September 26, 2020

Power Plays: Shows About U.S. Politics


The first face-to-face debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is scheduled for this Tuesday, Sept. 29, and the uncertainty over the outcome of the election five weeks from now has me in a tizzy.  

So, as usual, I’ve been seeking solace in theater and started putting together a list of plays and musicals that have wrestled over the years with the way we define what American democracy is. 

The scuffling they depict hasn’t always been pretty but lurking beneath the skepticism, cynicism and often justified criticism is a bedrock belief that if we actually put in the work, including voting, this country can live up to its ideals. 

Below are a few of those shows. As always, my theatergoing buddy Bill contributed some titles I'd overlooked and I’ve highlighted those in red. I'm scheduled to talk about some of the shows with my pals at BroadwayRadio this Sunday in a politically-themed show of our own, which will also include a discussion with actor and activist Rory O'Malley on the Broadway community's efforts to get out the vote. You can hear all of it by clicking here.  

[Note: Rory O'Malley had so much great stuff to say that we decided to hold the BroadwayRadio conversation on political shows for a week. So I hope you'll tune in for that on Oct. 4, and that even before that you'll let me know of any shows you think I've missed. In the meantime, I've thought of—and added—two more shows to the list that were created by the comedian Will Ferrell and the provocateur Michael Moore.]

 In the meantime, here's the list: 

1776, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards with a book by Peter Stone, 1969: If I had to choose just one show about politics it would be this brilliant musical recreation of the contentious events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, whose original production I saw from a $5 balcony seat and whose cast album I play every Fourth of July.

1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner with a book by Lerner, 1976: It’s hard to believe that a show with its pedigree could have been such a flop but this musical attempt to chronicle the first 100 years of the White House through the lens of the African-American servants who worked there lasted for just eight performances. Some of the songs were later recorded under the title “A White House Cantata” but although the show was written by two white guys, its emphasis on how U.S. presidents have dealt with the issue of race might make it ripe for a full revival now.

ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS by Robert E. Sherwood, 1938: This Pulitzer Prize winner focused on the 16th president’s life—and loves—before his fateful move into the White House and the beginning of the Civil War which would eventually lead to his death but would also help make America the country it is today. It was revived by his namesake Lincoln Center Theater back in 1993 with Sam Waterson in the title role.

ADVISE AND CONSENT by Michael Loring, 1960: Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alan Drury, this political drama centers around the nasty confirmation battle over a candidate for secretary of state that involves claims by his conservative opponents that he was once a member of the Communist Party and threats by his supporters to reveal that his leading critic may have had a then-career-killing homosexual past. Although I’ve never seen it onstage, the 1962 movie with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson is one of my all-time favorites.

ALL THE WAY by Robert Schenkkan, 2012: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions project is an ongoing series of plays designed to “establish a shared understanding of our nation’s past while illuminating the best paths for our nation's future.” Schenkkan’s play fits the bill with its focus on Lyndon Johnson’s first year in office following John Kennedy’s assassination in which the Texan butt heads with fellow southerners to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and simultaneously muscled his way to a victory in that year's presidential election. 

ANGELS IN AMERICA by Tony Kushner, 1991: I know what you’re thinking: it’s AIDS and not politics that provide the engine for Kushner’s masterwork. But his gay fantasia bristles with political themes most of them centered in the character of the nefarious Roy Cohn, the chief counsel for Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of suspected communists in the 1950s; a supporter of Ronald Reagan, who was notoriously slow in his response to AIDS and a mentor to the current occupant of the White House during his early career as a shady real estate developer.

AN AMERICAN DAUGHTER by Wendy Wasserstein, 1997: As always in Wasserstein's works, the true villain is the double-standard that women face when trying to fulfill their professional ambitions. In this case the woman is a female doctor nominated to become the U.S. Surgeon General, who has to battle scandal-seeking journalists, conservatives who label her an elitist out of touch with the average woman and even feminists who think she isn't progressive enough. Critics—me included—were down on the original Lincoln Center Theater production but raves for recent revivals including one at Williamstown suggest it might be time to bring it back to New York.  

