How To Steal An Election Musical Review

“How To Steal An Election,” a 1968 musical that offers a cynical history lesson about American presidential politics, is getting a perky revival as part of York Theater Company’s Musicals in Mufti concert series, which the theater is relaunching after a four-year hiatus with its typical flair: an appealing, Broadway-level cast; professional if minimalist production values; lively if somewhat cramped choreography. All to bring new attention to a long-forgotten (sometimes best forgotten?) old musical.

With the subtitle “A Dirty Politics Musical,” the York’s latest revival certainly has a timely subject, and its fifteen musical numbers are an eclectic mix of old campaign ditties and original songs – ballads, Sousa-type marches, waltzes, jazzy tunes — by Oscar Brand, who was a folksinger-songwriter and celebrated radio host. But “How to Steal An Election” is largely a historic curiosity — a polite way of saying dated.

And that’s not just because our host for the evening is Calvin Coolidge.

Silent Cal (Jason Graae), the thirtieth president of the United States, comes back from the dead to school two disillusioned young people. April (Emma Degerstedt) and Jerry (Alex Joseph Grayson)  had been protesters, and victims of police violence, at the recent 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. 

 Coolidge offers them history lessons about how to work the system. A three-member chorus of Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman, and Drew Tanabe more or less re-enact  moments of presidential wheeling-dealing that Coolidge introduces – how in 1840 William Henry Harrison won against Martin Van Buren because the older man’s handlers came up with a catchy slogan (“Tippecanoe and Tyler too”); how in 1876 “the Rutherford B. Hayes machine stole that election from Sam Tilden”

Coolidge and the re-enactors also show the two youth that even those presidents remembered as great (Lincoln) or at least good (Kennedy) got into the White House through some dubious maneuvers by political operatives, acting on the candidates’ behalf whether or not with their knowledge.  Presidential campaigns have always been vitriolic and candidates always attacked in the vilest terms: We hear Thomas Jefferson described as “a peddler of doom and fear, a coward and a drunkard, and king of the atheists.” But there is often some truth in the attacks. The show heavily implies that even the most-admired of past presidents are not to be trusted: We hear two comments by Lincoln – one criticizing the Know‐Nothing Party for their racial and religious bigotry; the other arguing for white supremacy. 

This makes for some confusion, since the supposed purpose of Coolidge’s lessons is to convince the young people to work within the system in order to effect change:  “I’m teaching you both about power. Both of you could be part of the whole power structure.” (Adding to the confusion is the contrast between the downbeat messages and the upbeat tone of the performances.)

Perhaps the show’s confusion reflects the confusing and convulsive year in which it was created and presented. Maybe it even reflects some tension between its two creators: A note in the York’s program identifies Brand as having been “a staunch member of the non-communist left,” while the librettist —  William F. Brown, a humorist, cartoonist playwright who would become best-known as the Tony-nominated librettist for the hit musical The Wiz – is identified as “conservative.” 

It’s worth noting that “How To Steal An Election” ran for ten weeks at an Off-Broadway theater in the East Village starting less than two months after the 1968 Democratic convention, which is integral to the plot. This suggests to me 1. It may have been written quickly, and 2. It may have been intended to be of-the-moment, rather than for-the-ages. That might explain why there are allusions (to Spiro Agnew, Eugene McCarthy) and lingo (“where it’s at, man”) that keep this show stuck in 1968. This is unlike, say, “Hair,” which opened on Broadway six months earlier, and captures the era without being trapped by it. 

How To Steal An Election
Theater at St. Jeans through September 3
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $49 – $59
Music and Lyrics by Oscar Brand
Book by William F. Brown
Music Director Miles Plant 
Choreography by Victoria Casillo 
Directed by Joseph Hayward
Lighting design by Ken Billington, projection/sound design Peter Brucker,
Cast: Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman, Emma Degerstedt, Jason Graae, Alex Joseph Grayson, Neal Mayer, Drew Tanabe

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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