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.