ANN by Holland Taylor, 2013: The governor of Texas from 1991-1995, Ann Richards was known for her flashy style (she favored cowboy boots and wore her white hair in a high pompadour) her way with a quip (she famously dissed George W. Bush as being “born with a silver foot in his mouth”) and her devotion to liberal politics, particularly feminist causes. This one-woman show, which Taylor both wrote and starred in, captures Richards in all her flamboyant glory and was filmed and can currently be seen on BroadwayHD.   

ASSASSINS, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim with a book by John Weidman, 1990: Even though the original Playwrights Horizons production of this historical cavalcade of the men and women who have attempted to kill an American president drew mixed reviews, I couldn’t get its dark spin on the American dream out of my mind when I saw it. So I’m not at all surprised that over the years it’s become acknowledged as a true American classic which makes me even more sorry that the coronavirus lockdown has kept us from seeing the all-star production that had been scheduled for Classic State Company in the spring. 

BARBARA FRIETCHIE by Clyde Fitch, 1899: Fitch, perhaps the most popular playwright at the turn-of-the-last century, turned a then-familiar poem into a romantic melodrama about a white Maryland woman who falls for a Union officer during the Civil War and defiantly flies the Stars and Stripes when Confederates take over her town. Audiences at the time—at least those in the north—loved the play, which was even adapted into a crowd-pleasing musical with a score by Sigmund Romberg.

BELLA BELLA by Harvey Feirstein, 2019: When Feirstein couldn’t find an actress to star in this love letter to his friend Bella Abzug, he decided to play the feminist icon himself in this solo show that premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club last fall. Abzug’s life story is interesting and Feirstein got off some funny lines but setting the show in a hotel bathroom on the night she lost her bid for the U.S. Senate is a downer, although perhaps it might play better with someone who more closely resembles the real Bella.

THE BEST MAN by Gore Vidal, 1960: As the grandson of a U.S. senator, an in-law of the Kennedys and later a (failed) office seeker himself, Vidal knew politics firsthand, and his taut look at the competition for their party’s presidential nomination between a too-principled Adlai-Stevenson-type patrician and a do-anything-to-win Richard Nixon-style pragmatist remains perhaps the best of the dramas about how American politics work and one I never pass up a chance to see onstage or screen. 

BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman with a book by Alex Timbers, 2008: Previous depictions portrayed the nation’s seventh president as an heroic figure but this raucous musical presented the guy whose face is on the $20 bill as a brooding Emo rock star who can’t stop feeling sorry for himself and cast a cynical eye on the populism that fueled his political rise to power and the anti-Indian policies that drove Native Americans away from their ancestral homes and sullied his legacy. Fans loved the production down at The Public Theater but the show lasted just three months on Broadway.

BOTH YOUR HOUSES by Maxwell Anderson, 1933: An idealistic congressman challenges the customary favor trading that his colleagues use to get their bills passed, even though it may lead to the defeat of a measure that would bring a huge construction project to his own district in this now almost forgotten Pulitzer Prize winner that preceded the similarly themed movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" by six years. 

BUILDING THE WALL by Robert Schenkkan, 2016: Upset by the prospect of a Trump presidency, Schenkkan channeled his fears and frustrations into this piece about a jail-house interview with the former head of a detention center for undocumented immigrants who is awaiting sentencing after having been convicted of an horrendous crime. Schenkkan clearly wanted to show how a well-meaning person can be persuaded to commit inhuman acts but his rushed-out play came off as just one long speech after another when my husband K and I saw it shortly after Trump’s inauguration.

THE CAKE by Bekah Brunstetter, 2017: In this gentle comedy, an evangelical baker who opposes same-sex marriage on religious grounds faces a moral dilemma when her beloved goddaughter asks her to bake a cake for her wedding to a woman. The issue of religious freedom versus equal rights for all is currently one of the most politically fraught debates in the country but Brunstetter, who has said that she wrote this with her own conservative relatives in mind, tries hard not to offend anyone and the production that played at Manhattan Theatre Club last spring seemed half-baked. 

