Presidents on Broadway

Lincoln 1906, Washington 2022

How will Joe Biden be depicted on a Broadway stage? All we know is that it’s likely to happen sooner or later. Nearly every past president has made it to Broadway over the last century, as the photo essay below, in honor of President’s Day, makes clear. There are three on Broadway currently – Washington, Jefferson and Madison  — in a single show, “Hamilton”, which opened Off-Broadway the day after President’s Day in 2015, and was one of the first to reopen on Broadway last Fall.

As recently as 2019, LBJBill Clinton, and Barack Obama each trod the Great Bright Way in new plays with limited runs. Before they arrive on Broadway, presidents these days often first make it as characters Off and Off Off Broadway, frequently mocked (witness president number 45).

“I think presidents are a natural topic for the stage,” Bruce Altschuler, professor emeritus of political science at SUNY Oswego and the author of Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays about the Presidency  , once told me. “There is usually built-in name recognition and often passions for and against them. 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. Reathel Bean portrayed him in the Broadway play “Doonesbury” in 1983, but just his voice; and 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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