U.S. Presidents on Stage: From Washington to You Know Who

Whatever the future holds for a certain criminally inclined former President of the United States, one thing seems assured: Somebody will eventually portray him on Broadway. (He’s already been depicted — skewered — Off-Broadway.)  Nearly every past president has made it to Broadway over the last century, as the photo essay below, in honor of Presidents Day, illustrates. Whenever Broadway returns, so will at least three past presidents – Washington, Jefferson and Madison — all in a single show, “Hamilton”; as recently as 2019, three more presidents — LBJBill Clinton, and Barack Obama — were depicted in new Broadway plays.

“I think presidents are a natural topic for the stage,” said Bruce Altschuler, professor emeritus of political science at SUNY Oswego and the author of Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays about the Presidency  “There is usually built-in name recognition and often passions for and against them,” he told me. “In our celebrity culture, we want to know more about what is really happening, either behind the scenes politically or in their private lives.” And, as he explains in his book, “often, by depicting past presidents, the authors hope to teach a lesson to contemporary audiences.”

Lincoln has been the star of more than a dozen Broadway plays, starting with Benjamin Chapin’s Lincoln in 1906; Washington is a distant second. But 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.

A note about the one president who had worked as an actor, Ronald Reagan. Richard Coombs portrayed him in a 1989 Broadway musical entitled “Senator Joe,” about Joseph McCarthy, but 1. in the same play, Coombs also portrayed six other characters, including Huck Finn, Lenin and a chicken, and 2. It ran for just three preview performances, and never opened.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged and read the caption.

Author: 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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