President's Day – Broadway Musicals that Featured Presidents
Today is President’s Day, an occasion where we as a nation celebrate our Commanders-in-Chief. There is a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that followed the fictional presidential campaign of the Wintergreen/Throttlebottom ticket, running (and winning) on the platform that “Love Is Sweeping the Country”. On this patriotic day, here is a look at a handful of Broadway musicals that included US Presidents amongst its cast of characters, living up to that Gershwin classic Of Thee I Sing.
A two-for-one special is built-in to the musical 1776, though at the time of the story, neither man had actually-served as president yet since the United States of America doesn’t become a nation until the musical’s conclusion. Nevertheless, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, major players in the musical’s plot, did go on to become the second and third presidents, respectively. In 1776, Adams is the leading champion for American Independence and Thomas Jefferson is the man he bullies into writer the Declaration that is at the center of the musical’s controversy. With songs like “But, Mr. Adams’, “He Plays the Violin”, “The Egg” and “Is Anybody There?”, the musical is a tribute to these men and their ideals.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
If you want presidential bang for your buck, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is bound to give you your money’s worth. The musical is literally a parade through the history of the White House and its inhabitants, stopping at points in time to examine the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant (to name a few), as well as the influence of the first ladies, with additional commentary and reflection from the White House servants. Written for our nation’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976 and co-produced by Coca-Cola, the musical was a notorious flop. The Leonard Bernstein/Alan Jay Lerner score is nevertheless well-regarded with such delightful ditties as “Take Care of this House”, “The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March”, “Duet for One”, “We Must Have a Ball’, and “I Love This Land”.
Teddy & Alice
What can be more patriotic than a march by John Phillip Sousa that tells the story of one of our nation’s presidents? Though it ran for only 77 performances, Teddy & Alice follows President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt and his relationship with his spunky daughter Alice, during his tenure in the White House. Alice gave ol’ Teddy a run for his money, breaking all conventions of propriety and gender stereotypes of the day, proving to be a strong, independent and defiant woman. Hal Hackady provided lyrics to both Sousa’s music and for additional material by Richard Kapp. The score included such fun songs as “This House”, “Her Father’s Daughter” and “Wave the Flag.”
I’d Rather Be Right
I’m a real sucker for any musical with a score by Rodgers and Hart, and their hit musical I’d Rather Be Right is one of their many delights. Set during the Great Depression, the musical was a political satire, and if you are going to satire politics of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt just has to be one of your characters. In I’d Rather Be Right, the duty of playing the president went to none-other than beloved showman George M. Cohan. The musical is known for such songs as “Have You Met Miss Jones?”, “We’re Going to Balance the Budget” and the title song.
A fictional president is still a president by Broadway terms, and the Irving Berlin musical Mr. President fits the bill. Following the fictional presidency of US President Stephen Decatur Henderson, the musical is a slice-of-life examination of the job of president as he juggles life in the political arena with raising a family. The musical wasn’t a hit, really, running a lackluster 265 performances. It did, however, address the Cold War and America’s tense relations with the Soviet Union, so the musical was timely. It was not anywhere near first-tier Irving Berlin where the music was concerned, but it did have a few gems among score including “It Gets Lonely in the White House” and “This Is a Great Country.”
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
A hit Off-Broadway that didn’t do so well when it transferred to Broadway, the emo rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is, regardless of its stunted longevity, a brilliant and satirical examination of one of our nation’s most controversial presidents. That president in question is, of course, Andrew Jackson and it doesn’t convey him in a very positive light, focusing on populism and the Indian Removal Act. Other US Presidents pop-up in the show including George Washington, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren. The score by the late Michael Friedman is jam-packed full of sly and infectious songs such as “I’m Not That Guy”, “Ten Little Indians”, and “Rock Star”.
Little Orphan Annie doesn’t exactly make you think of presidents at the outset, but closer examination will find the mention of one president, whose theory of trickle-down economics failed: “We’d Like to Thank You, Hebert Hoover” and the next president, Franklin D. Roosevelt who comes onboard with a solution to the bail America out of the Great Depression “A New Deal for Christmas.” The Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin score reveals a lot more than just optimistic hope for “Tomorrow”, using the political ideologies of the day to create clever historical context for the musical.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hamilton in this list of musicals with presidents as part of the story. Of course, Alexander Hamilton himself was never afforded the opportunity to become president, with his reputation in shambles and his life was cut short by his duel with Aaron Burr. The musical does, however, include a trio of US Presidents amongst its ranks: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score is, however, a deft commentary about history and how its events shape leaders including “History Has Its Eyes on You” and “The Room Where It Happens.”
Is it in bad taste that I end a list celebrating President’s Day with Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s Assassins? Well, I did it and too bad. Though we see very few presidents as characters in the musical, we do hear a great deal about them and how they came to be the target of some of America’s most deranged men and women. Among them are Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, William McKinley, Richard Nixon, and John K. Kennedy. Sondheim’s score really unearths the gravity of leadership and how it impacts the everyman, from songs such as “The Ballad of Booth”, “Everybody’s Got the Right”, “Another National Anthem” and “Something Just Broke”.