THE CITY OF CONVERSATION by Anthony Giardina, 2014: Hester Ferris, a Washington D.C. hostess long famous for her parties at which politicians from both sides of the aisle mingle and make deals, begins to see a change in the city as those with different views, including members of her own family, retreat into intolerant camps. The five-time Tony nominee Jan Maxwell gave a bravura performance as Hester in what would be her last major New York performance before her untimely death at just 61 from complications due to breast cancer.

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller, 1953: The 17th-century Salem witch trials in which people were falsely accused and executed for witchcraft became an allegory for the McCarthy-era persecution of people suspected of being communists in Miller’s cautionary tale that has become one of his most popular plays, revived five times on Broadway (including Ivo van Hove’s unnecessarily supped-up take in 2016), four times off-Broadway (most recently Bedlam’s nicely stripped-down version last year) and countless times around the country and the world.

DOMESTICATED by Bruce Norris, 2013: Sex scandals have been a fact of life in American politics since Alexander Hamilton openly confessed to sleeping with the married Maria Reynolds shortly after he'd finished writing the Federalist Papers. Norris’ play about a contemporary political marriage in the aftermath of the husband’s infidelity featured spiky performances from Jeff Goldblum as the philanderer and Laurie Metcalf as his shamed wife when I saw it at Lincoln Center Theater, and it focused on the trade-offs each of the couple had to make for the husband’s career and was willing to make going forward. 

FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, 1978: Three years before Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court and long before the liberal (and recently lost) Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the conservative Antonin Scalia became opera buddies, this drama explored the conflicts—and eventual d├ętente—between a conservative woman appointed to the bench and the court’s leading liberal, who were played by Jane Alexander and Henry Fonda when I was lucky enough to see it.

FARRAGUT NORTH by Beau Willimon, 2008: An ambitious young campaign staffer falls prey to his own spin and the lure of power during the heat of a presidential primary in this drama written by Willimon, who was himself a young press aide during Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the presidency. The off-Broadway run with Chris Noth and John Gallagher, Jr. ended before I could get to it and I found the 2011 movie, renamed “The Ides of March” and starring George Clooney and Ryan Gosling, to be disappointing but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for a stage revival.

FIORELLO! music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick with a book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, 1960: One of only 10 musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, this tuneful biography tells the story of how Fiorello LaGuardia took on the corrupt political machine of New York’s Tammany Hall and became the most popular mayor in the city’s history. It was also the first musical to be performed at the Encores! concert series of rarely revived shows and I got the chance to see it when it played again to mark the 20th anniversary of Encores! in 2016.

FROST/NIXON by Peter Morgan, 2006: You might not think there would be much dramatic tension in a play about the series of interviews between the British talk show host David Frost and the disgraced former president Richard Nixon since the revelations of what Nixon said about his involvement in the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency are now common knowledge but Michael Sheen and Frank Langella were so terrific that both actors were invited to re-create their roles for the 2008 film and I’ve read that Morgan’s funny and, surprisingly, poignant script has worked just as well in subsequent stage revivals around the country.

THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan 2014: Schenkkan never finds a focus for this sequel to All The Way, which looks at the final years of Lyndon Johnson’s time in the White House. Still it offers a history lesson for those who weren’t around or have forgotten that turbulent time in the nation’s history as the war in Vietnam spun out of control, people here in the U.S. rioted in the streets and, like now, many feared for the future of the Republic.

HAMILTON, music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2015: There's no need to say much about this ongoing sensation which revived the reputation of an almost-forgotten Founding Father, won the Pulitzer and made Broadway hip again by, among other things, featuring a rap battle between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the young nation's monetary policy.

HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING by Will Arbery, 2019: Conservatives take centerstage in Arbery’s unapologetic mediation on the state of the nation as viewed by a group of college friends who have gathered to celebrate the promotion of their favorite professor to the presidency of a small Catholic college in Wyoming and debate their conflicting feelings about Donald Trump, their disdain for liberals and the best way to advance the agenda that they believe will truly make America great again.

HILLARY AND CLINTON by Lucas Hnath, 2019: Hnath’s slight fantasy purports to put the 2016 campaign in a parallel universe but the results are the same: Hillary is chastised for not being likable enough; her husband broods because he’s no longer getting enough of the attention he craves and although he never makes an appearance, you know who ultimately wins. Still, it was fun to see Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow go at it in the title roles during the play’s short Broadway run and it does bear witness to an essential moment in the nation's political history.

