From the title HOW TO STEAL AN ELECTION, you might assume that the creators of this musical started writing it in mid-November 2020.
No, it actually was a 1968 off-Broadway musical that was subtitled “A Dirty Politics Musical.”
Could there be any other kind?
As Oscar Brand’s lyrics state, politics see that “Robert’s Rules of Order do no good” and where people are “doing lots of things they never did in Sodom.”
Because The York Theatre Company is reviving the show this week and next at The Theatre at St. Jean’s at Lexington Avenue and East 76th Street, Masterworks Broadway is making the original cast album available through streaming or downloading on all digital platforms.
The recording also offers some lines from the libretto that William F. Brown wrote seven years before he would have a big hit with his book for THE WIZ. Of course, the real reasons that the album exists is because of Brand’s original music and lyrics as well as his adaptations of genuine campaign songs of yore.
You’ll immediately knew that Brand didn’t write the music to Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign song, given that it sports the melody of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
The 1968-1969 Burns Mantle Yearbook described the musical as a “satire of American political chicanery from George Washington’s administration to the present.” However, the show’s Playbill went a bit further by stressing that the show’s timeframe was “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”
Well, we’re now in that “Tomorrow,” where we once again see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Witness three lyrics about candidates: “You don’t need lots of brains if you’ve got a lot of gall,” “Anything goes unless you get caught,” and “Even if you’re caught, so what?”
The main character is a most unexpected one, considering that during most of his lifetime he was nicknamed “Silent Cal” – yes, Calvin Coolidge, the taciturn 29th vice-president of the United States who became the nation’s 30th president after Warren G. Harding had succumbed to food poisoning.
(Fun fact: HOW TO STEAL AN ELECTION became the second musical to demand that voters “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” The first was GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, which had a song by that title.)
Coolidge time-travels to 1968 and suddenly becomes Loquacious Cal, after he finds Jerry, a young African American, and April, a nubile young woman. They very recently had attended the 1968 Democratic Convention, during which almost 700 people were arrested; many more, be they demonstrators or police, suffered injuries.
It happened in Chicago from August 26-29, 1968, which coincidentally means that The York staged reading (in its esteemed Musicals in Mufti series) will take place during the 55th anniversary of that troubled gathering. And while we’re talking dates, note that the original HOW TO STEAL AN ELECTION opened only 45 days after that melee. Musicals got to the stage much more quickly in those days.
Considering what Jerry and Alice had witnessed in Chicago, they express great skepticism to Coolidge about the government. What they’d seen the year before was a factor as well; in 1967, race riots occurred in – seriously – 159 American cities. Those realities cause Jerry to sing the bitter “Nobody’s Listening.”
Coolidge tries to mollify both by bringing up campaign songs from previous elections. What’s both delightful, surprising and outrageous is hearing negative opinions about some of our most distinguished leaders.
Would you ever expect to hear “Lincoln is a fool,” “Lincoln is a bum,” or “Lincoln is inept”? Voters in 1860 certainly heard those opinions as well as the one that “Seward is a gentleman.” He was William H. Seward, who vied for the Republican nomination that year but lost it to Lincoln.
It sounds politically sacrilegious to us now, but Brand reminds us that such a song is business as usual during the days leading to the first Tuesday in November.
One negative song predicts that Benjamin Harrison will “kick Cleveland out” of the presidency and “send him on his rear.” In fact, that’s what happened, but after one Harrison administration, the voters brought Cleveland back, making for the only time in American history that a President became a loser and then a winner once again.
Thus far, history hasn’t repeated itself …
Still, even those negative lyrics don’t deliver anything as severe as the one expressed of eighth president Martin Van Buren who, according to his opponents, “deserves the lowest place in hell.”
On a brighter note, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” celebrates the slogan that the Whig party used in 1840 to promote both presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, who had won the Battle of Tippecanoe, and his running mate John Tyler.
In 1839, Alexander Coffman Ross provided 12 verses for his song “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” Those dozen stanzas helped put Harrison in the White House – well, at least for 31 days; he then died of pneumonia. Thus Harrison’s administration was barely longer than his campaign song; Brand mercifully shortened the ditty.
One song insists that Herbert Hoover is “going to save the U.S.A.” Fewer than eight months later, the stock market crashed. HOW TO STEAL AN ELECTION reminds us that campaign promises are as dependable as a 1984 Pontiac Fiero.
Two songs establish that America is always looking for “The Right Man.” We hear such platitudes as “Whatever you need, he can be it” and “You don’t have to look anymore” because the candidate that these politicos are pushing has “the heart of a saint and the soul of a poet.”
(There is a good deal of wishful thinking in politics, isn’t there?)
You’ve heard of the expression “cautionary tale”? Here “More of the Same” is a cautionary song, while “Get Out the Vote” is a demented waltz. “Mr. Might-Have-Been” has a haunting melody to match its mournful lyric, “Why did we give in?”
However, most campaign songs are purposely peppy to reiterate the optimism that the chosen candidates will emerge victorious. Nevertheless, when you hear in “We’re Gonna Win” that “Everyone knows that he’s the man,” you might mutter “Everyone” with the same skepticism that the title character of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE expresses after Dot reveals what “Everyone is wearing.”
Naturally, the show includes mention of Richard M. Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, who would battle for the presidency only 23 days after the musical had opened. This time around, the lyric from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG couldn’t apply: “Nixon didn’t win.”
The critics agreed that that he show’s “dirty politics” subtitle was in earnest. Richard F. Shepard in the New York Times deemed it “a primer in how to make it yourself by smear, bribe and bamboozle.” Richard Watts, Jr. in the New York Post described the show as “contemptuous and scornful” – which he meant as compliments. Marilyn Stasio of Cue thought it “a quality satirical revue for those who hunger after irreverence” and praised the “top-notch performances.”
Those included one from Carole Demas, who played Alice. Forty months later, she’d be the first Broadway Sandy Dumbrowski in GREASE.
Clifton Davis portrayed Jerry. He’d soon be on Broadway where he’d receive a Best Actor in a Musical Tony nomination for Two Gentlemen of Verona. After that, Davis was seen on television (That’s My Mama), a record label (as the composer-lyricist of The Jackson 5 hit “Never Can Say Goodbye”) and in the pulpit as an interdenominational minister, the occupation on which he’s concentrated for many decades.
One other casting note: Bill McCutcheon, who’d become a Tony-winner for his Moonface Martin in the 1987 revival of ANYTHING GOES, was a member of the back-up quartet that delivered quite a few of the songs.
Under Joseph Hayward’s direction, the York presentation has Jason Graae of FOREVER PLAID fame as Coolidge. Emma Degerstedt, who starred in that theater’s production of DESPERATE MEASURES, portrays Alice, while Alex Joseph Grayson, recently Jim Conley in PARADE, is Jerry.
One song has Coolidge’s adherents sing “Who do we want for four years more?” The recording doesn’t make clear if this question was sung in 1924, when indeed Coolidge was seeking his official first term, or in 1928, before he famously said “I do not choose to run.”
That’s another reason to get to the York this weekend or next …
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available for pre-order on Amazon.