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.
Christopher Jackson as George Washington in Hamilton, 2015
Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in All The Way, 2014
Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, 2015
Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison in Hamilton
Ralph Bellamy as FDR in Sunrise at Campobello. . Dore Schary’s play, which ran on Broadway for 16 months and won four Tony Awards in 1958, including for best play, chronicles Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s battle with polio and his return to politics. The play ends a decade before he becomes president.
Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln in Illinois. Robert Sherwood’s play, which won the 1939 Pulitzer for Drama, ran for 14 months, and was revived on Broadway in 1993, begins with Lincoln’s childhood. It ends with Lincoln saying goodbye to his friends in Springfield and leaving on a train to assume the presidency.
Benjamin Walker as Andrew Jackson in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, 2010. The musical by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, brought a campy downtown sensibility in its depiction of the seventh president of the United States as a combination sexy rock star, immature populist, and killer. They build in an ambivalence towards Jackson’s legacy with the meta-theatrical device of including a character who is a historian commenting on that legacy – until Jackson kills her halfway through the musical.
Will Ferrell as President George W. Bush in You’re Welcome America: : A Final Night With George W. Bush. Written by Ferrell, the juvenile satire began performances on Broadway the day in 2009 that Bush left office.
Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, 2007. Peter Morgan’s dramatization of journalist David Frost’s television interviews with the president was set three years after Nixon resigned his office in disgrace.
In the 2012 revival of Annie, Merwin Foard (second from left) portrayed F.D.R. Foard had previously portrayed President James Garfield in Sondheim’s Assassins. Presidents are frequently peripheral characters. Theodore Roosevelt has a cameo in Newsies
Actor William Daniels as John Adams in the 1969 Broadway musical “1776” about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The musical will be presented in the Encores! concert series later this season.
It’s worth pointing out that many plays and musicals have depicted fictional presidents. In “Mr. President,” which opened in October, 1952, Robert Ryan portrayed one such fictional president, in a musical comedy about his family; their last days in the White House; and retirement into civilian life. Photograph by Martha Swope.
Actors (L-R) William Daniels as future president John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson and Ken Howard as future President Thomas Jefferson in “1776”
In 2012, a Harvard educated actor named Toby Blackwell portrayed Barack Obama, the 44th president, in an Off-Off Broadway musical entitled “Obama in Naples.” The play by Italian journalist Claudio Angelini was more about Naples than Obama, who appeared for only about 15 minutes. The Neopolitans greet him as a savior for their troubled city, suggesting he could replace San Gennaro as the patron saint of Naples (The part was so incidental to the action, that I couldn’t find a production shot that included the character, so I’ve put Blackwell’s headshot with the cover to the program.) Will there be a play that focuses on Obama someday on Broadway? This seems likely, despite his nickname, “No Drama Obama.”
Benjamin Chapin in “Lincoln,” 1906.
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).