As if the job they have didn’t draw enough attention, presidents of the United States have been in the spotlight on Broadway in both plays and musicals. And yes, more than a few of the actors-in-chief have broken into song or tripped the light fantastic on Broadway boards.
There have been a few fictional presidents featured in New York theaters, such as Robert Ryan in Irving Berlin’s Mr. President, but with this week’s inauguration, we’ll focus on the appearances of presidents – and future presidents — as characters on Broadway:
ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1919) The 16th president of the United States has appeared or been mentioned in Broadway productions more than a dozen times, the first occurring in the 1906 play Lincoln, starring Benjamin Chapin. In 1919, the play Abraham Lincoln originated in London before debuting on Broadway, starring Frank McGlynn. It covers Honest Abe’s tenure in the Oval Office, from election to assassination, with little or no insight into his personal and family life.
I’D RATHER BE RIGHT (1937) – The first Broadway musical to feature a sitting president as a main character, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a terse satire on the duties of the commander-in-chief and the overall political landscape. Starring legendary entertainer George M. Cohan as FDR, he sang and danced, suspending reality, as dancing was something the then-president was unable to do due to polio. The musical also figured prominently in the biopic film of Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, showing star James Cagney performing “Off The Record” from the musical.
CALL ME MADAM (1950) – President Harry S. Truman is never on stage in this political satire from the mind of Irving Berlin. Broadway legend Ethel Merman played Sally Adams, an ill-informed socialite, given a post abroad that mimicked real-life D.C. hostess and Democratic fundraiser Perle Mesta, who Truman appointed ambassador to Luxembourg. Truman “appears” in a series of one-sided phone calls with Adams as she navigates the foreign political landscape.
SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO (1958) – Actor Ralph Bellamy won a Tony Award® for his portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s struggle to return to political life after being stricken with polio and before his presidential election. This show also marked the Broadway debut of James Earl Jones.
1776 (1969) – Before there were presidents, there were the Founding Fathers of the 2nd Continental Congress and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Theater critics were surprised the historical event could spawn a musical, calling it “striking,” “gripping” and “exhilarating” in reviews. Much of the credit for its success goes to the music and lyrics of Sherman Edwards and star William Daniels as future president John Adams, portrayed as indignant that he had to persuade his quarrelsome colleagues to vote for independence and to put their “John Hancock” on the historic document. The show won the Tony® for Best Musical and is scheduled for a Broadway revival in 2022, pushed back a year due to the COVID pandemic.
1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE (1976) – This Broadway show had all the ingredients to make it a success. A legendary musical pedigree with music by Leonard Bernstein (his last original Broadway score) and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and a cast that included Tony® winner Ken Howard portraying multiple presidents. It turned out to be a flop, with only seven performances following 13 previews. It showcased the tribulations of White House occupants from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt, with a primary focus on race relations including Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with a slave and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment.
ANNIE (1977) – You might think it is a hard leap from a curly-haired, optimistic orphan to the leader of the free world, but the person in the Oval meets the spunky protagonist during her visit to Washington, D.C. where she sings “Tomorrow,” and President Franklin D. Roosevelt is inspired to create The New Deal. Hey, it could happen.
TEDDY & ALICE (1987) – Adapted from the work of John Philip Sousa, this patriotic spectacle portrayed the relationship that President Teddy Roosevelt (Len Cariou) had with his feisty, free-spirited daughter Alice (Beth Fowler). The show, which had its out-of-town tryout at the then-Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, also had the distinction of being the first musical to play the venue. The short-lived show included appearances of future presidents William Howard Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
ASSASSINS (2004) – Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman turned musicals featuring presidents on their head by showcasing assassins or attempted assassins of the commanders-in-chief including Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and Gerald Ford. It opened in 1990 to mixed reviews off Broadway and to highly favorable critical acclaim when produced for Broadway in 2004, eventually winning five Tony Awards®.
FROST/NIXON (2007) – This play based on the televised interviews between disgraced former President Richard Nixon and acclaimed British broadcaster David Frost jumped the pond from London’s West End to Broadway as a limited engagement. Both Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) appeared in the London and New York runs. Langella won the Tony Award® for his portrayal and later was nominated for an Oscar® in the film adaptation.
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON (2010) – This musical which characterized the seventh president as an emo rock star, was heralded as “astutely reflecting the state of this nation” by The New York Times. It focused on populism and the Indian Removal Act and cast a severe negative light on Jackson. Several presidents also show up including George Washington, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Martin VanBuren. The show was a hit Off-Broadway but struggled once it moved to Broadway closing after nearly 100 performances.
ALL THE WAY (2014) – Bryan Cranston leapt from a meth-making chemistry teacher to President Lyndon Johnson in a blink of an eye. Cranston won the Tony® for his portrayal of LBJ in his first year as president after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy where he negotiates with Congress and enlists the help of Martin Luther King Jr. to enact the Civil Rights Act. The former Breaking Bad star goes all-in in showing the tall Texan as down-to-earth to autocratic to self-pitying. The play was later adapted for a movie on HBO.
HAMILTON (2015) – Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s worldwide musical phenomenon’s central focus is the influential Founding Father he portrayed but also features first-looks at three future presidents George Washington (Christopher Jackson), Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onadowan) with whom Hamilton shaped the Republic.