May 17, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
When asked his definition of “satire,” the playwright George S. Kaufman stated “it’s what closes on Saturday night.” And he wasn’t far off the mark, even though he himself had a huge hit in 1931 with Of Thee I Sing, as funny and stinging a political satire as Broadway’s ever produced. It was decidedly light-hearted with nothing more than entertainment on its mind and such a success, that two years later, Kaufman and his fellow collaborators, Morrie Ryskind (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (music and lyrics), dipped back into the well for a sequel they called Let “Em Eat Cake. With a run of just 90 performances to Of Thee I Sing’s 441 (a very long run for 1931), it might have been the show that inspired the first time Kaufman quipped his oft-repeated quote.
Of Thee I Sing received glowing reviews and was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize. It tells the story of the fictional campaign for President of John P. Wintergreen, who runs on a platform of “love!, involving the staging of a beauty pageant that will select the most beautiful girl in the United States for him to marry. He is elected and then stumbles through a series of mishaps that leads to his near downfall, only to be saved from impeachment when his wife becomes pregnant and the country falls in love with him all over again. I know it sounds crazy and far-fetched, but considering our current President use to produce beauty pageants and might face impeachment, perhaps the timing is ripe for a revival? It does feature some incredible Gershwin songs that became standards like “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” “Who Cares?” and the title song.
But satire is a very tricky business, extremely difficult to balance what needs to feel real and what needs to be perceived as pretend. Such endeavors, be they produced in play or musical form, are more likely to fail than succeed. In fact, it’s so risky, that to my mind, there really hasn’t been a Broadway satire to win awards and critical acclaim since Avenue Q — and that opened fourteen years ago. Okay, it didn’t deal with politics directly, but everything about the show was satirical. And it didn’t close on Saturday night.
In 1972, during my early theatregoing days, I saw a genuine satire that aimed for a direct hit at a sitting President: Richard Milhous Nixon. It was written by one of the leading left-wing political thinkers and writers of the era, Gore Vidal, and it was called An Evening With Richard Nixon and …
The play, as a whole, was unfortunately a hit and miss affair — mostly miss — and the critics were not kind. It closed in two weeks. As for the “And …” in its title, it referred to a multitude of characters who appeared throughout the evening like George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, Spiro Agnew, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy … even Nikita Khrushchev. Factoid: Tricia Nixon, was played by a twenty-year-old Susan Sarandon making her Broadway debut. The play also featured thinly veiled versions of Vidal himself and his arch-nemesis William F. Buckley, each seated on opposite sides of the stage providing running commentary — not so subtly named Pro and Con. Audiences of the day had no trouble recognizing that this was a direct spoof of the actual side by side commentary (Vidal the liberal and Buckley the conservative) that aired during the 1968 conventions that made for some of the best TV watching of all time. They practically came to blows and if you haven’t seen the fantastic 2015 documentary Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal about their historic rivalry, check it out on any the streaming device of your choice.
As a teenager, I was a political junkie, and I was excited for An Evening With Richard Nixon and … but in re-reading the review I wrote when I came home from seeing it on April 27, 1972, the fifteen-year-old in me was disappointed (Of course, for $2.50 at least it didn’t break my bank to see it from up in the cheap seats). I wrote it had a “weak script and an unattractive set.” As Nixon, I loved the great late George S. Irving, who sadly died this past December at the age of ninety-four, working on stage nearly to the end of his life. “George S. Irving’s well-researched portrayal of Nixon is tremendous. Even at the curtain call he stayed in character.”
Side note: To this day I am a connoisseur of how actors take their bows. I find it very revealing about them or about their commitment to the roles they just finished seconds before the final curtain. Nothing sends me out into the street after a show than a damn good bow. For the record, you can see a terrific one right now at the St. James Theatre when Kevin Kline stops forward at the conclusion of Present Laugher. Class personified.
It has just been announced that hell-raiser Michael Moore is coming to Broadway in a one-man show entitled The Term of My Surrender for a limited run at the Belasco this summer. Though his brand of truth telling isn’t really satirical, I’m sure he’ll be hurling gutsy political bombshells that will surely land well with his audiences, which I’m sure will be made up with types that he will have at “Hello.” I wish him well.
One final thought on An Evening With Richard Nixon and … In its New York Times review on May 1, 1972, in the final paragraph, critic Clive Barnes wrote something that feels somewhat prescient: “As for Mr. Vidal … his stabs were not gallant. They were mean and nasty. But some people might like to see a mean and nasty play about our President. At least no one wants to ban it, which is one of the most hopeful things about America.”
Indeed. Many in 2017 might very well like to see “a mean and nasty play about our President.” And let us pray that if someone writes one that it doesn’t get banned. Different times.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-Historical-Broadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book