Monday, October 8, 2012

Hail To The Chief

The President of the United States is, in many people's minds, the most powerful man on earth. Not only does he dominate the news media, plenty of biographies have been written about American Presidents as well as plays and films.

While fictional Presidents (DaveThe American PresidentThe West Wing, etc.,) have created memorable roles for such talented actors as Martin Sheen,  Kevin KlineMorgan Freeman, Peter Sellers, Fredric March, Michael Douglas, James Cromwell, and John Goodman, many an actor has had a chance to impersonate an actual President of the United States.
So far, only Abraham Lincoln has had to contend with zombies and vampires. But how have American Presidents been portrayed on the musical stage? The musical 1776 (which showcased the drama behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence) included future Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

San Francisco Playhouse will move into its new home this weekend with Jon Tracy directing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Abraham Lincoln made a surprising appearance in the musical number "Happy Birthday, Abie, Baby" in Hair.

In the following clip from the 1982 film of AnnieAileen Quinn sings "Tomorrow" to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Edward Herrmann).

In Call Me MadamEthel Merman played a Washington hostess (inspired by Perle Mesta) who was often receiving phone calls from President Harry S. Truman. Irving Berlin's bubbly score included a song named "They Like Ike."

In this clip from the 1987 opera by John AdamsNixon in ChinaChou En-Lai (Sanford Sylvan) and Richard Nixon (James Maddalena) trade toasts at a banquet in Beijing.

There are, of course, two musicals which very few Americans have seen. In 1962, Irving Berlin's last show, Mr. President, opened with Robert Ryan in the title role and Nanette Fabray as his First Lady. Anita Gillette landed the role of their daughter who sang "The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous."

On January 17, 2010, Hope! Das Obama Musical premiered in Frankfurt and became the first musical written about a sitting President.

America's Presidents took center stage last weekend in Bay area productions of two musical theatre classics. One show (featuring a fictional President) debuted on Broadway during the Great Depression. The other (which focuses on depressed and delusional historical figures who have had a severe impact on American Presidents) debuted off Broadway in 1990.

In a peculiar way, each show can be seen through a peculiar lens of the audience's political awareness. One wears its comedy in bold primary colors, the other is darkly cynical and foreboding. One is a classic example of a "tired businessman's musical"; the other demonstrates the sobering power of musical theatre to shock and educate its audience.

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With music and lyrics by George & Ira Gershwin, Of Thee I Sing opened at the Music Box Theater on December 26, 1931, becoming the first Broadway musical to satirize Presidential politics as well as the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With a plot that has bachelor candidate John P. Wintergreen running on a "Love" platform, a political party that stages a beauty contest for the woman who will become his wife on the day he is sworn in as President, and a sweet young girl who wins Wintergreen's heart because she can bake delicious corn muffins (without even using corn), the show's book by Morris Ryskind and George S. Kaufman was clearly designed to lift American spirits that had been dampened by the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Vice Presidential candidate Alexander Throttlebottom
(David Fleishhacker) is an unwelcome presence  in
Of Thee I Sing (Photo by: David Allen)

Eight decades after the show's premiere, much of its humor seemed uncomfortably dated. While there is silliness galore (especially with regard to the bumbling Vice Presidential candidate, Alexander Throttlebottom), numerous lines that might have triggered serious blackout guffaws in 1931 fell flat on a modern audience.

It was also a bit disheartening to realize how the chirping beauties in Of Thee I Sing's chorus have evolved into the fawning contestants on shows like The Bachelor, the scheming bitches on The Real Housewives reality TV franchise, and the unwilling victims of the GOP's War on Women. Ira Gershwin's lyric about "a man who would jilt and spurn her" fell on my jaded ears as "a man who would tilt and sperm her."

Coming four years after Jerome Kern's 1927 breakthrough with Show Boat, there were also some structural changes. As Ira Gershwin explained: "There are no verse-and-chorus songs; there is a sort of recitative running along, and lots of finales and finalettos."  I even heard hints of George Gershwin's 1928 masterpiece, An American In Paris.

San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon has revived Of Thee I Sing to coincide with the opening of their 20th anniversary season and their year-long tribute to the Gershwin brothers. While "Love Is Sweeping The Country," "Who Cares?' and the title song have stood the test of time, other musical numbers in this show have faded far into oblivion. I did, however, get a kick out of Ira Gershwin's lyrics for "Some Girls Can Bake A Pie" and "The Illegitimate Daughter."

