Presidents Day is Every Day on Broadway and Beyond

At least one President is almost always on Broadway, as the photo essay below once again makes clear. Last month there were five, although they looked a bit different than past stage portrayals. The musical “1776″ (which featured John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, above, albeit before they were elected presidents) has since closed, so now there are just three —  Washington, Jefferson and Madison  —  in “Hamilton”, which opened Off-Broadway the day after President’s Day in 2015.

As recently as 2019, LBJBill Clinton, and Barack Obama also 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.

And all this doesn’t even include the generic presidential characters, such as the one in the recent over-the-top comedy, “POTUS” (although we only see his body, after he’s accidentally killed, which may explain the subtle “Or, Behind Every Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.”)

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 opene

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged and read the caption.
On Saturday Night Live, James Austin Johnson portrays President Joe Biden, who has yet to get a portrayal on Broadway — but give him time.

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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