Top 10 Presidents in Musicals
With Presidents' Day Weeked upon us, we couldn't help thinking about how musical theatre appreciates, celebrates, satirizes and explores POTUS and their entourage - from the founding fathers right up to prospective candidates in future elections.
There is a rich history of Presidents and candidates on stage in both musicals and plays. It seems audiences can't quite get enough of seeing the head of state, especially if it requires them singing or dancing...
Below is my personal Top 10 list of 'Presidents in Musicals'.
10. Of Thee I Sing (John Wintergreen)
No, not a musical version of Barack Obama's children's book, but instead a 1931 Gershwin musical which won the Pultizer Prize for Drama. Set in the 1930s the show opens with a campaign parade to support "Wintergreen for President", as fictional President John P. Wintergreen has been nominated for President and Alexander Throttlebottom for his Vice. What follows is a madcap musical that includes all of the following: 1) a beauty pageant, 2) corn muffins, 3) wrestling, 4) a newborn baby used to negotiate diplomatic relations with France. Time for a Roundabout revival? We think so.
9. The Fix (Calvin Chandler)
Continuing the theme of fictional Presidents, this 90s gem of a musical follows a race to the White House, constructed by a controlling mother and wife of a Senator who dies in a pre-show sex scene. Realising her hopes of becoming First Lady have slipped away, her energy is focused into her Son who she forces to run as a candidate to get herself onto Pennsylvania Avenue by whatever means possible. Scotland's finest export John Barrowman starred as 'bad boy' Cal Chandler, who excelled in strutting on stage and opening his arms as wide as possible. I particularly enjoy the Presidential knee bob that's going on. Barrowman for President? I'd vote.
8. Ragtime (Teddy Roosevelt)
So Ragtime is one of the best musicals ever written. Agreed? Yep. Whilst it's two and a half hours of utter bliss, there's one pretty iconic moment that always stands out on the recording. Sarah (Audra McDonald) is attempting to get justice for her husband-to-be Coalhouse, who is postponing their marriage until the damage to his car is rectified. She hears of a campaign rally in New Rochelle and goes in the hopes that the vice-presidential candidate will be able to help. Instead, this being a musical, she is mistaken for a would-be assassin and beaten to death by the Secret Service. Whilst a President may not specifically appear in the show - the song "President" is a defining moment of the show. If you can get through it without welling up - you're officially dead inside.
7. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Various Presidents)
You may think that the combination of Leonard Bernstein, Alan Jay Lerner and a historical sweep of the most famous address in the USA would make theatrical gold, but you'd be wrong. This 1976 musical is one for Joe Allen's, running for only 7 performances and marking the end of Bernstein's career on Broadway. The show opens with a theatre group rehearsing a play that sweeps from 1792 to 1902. The play being rehearsed is a history of the White House and the servants who serve the President, with one actor playing all the Presidents and one actress playing all the First Ladies.
Whilst most of the show is pretty much forgotten, the song "Take Care of This House" has survived and was even performed at the inauguration of Jimmy Carter. If I ever become President I'd like Jenifer Hudson belting this at me as I take the Oath.
6. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Andrew Jackson)
Long before Lin Manuel Miranda came along and tried to make History on stage 'cool', Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers' 2008 rock musical told the story of the founding of the Democratic Party by redefining Andrew Jackson, America's seventh President, as an Emo rock star. The show focuses on populism, the Indian Removal Act, and his relationship with his wife Rachel as well as Jackson's desire to bring political power back to the public and away from the elite.
5. Bombshell, (John F Kennedy)
Okay - so Bombshell may not actually be a real musical, but let's face it - it may as well be. From NBC's SMASH came one of the most popular shows that never was, charting the rise and fall of icon Marilyn Monroe. Julia Houston and Tom Levitt (disclaimer - they may be fictional) explore the character in relation to the various men in her life - one of which happens to be none other than JFK himself. In this all too brief scene, Marilyn spends a night with the President, but the actress Ivy Lynn ends up revealing a little too much flesh. Oh, and Julian Ovenden plays JFK.
[Disclaimer - the below clip features KAREN CARTWRIGHT and not the true Marilyn we all know and love, Ivy Lynn...I can only apologise]
4. Annie, (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
Now to many the thought of the little red haired orphan is enough to induce extreme sickness, but to others (ie. me) this 1977 musical is an absolute classic. Whilst I usually get carried away by perfecting my Dorothy Loudon impression, one of my favourite moments comes late in the second act in the Cabinet Office of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following on from a quirky ensemble number in the first act with repeated digs at previous President Herbert Hoover, the lovable 32nd President comes off much better - even instigating a sing-along amongst his Cabinet members, which is most skilfully called 'Tomorrow: Cabinet Reprise'. I particularly enjoy when he instructs "even the Republicans" to join in...
[The below clip is because some people would agree that watching an LP spin is more entertaining than watching the show itself. To those people, I say you're not my friend.]
3. Merrily We Roll Along (The Kennedys)
Perhaps the only lyricist able to incorporate a witty song about the Kennedy dynasty is Stephen Sondheim. Pitched as a 'revue' song, this quirky number entitled 'Bobby and Jackie and Jack' shows Frank, Charley and Mary in their post-collegiate glow performing at a bar. Whilst the family themselves do not make an appearance, through some witty staging which usually involves puppets or heads on sticks, they manage to make their mark on this troubled, yet oddly perfect musical. Think of it as Sondheim does 'Spitting Image'.
2. Assassins, (Various Presidents)
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's musical which follows famous assassination attempts and successes throughout history is a firm favourite for musical fans. The show tells the story of the American Dream through the eyes of the individuals who have attempted to assassinate Presidents as diverse as JFK and Abraham Lincoln, creating a finely crafted melting pot of American history. This particularly chilling number explores the irony that any American can grow up to be President, in the same way that they can grow up to assassinate one. Ah, the land of the free.
1. 1776, (Thomas Jefferson)
At number one on our list is founding father and third President Thomas Jefferson, who is memorably depicted in the political comedy of 1969, the Tony Award winning musical 1776. Despite being particularly heavy on book, the show has its fans on both sides of the Atlantic, and originally ran on Broadway for 1,217 performance. Despite the show being male heavy - the show stopper is left to Jefferson's wife, Martha, who explains her love for husband who woo'd her not by speech but by music. Often noted as the first 'belting' on Broadway, here is the magnificent Betty Buckley with "He Plays the Violin". You're Welcome.