HIZZONER by Paul Shyre, 1989: This one-man show about New York’s Fiorello LaGuardia didn’t fare as well as Fiorello! and lasted just 12 performances.

INHERIT THE WIND by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, 1955: Based on the real-life Scopes Monkey Trial in which a Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution, this courtroom drama sums up the fractious mood of the country at the time of the trial in 1925, at the time of the Red Scare when the play premiered in the 1950s and of the red-state-blue-state divisions of the current political moment. 

IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, 2016: Fearing a populist takeover during the Great Depression, Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel in 1935 about a demagogue who, riding a platform of patriotism and traditional values, wins the presidency and then suspends constitutional rights and imposes fascist rule backed up by paramilitary troops loyal only to him. The book was adapted into a play the following year and produced across the country by the Federal Theater Project but Taccone and Cohen created a new version that premiered at Berkeley Rep. just as the Trump campaign picked up steam.

JIMMY, music and lyrics by Bill and Patti Jacob with a book by Melville Shavelson and Morrie Ryskind, 1969: New York’s flamboyant—and corrupt—Jazz Age-era mayor, Jimmy Walker, should have made a great subject for a musical but The New York Times critic Clive Barnes dealt this one a fatal blow when his review declared that the show had three flaws: “the book, the music and the lyrics.” 

KINGS by Sarah Burgess, 2016: A first term congresswoman is confronted with the harsh realities of political fundraising when she tries to resist the pressure of lobbyists in yet another gloss on the old “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” movie but this time no one comes to the rescue. I saw both a workshop with Karen Pittman and later a fuller off-Broadway production with Quincy Tyler Bernstein and was wowed each time.

MACBIRD! music and lyrics by John Duffy with a book by Barbara Garson, 1967: Its creators always insisted that their show wasn't accusing Lyndon Johnson of any complicity in the assassination of his predecessor but this brash mashup of Shakespearean satire and U.S. politics presented Johnson as an ambitious Macbeth, John Kennedy as his doomed Duncan and Robert Kennedy as an avenging amalgam of Macduff and Malcolm. It enjoyed a year-long run at the Village Gate but pretty much disappeared after Robert Kennedy’s own assassination.

NIXON'S NIXON by Russell Lees, 1994: Set in the Oval Office on the night before Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign, this two-hander imagines the conversation between Nixon and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger as, fueled by alcohol, each man struggles to find a way to create a better legacy for himself in history.

NOVEMBER by David Mamet, 2008: Although he’s one of the few outspoken conservatives in the theater community, Mamet opted for a non-controversial approach to politics with a comedy about a president up for re-election who is so unpopular and so in need of cash that he decides he might as well start selling pardons, beginning with the turkey that traditionally gets a reprieve each Thanksgiving. But not even the presence of Nathan Lane as the president and Laurie Metcalf as his chief speechwriter could make me excuse this turkey when I saw it on Broadway.

OF THEE I SING, music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, 1932: The first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama took a lighthearted look at politics with a frothy story about a presidential candidate who wins the election on a platform of love and then has to overcome the possibility of impeachment and an international crisis when a woman with French connections claims he backed out of a promise to marry her. A sequel the next year, Let ‘Em Eat Cake, tried to spoof the idea of a fascist takeover of the U.S. government and although things end happily (this is a musical comedy after all) didn’t prove to be as popular.

THE ORIGINALIST by John Strand, 2015The conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia often selected one liberal-minded law clerk to serve as a sparring partner while he worked on his court decisions. In Strand’s fictional version, Scalia chooses a liberal lesbian to work with him and over the course of their many debates, the two develop a friendship that allows them to transcend political differences. 

OTHER DESERT CITIES by Jon Robin Baitz, 2012: The parents’ in Baitz’s drama are proud to be close friends and supporters of Ronald and Nancy Reagan but their late son was a ‘60s radical caught up in the underground movements of that time and when their estranged daughter announces that she has written a book about all of it, family secrets are unearthed and political loyalties are tested. I saw the show both off and on Broadway and was knocked out by it both times.

