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Presidents, and #NotMyPresident, on Stage

Below is a photo essay of a century’s worth of stage depictions of American presidents.

One thing seems certain about the most uncertain presidency in U.S. history — Donald Trump will be depicted on stage. It’s already been happening. If the best-known caricature of him is on television, both Mike Daisey and Karen Finley  created theater pieces that revolved around Trump the candidate, and even Meryl Streep dressed up as him for a skit at last year’s Public Theater gala.

Today alone, Presidents Day has become #NotMyPresident Day, not just online but on stage, with anti-Trump performances in theaters throughout the nation, such as He’s Our President/He’s Our Problem at La MaMa. Surely some of these will include at least crude caricatures of the 45th president.

We soon will surely see more considered stage portrayals, likely to be satires akin to MacBird rather than “All The Way” (to pick two plays about 36th president LBJ, nearly 50 years apart.) — or “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” about the 7th president,  rather than, say, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” the best-known of some dozen biographical dramas about the 16th president that have been on Broadway alone, starting with Benjamin Chapin’s Lincoln in 1906. Lincoln has been the subject of more Broadway plays than any other president by far, with George Washington a distant second — although Washington is among the three U.S. presidents (along with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) currently on the Great White Way in “Hamilton.”

But nearly every one of the 44 presidents has been portrayed on Broadway at one time or another. In 2010, James Monroe (the fifth president) was a character in three separate shows, none of them kind representations: He was an ineffectual character in A Free Man of Color,John Guare’s look at New Orleans in the early 1800’s; the butt of a semi-racy joke in Colin Quinn’s solo showng Story Short: A History of The World in 75 Minutes; and a lascivious fop in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. (In the latter, a rock musical about Jackson’s rise to power, Monroe at least fares better than Martin Van Buren, who is depicted as a two-faced conniver eating a Twinkie.)

Even more obscure presidents such as Rutherford B. Hayes have gotten their moments in the spotlight. Hayes and two other presidents were portrayed by Gene Wilder in “The White House,” a short-lived 1964 play by A. E. Hotchner that crammed in 24 of the presidents between John Adams and Woodrow Wilson.

In honor of Presidents Day, here is a collection of photographs of past presidents of the United States depicted on stage — all but two on Broadway — through the years. Click on any to see it enlarged and read the (sometimes extensive) captions.

 

 

In

In “Five Presidents,” a new play by Richard Cleveland not (yet?) on Broadway, five presidents pay their respects to Richard Nixon at his 1994 funeral. From left, Brit Whittle (Bill Clinton), Mark Jacoby (George H. W. Bush), Steve Sheridan (Ronald Reagan), Martin L’Herault (Jimmy Carter) and John Bolger (Gerald Ford).

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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