Brittany Danielle, Ashley Jarrett, and Noel Anthony
in Of Thee I Sing (Photo by: David Allen)

With Greg MacKellan directing (using attractive sets and costumes designed by Hector Zavala), the strongest performance came from Noel Anthony as John P. Wintergreen. David Fleishhacker was an appropriately addled Alexander Throttlebottom and Michael Rhone offered a portrayal of the South's Senator Robert E. Lyons that seemed like a precursor to Senator Lindsey GrahamAshley Jarrett was appealing as Mary Turner with Brittany Danielle providing comic relief as the scheming Diana Devereaux

By the end of the first act, I found myself surprisingly conflicted about this revival. I was deeply imprresed with the results of musical director Michael Anthony Schuler's work with the cast as well as his accompaniment on the piano. Combined with MacKellan's stage direction and Jayne Zaban's choreography, the overall production values were higher than usual for 42nd Street Moon. And yet, I found myself feeling increasingly bored and impatient.

It's possible that much of the fault lies with Ryskind and Kaufman's book. In any case, the following clip offers some stills of the original cast with Jane Froman and Sonny Schuyler singing excerpts from Of Thee I Sing.

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Shortly before I saw my first performance of Assassins in 1993 at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose, the strangest thing happened. The radio ads for the show featured a hurdy-gurdy style song that was nowhere to be found on the original cast recording. It was fascinating and infuriating, the kind of musical snippet you can't get off of your mind. It wasn't until almost 20 years later, while watching Stephen Sondheim discuss this piece of music, I learned that it was a variation on our country's official Presidential anthem, Hail to the Chief!

In recent years I've had the immense pleasure of attending two excellent Bay area productions of Assassins: one at San Francisco State University in 2004 and one by Ray of Light Theatre in 2011. Each viewing was accompanied by the curious sensation that the current political climate colors the audience's reaction to the performance.

How so? In 1993, the newly-elected Bill Clinton was seen as a likely target for some deranged lone gunman; in 2011, the threat seemed equally worrisome for Barack Obama.

The Shotgun Players recently unveiled a new production of Assassins directed by Susannah Martin with costumes by Christine Crook and a phenomenal unit set designed by the ever-resourceful Nina Ball (whose revolving stage eerily resembles a revolver's multi-chambered cylinder).

The cast of Assassins in front of Nina Ball's unit set
Photo by: Pak Han

Each time I see this show, I come away from the performance with a deeper appreciation of the narrative structure librettist John Weidman created from an idea by John Gilbert, Jr. Although the size of the cast may vary (some productions include a chorus to fill out smaller roles while others have actors double up on roles), the dramatic payoff never lessens.

A major boost to the dramatic tension in this new production comes from the formidable sound design by Theodore J. H. Hulsker, which ranges from ordinary highway noises during Samuel Byck's monologue to gunshots which trigger ominous vibrations under the seats at key moments in the script. In her director's note, Susannah Martin writes:
"Assassins is, by no means, a historical document. It's a piece of theatre. Why is it relevant right now? The election. The amount of anger in the country. The very, very sad slew of violent, gun-related tragedies that have occurred in the United States in just the past few months. The incredible helplessness and powerlessness that people feel right now vis-a-vis the government. The strong desire to do something about it and yet the strange inability to fully commit and take action in a way that feels definitive or that feels like it changes anything.
Because of the nature of our founding as a country (it was a revolution, after all), the tenets listed in our founding documents, and our long history of manifesting destiny, we are brought up as Americans with certain expectations built on promises made to us -- both literal promises in those founding documents and more amorphous, implied promises. I know we live in a time where many don't see the American Dream as possible anymore. But we want to believe.  We want it to be possible."
Ryan Drummond as Samuel Byck in Assassins
Photo by: Pak Han
"With the assassins, those implied promises go beyond the idea of 'If you work hard, you will succeed and thus, be happy.'  The assassins live in place of 'I am owed happiness, I am owed success, and I have the right to criticize, to judge if those things are not given to me. I have the right to take action and claim my happiness.'  For some of these assassins, their frustration comes from a very acute place of poverty, desperation, and neglect. It comes from a place of being backed into a corner and expressing their helplessness, their powerlessness through one, great 'historic' act. It's the only way they see out of the trap they find themselves in."
While Assassins requires a tightly-knit ensemble, some performances stand out more than others. I was especially impressed with the work of Galen Murphy-Hoffman as John Wilkes Booth, Ryan Drummond as Samuel Byck, Aleph Ayin as Giuseppe Zangara, and Kevin Singer (doubling as the banjo-strumming Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald).

Galen Murphy-Hoffman as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins
Photo by: Pak Han

Having recently enjoyed Ady Abbot's monologue entitled "Whatever Happened to Sara Jane?" at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival, it was fascinating to revisit the scenes written by Weidman for Sara Jane Moore (Rebecca Castelli) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Cody Metzger). Others in the cast included Jeff Garrett as the Proprietor, Steven Hess as the hyperreligious Charles Giteau, Dan Saski as Leon Czolgosz, and Danny Cozart as John Hinckley.

Members of the Assassins ensemblePhoto by: Pak Han

Performances of Assassins continue through October 28 at the Ashby Stage. Click here to order tickets and remember: all you have to do is move your little finger.

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