THE PARISIAN WOMAN by Beau Willimon, 2017: This update of a 1957 Brigitte Bardot film transformed that farce about sexual and political shenanigans in the French government into a wan comedy of manners about a well-connected Washington wife’s efforts to get her lawyer husband appointed to a prestigious judgeship. But Willimon’s efforts to goose up the satire with lots of references to the Trump administration fell flat and the Broadway production ran for just 116 performances despite having movie star Uma Thurman in the title role. 

ROE by Lisa Loomer, 2016: The hot-wire subject of abortion is viewed through the lens of the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade case that made the procedure legal in the U.S., starting with the pregnancy of Norma McCorvey, who was called Jane Roe in the suit, and carrying through her feminist attorney's arguments before the court and McCorvey's post-decision turnaround that had her stumping for anti-abortion groups (which she also recently recanted). It's a show I've yet to see but WAM Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts has scheduled a timely digital production running from Oct. 17 to 20, which you can learn more about by clicking here

SOFT POWER, music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by David Henry Hwang and Tesori with a book by Hwang, 2018: Hillary Clinton plays a central role in this tongue-in-cheek riff on “The King and I” which examines America’s struggles with democracy, cultural identity and racism in a 21st century world where its role as the dominant global force is being challenged by China.

STATE OF THE UNION by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, 1945: A wry exploration of the conflict between political ambition and moral principles as Republican Party bosses try to decide the best candidate to be their presidential nominee, this political satire won the Pulitzer and was the basis for the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film of the same name. 

STUFF HAPPENS by David Hare, 2003: The British playwright combined verbatim quotes from real speeches, meeting minutes and press conferences with his own imaginings of what went on behind closed doors to create a three-hour condemnation of the decision by the George W. Bush and Tony Blair administrations to invade Iraq. The play was a hit for London’s National Theatre and won all kinds of awards when it played at The Public Theater a couple of years later but I have to confess that it totally bored me.

SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO by Dore Shary, 1958: Named for the summer resort where Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with polio, the play chronicles his struggle to overcome his disability and to find new meaning in his life, culminating with the speech Roosevelt gave at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, which made him a force in the party and ultimately president of the country for an unprecedented four terms. 

THE TERMS OF MY SURRENDER by Michael Moore, 2017: The progressive activist, who became the youngest elected official in the country when at just 18 he won a seat on his local Michigan school board back in 1972, surveyed the state of the nation in the wake of Donald Trump's election in this one-man show. A few times he even led his audiences into the street to protest the new president, setting off a Twitter spat between the two of them. 

THE TRUE by Share White, 2018: This fictional version of the real-life relationship between Erastus Corning, who served as Albany, New York’s mayor for over 40 years, and his key aide Polly Noonan aimed to detail the ways in which politics sidelined even the most politically savvy women in midcentury America. But perhaps out of deference to Noonan’s granddaughter current New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the play pulls its punches and despite a typically powerhouse performance from Edie Falco failed to win over my husband K, my theatergoing buddy Bill or me when the three of us saw the original New Group production. 

WATCH ON THE RHINE by Lillian Hellman, 1941: Members of an upper-class American family are forced to reckon with fascism when they discover that a house guest is working with the Nazis in Hellman’s drama which won that year’s New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and was quickly made into a somewhat talky movie starring Bette Davis.

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME by Heidi Schrek, 2017: Replicating her participation in speech and debate competitions sponsored by the American Legion during high school, Schrek examined the ways in which the U.S. Constitution has protected the rights of straight, white men at the expense of other Americans including the women in her family, many of whom were subjected to emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Her form-defying piece, part TED Talk, part performance art, began as part of an off-off-Broadway summer festival, moved to New York Theatre Workshop, eventually ran on Broadway for five months and became a Pulitzer finalist.

YOU'RE WELCOME AMERICA: A FINAL NIGHT WITH GEORGE W. BUSH  by Will Ferrell, 2009: The comedian brought the impersonation of the 43rd president that he honed on "Saturday Night Live" to the stage in a show in which his goofy Bush looks back on his presidency and ahead to his legacy. 




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