Political Figures Are Musical Comedy
Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) has a new show coming to The Public, and apparently it’s mind blowing. I, for one, can’t wait to see this one. A two-and-a-half-hour rapped-through musical theatre piece called Hamilton, previously known as Hamilton Mixtape, in which Lin-Manuel stars as the title character.
Lin-Manuel has entered a long list of writers who have tackled political figures in musical comedy.
In 1926, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote their first show together, Dearest Enemy, following the tru-ish story of Mary Lindley Murray, who, under orders by George Washington, provided food and drink to British soldiers in her home in Manhattan in 1776, in order to give the American soldiers a chance to reassemble in Washington Heights. Though I know little of this piece, I LOVE what I’ve heard in recordings (most recently on a studio cast album in 2013). It’s an early example of this kind of work in American musical theatre.
Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, about 40 years later, wrote 1776 in 1969, a ridiculously funny comedy about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. There is some amazing character writing, exploring each of the signers, their motivations and arguments, as the calendar counts down to the date we all know is coming. The film version is also pretty great.
Here’s Cher singing “Mama Look Sharp,” a surprisingly breathtaking number from the show.
There’s also Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a 2010 musical that started at the Public Theatre and moved to Broadway. This piece of theatre was all inclusively hilarious, shocking, maddening, offensive, beautiful, sad, grotesque, violent, romantic, and electrifying. Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers wrote the show (Timbers directing the NYC production) about the presidency of Andrew Jackson, portrayed as a glorified womanizing college party guy, which not a far stretch from historical fact. The theatricality is stunning, and it’ll make you cringe.
I’m not going to go on a tirade about this next one, because in previous posts I’ve been explicitly clear about it’s superiority in recent musical theatre history, but Assassins definitely belongs on this list. You really can’t get better political commentary from two of the best musical theatre writers of all time.
Then there’s Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite. This is a gorgeous early LaChiusa piece about exactly what the title suggests. In four parts, it covers first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman (and her daughter, Margaret), Lady Bird Johnson, and Jackie Kennedy in scenes from Air Force 1, to the dreams of unconscious White House staff, to the presidential Suite. He’s recently written a companion piece, a sequel, called First Daughter Suite, commissioned by Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I haven’t seen the latter, but it promises to be another amazing look at the women of the White House.
Political figures are amazing characters in and of themselves. Writers love to write about them. Shakespeare has a whole catalogue of dramas involving notorious politicians in history. The lies, corruption, misogyny, ignorance, power, brilliance, successes and failures never cease to amaze audiences and artists alike. They are Grade-A subject matter for musical theatre, and comedy.
Lin-Manuel is in great company. I eagerly await this next great political work.