuart Zagnit and Clif Thorn as Mr. President. Costumes are by Forbidden Broadway veteran designer Alvin Colt. Bryan Johnson designed sets and Marc Janowitz designed the lighting.
What's the style of the show?
"I can't really even call it political satire," Alessandrini said. "It's more Broadway satire, with the political being secondary. It's more like a showbiz-meets-politics musical. It tells a story in very musical comedy terms. There are a lot of musical comedy spoofs in it."
The idea for rejiggering Mr. President came up after the Forbidden Broadway team thought it might be fun to do a "bad musicals" tribute in the spirit of the successful Encores! series that celebrates overlooked or seldom-revived musicals from the past.
"It came up because we were talking about bomb Broadway musicals that nobody would ever do," he said. They jokingly called the idea "Gongcores!," a reference to "The Gong Show," the TV variety program with cheap acts. Alessandrini said he'd like to explore other seldom-performed properties and rewrite them.
Alessandrini shares direction and musical staging credit with John Znidarsic. The Playbill title page reads, "Conceived, Rewritten and Politically Corrected by Gerard Alessandrini." The show is produced by John Freedson and Harriet Yellin.
A note in the Playbill for the new Mr. President reads: "For the musical theatre enthusiasts and the curious minded, we would like to clarify the following: 'Empty Pockets Filled With Love,' 'God Bless America,' 'Now It Can Be Told,' 'Be Careful, It's My Heart,' 'Not the Kennedys - Intro,' 'I'm Gonna Him,' 'Let's Face the Music,' 'Let's Go Back to the Waltz,' 'Is She the Only Girl in the World,' 'Don't be Afraid of Romance' and 'This Is a Great Country' are the original Irving Berlin lyrics with minimum topical references added. 'Mr. President,' 'Only for Republicans'/'Only for New Democrats,' 'It's All Showbiz, Kid,' 'The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous,' 'Shakin' the Chads Away,' "It Gets Lonely in the White House,' 'In My Hideaway,' 'I'm the First Lady of the Land,' 'This is My Army,' 'The Washington Twist,' have mostly new lyrics by Gerard Alessandrini."
This staging is one of many examples of rights-holders wishing to breathe life into — and financially exploit — dormant material and properties. For example, the Cole Porter trustees have given permission to interpolate songs from the Porter catalog in rewritten versions of You Never Know and Red, Hot & Blue!, and the Gershwin family allowed Ira and George Gershwin songs to be fit into the current rewrite of Oh, Kay! called They All Laughed, now at the Goodspeed Opera House. Crazy for You and My One and Only also used Gershwin songs in new book situations. Recently,The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization has entertained the idea of new version of the R&H flop, Allegro, with interpolations. Ditto Flower Drum Song, scheduled for Mark Taper Forum this fall. It has a new book by David Henry Hwang and is said to use most of the R&H score.
The original Mr. President — one in a line of patriotic shows by Berlin, who respected the presidency and the country that gave him a home as an infant — starred Robert Ryan as the Commander in-Chief and Nanette Fabray as his First Lady. Joshua Logan directed the production. Anita Gillette played their daughter, who memorably sang the frisky, "The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous." The show is preserved on a cast album that was re-released on CD in the 1990s. Despite a $2.6 million advance, interest in the show disappeared after six months (the reviews were negative, as well) and the show closed in 1963 after 265 performances. Berlin would not write another new show for Broadway, although he did pen "An Old Fashioned Wedding" for a 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman.
Performance times for Mr. President, in rep with Forbidden Broadway, are 8:15 PM Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:30 PM Wednesdays, 10:15 PM Fridays and 5 PM and 10:15 PM Saturdays. Tickets are $45. The Douglas Fairbanks Theatre is at 432 W. 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200.
— By Kenneth Jones