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Thoughts and observations on The Broadway Musical and how Immigrants, Jews, Queers and African-Americans invented America's Signature Art Form

David Armstrong is an American stage director, writer, producer, historian, lecturer, educator, speaker and expert on the American Musical Theater.


Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Since Broadway Musicals have always closely reflected American culture it should be no surprise that 23 presidents of the United States have made appearances in them – not in person, of course, but as characters in the drama.

The most obvious examples of this are without a doubt Hamilton, which features future presidents Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison in its cast of characters, along with future vice-president Aaron Burr – and the 1969 musical 1776 which features John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as George Washington as on offstage, but still significant, character.

This phenomenon began way back in the “Silver Age” when George Washington was included as an important, if mostly unseen, character in the 1926 Rodgers & Hart/ Herbert Fields musical comedy hit Dearest Enemy.

As you can see, our first four presidents have racked up a lot of stage time, but POTUS #7 got an entire, if not very successful, musical devoted to him with 2010’s, Blood Bloody Andrew Jackson. . Other characters in this show include presidents James Monroe (#5), John Quincy Adams (#6), and Martin Van Buren (#8).

The landmark musical HAIR was way ahead of its time in having a black woman (Lorrie Davis) portray the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and sing the still provocative song “Happy Birthday, Abie Baby”. Ulysses S. Grant (#18) makes a brief appearance in HAIR’s hallucinatory “dream ballet” along with another turn by George Washington.

POTUS #20, James Garfield, plays a small role in Sondheim’s Assassins, but #26, Theodore Roosevelt, plays major roles in both the “reuvuesical” Tintypes and the flop Teddy And Alice, which also includes POTUS #27 William Howard Taft as a character.

Although they don’t appear onstage as characters, both POTUS #30 and #31 have entire songs devoted to them in big song and dance number “Keepin’ Cool With Coolidge” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and ANNIE’s funny and bitter lament “We’d Like To Thank You, Herbert Hoover”.

And the plot of the mega-hit ANNIE reaches its climax when that plucky redheaded title character inspires Franklin Delano Roosevelt to save America by creating the New Deal. FDR was also the central character of another Rodgers & Hart musical, I’d Rather Be Right, back in 1937. This time the book was by Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman, and the 32nd president was depicted by the legendary George M. Cohan.

Six years earlier Kaufman, in collaboration with Morrie Ryskind and George & Ira Gershwin, introduced Broadway’s first fictional prexy, John P. Wintergreen, in the Pulitzer Prize winning satirical musical, Of Thee I Sing, during which he is impeached and acquitted -- but by the finale of their 1933 sequel, Let "Em Eat Cake, his VP, Alexander Throttlebottom, has ascended to the top job.

In the 1950 Irving Berlin/Lindsey & Crouse musical Call Me Madam, Ethel Merman played the U.S. Ambassador to the fictional country of Lichtenburg, a job to which she has been appointed by the very real 33rd POTUS, Harry S. Truman. Although unseen, Truman makes frequent phone calls to Merman’s character throughout the show (“Hello, Harry?!”). And a centerpiece of the second act is a song about the soon to be 34th president entitled, “They Like Ike”. (aka Dwight D. Eisenhower).

Another fictional chief of state was Stephen Decatur Henderson, the title character of Mr. President, the unsuccessful 1962 Irving Berlin/ Lindsey & Crouse musical.

Stephen Sondhim devoted a wonderful Comden & Green revue style song to our 35th President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his family in the song "Bobby And Jackie And Jack" from his 1981 Merrily We Roll Along.

Perhaps grandest of all, Richard M. Nixon (#37) had a full-scale opera based on his exploits, Philip Glass’s Nixon In China, but Gerald Ford (#38), who replaced Nixon when he resigned, only rates a comic walk-on in the aforementioned ASSASSINS.

Ronald Reagan (#40) and Bill Clinton (#42) only made it to Off-Broadway in the Liz Swados/Gary Trudeau satirical musical Rap Master Ronnie, and the 2015 Clinton: The Musical.

The most recent president to appear in a Broadway musical is George W. Bush who makes a cameo appearance in the international hit Come From Away.

I have no doubt that there will be more shows that will include past, present and future presidents as characters, because that is what Broadway musicals do -- they tell America's story.

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Women have had a much greater impact on the Broadway Musical than is generally acknowledged.

One week from tonight, February 14, I will share the fascinating stories, and timeless musical creations of outstanding lyricists and composers such as Dorothy Fields, Carolynn Leigh, Betty Comden, Kay Swift, Ann Ronnell, Lynn Ahrens, Cindi Lauper and more!

My special guest will be Albert Evans, and this music filled evening willl feature performances by 5th Avenue Theatre stars Billie Wildrick, Lisa Estridge and James Rocco.

Please join me for this unique Valentine's Night event!

You can get tickets here:

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The hit 1974 musical OVER HERE! was highly entertaining. It has a fantastic score by the Sherman brothers, better known for Mary Poppins and other classic Disney scores. Here Richard & Robert Sherman channel the big band swing and boogie woogie sounds of the World War II era, and especially the distinctive sound of 1930s and 40s superstars, the Andrews Sisters, who actually starred in the show.

My understanding it that the show had not been written for the Andrews Sisters, but rather for younger actors who would play fictionalized versions of them called "The DePaul Sisters. "

But when Patty & Maxine expressed interest in playing the roles themselves (Laverne had already died) , the producers jumped at the idea. This was, of course, during the "1970's Nostalgia Craze", which the Broadway musicals NO, NO, NANETTE and GREASE had helped to set in motion. Bette Midler had recently put "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" back on the charts with her hugely popular hit single, so having the Andrews Sisters on Broadway felt hip, cool, campy and nostalgic all at the same time.

The supporting cast was filled with future stars including John Travolta, Treat Williams, Marilu Henner, Ann Reinking, and Samuel E. Wright.

Many of them had previously appeared in GREASE and OVER HERE! was something of a sequel to that show as it was helmed by that show's director and choreographer, Tom Moore, and Patricia Birch, used the same design team

and music director, and tried to do the same kind of the thing for the 1940s as GREASE had done for the 1950's.

After the final bows, Patty would ask the audience. "Do you want to hear some of the old songs?", and of course the audience would cheer and the sisters would launch into a set of their classic hits. It was thrilling in a nostalgic way, but sort of undercut the Sherman brothers great score. But, I will never forget it. I got to hear the Andrews Sisters, in person, sing their most famous songs!

It is still one of my absolute favorite cast albums to play!

Here is a scan of the the original souvenir program: